The New York Times' New Social Media Rules Are a Surrender to Its Worst Critics


On Thursday night, while participating in the sort of navel-gazing, hand-wringing panel discussion that has become even more prevalent in the Trump-era media world, New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet lamented how he’s “spent full days policing our social media.” The paper’s coverage shouldn’t be seen as part of a “vendetta” against President Donald Trump, Baquet said, and he promised a “tougher policy” to regulate the social media use of the world-class journalists in his newsroom.

That policy arrived Friday in a 1,600-word post that Baquet introduced as a promise “to make sure that we are engaging responsibly on social media, in line with the values of our newsroom.” The undercurrent running throughout is the notion that Times journalists should be less transparent about what they personally think of the news and the world around them. Any semblance of a political opinion must be squashed, with the appearance of neutrality and balance preserved at all costs. The new policy reads less like a covenant with readers who view the paper as a trustworthy news source than a response to bad-faith critics who never will—providing a playbook for trolls to attack journalists at the Times and elsewhere.

The policy, which was created by a team of reporters and editors in the newsroom, puts a high premium on the appearance of objectivity. Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook are critical in expanding the scope and reach of Times journalism, of course. But they can also be a hindrance, according to the policy, “if our journalists are perceived as biased or if they engage in editorializing on social media, that can undercut the credibility of the entire newsroom.” Every Times journalist, including sports reporters or copy editors who have nothing to do with the paper’s political coverage, appear to be subject to the social media policy.

Here’s a sampling of the “key points,” as the Times describes them, emphasis mine:

In social media posts, our journalists must not express partisan opinions, promote political views, endorse candidates, make offensive comments or do anything else that undercuts the Times’s journalistic reputation.
Our journalists should be especially mindful of appearing to take sides on issues that the Times is seeking to cover objectively.
If you are linking to other sources, aim to reflect a diverse collection of viewpoints. Sharing a range of news, opinions or satire from others is usually appropriate. But consistently linking to only one side of a debate can leave the impression that you, too, are taking sides.
Always treat others with respect on social media. If a reader questions or criticizes your work or social media post, and you would like to respond, be thoughtful. Do not imply that the person hasn’t carefully read your work.

There are other rules under the new policy—like those for posting scoops on Times platforms or prohibiting customer service complaints—that feel warranted. But the crux of Baquet’s argument is that Times journalists should make it look like they play it down the middle. That idea has been central to Timesian orthodoxy for more than a century, but there are two fundamental problems with it that are particularly glaring on social media.

The first is the historically absurd state of American politics. The president is an emotionally unstable and pathologically-lying grifter enabled by a radical political party that has for years worked to erode conceptions of what’s fact or fiction. Advocating for an intelligible world of politics, where there are no “alternative facts,” is not equivalent to “taking sides.” And descriptors for Trump like “incompetent” or “liar” are safely factual statements—he demonstrably lies all the time and clearly knows little about how government works. But those words sound partisan when set against traditional norms for polite behavior in Washington. Times journalists gotta hear both sides, even if everyone in the room understands that one side has gone completely off the rails.

What’s more, deciding what constitutes a political opinion is a political exercise in itself. Times reporters have bore witness to Trump doing things that are “racist” or “sexist” by almost any definitions of those terms. It seems likely, if not inevitable, that policing journalists who call out such behavior on social media will disproportionately affect women and people of color. Look no further than ESPN’s Jemele Hill, who was reprimanded by the network after tweeting that Trump was a “white supremacist,” to see how power dynamics play out in media companies where white men have overwhelming control over the rules and their enforcement. The realm of what political speech is deemed “acceptable” very much depends on who’s setting the rules and who’s subject to them.

The Times staffers who helped cook up the social media policy acknowledge this reality, if inadvertently. Chief White House Correspondent Peter Baker is quoted in the new guidelines as saying:

It’s important to remember that tweets about President Trump by our reporters and editors are taken as a statement from The New York Times as an institution, even if posted by those who do not cover him. The White House doesn’t make a distinction.

Anyone who’s spent time in the cesspool that is #MAGA Twitter knows this to be true. I’d also wager that White House aides have raised Times staffers’ tweets to political reporters, like Baker, as evidence of the paper’s institutional bias. There’s some truth to that: Journalists are more likely to be politically liberal, which, contrary to the beliefs of some, doesn’t automatically make them evil or unprofessional.

But it’s also true that those conflating isolated critical tweets with the Times’ massive body of work are doing so disingenuously. A lot of those critics really don’t read articles carefully or even try to. A lot of them are children of the right-wing propaganda machine that Fox News and conservative talk radio created; their goal is not to critique individual pieces of journalism but discredit journalism as an entire enterprise. Like Trump, a lot of them won’t stop until media outlets bend the knee in fealty to our great leader.

And it’s in trying to satisfy this imagined audience that the Times provides the trolls with a roadmap for diving into journalists’ social feeds in hopes of finding any passing thought that might cross one of these new lines. One potential outcome is that reporters will engage in self-censorship to avoid trouble, perhaps diluting their work for the rest of us. Another is that Baquet, who said he was tired of spending “full days policing our social media,” will find himself playing the role of schoolyard cop even more.

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