A number of years ago, on assignment for The Hollywood Reporter, I interviewed Dean Baquet about his recent ascension as executive editor at The New York Times. Baquet was eager to show off his third-floor midtown office, which was surrounded by books and African-American art, and spoke earnestly about the “discipline” required to program each day’s front page, a sometimes controversial task given the Times’ singular place in the culture. Indeed, questions about the paper’s headlines or story placement are frequently covered online as news stories, themselves. But Baquet also offered up a detail about his media diet that, in retrospect, was an early signal of more trouble to come. “I’m pretty addicted to Facebook,” he confessed. In fact, he told me, he checked his feed some 15 times a day, often to review how readers were discussing the paper’s stories.
Of course, the relationship between media companies and social platforms flipped into overdrive during Donald Trump’s presidency. Twitter, in particular, has emerged as an invaluable platform for journalists to tend their personal brands. But it has also become a daily habit where otherwise scrupulous media people drop the mask of objectivity, police each other’s politics, agitate for better working conditions, and litigate culture war issues in full view of the public. Baquet, in one of his last acts as executive editor before ceding the post to Joe Kahn last week, issued a memo begging Times journalists to spend less time on Twitter in order to preserve the appearance of objectivity and to protect the institution’s brand. “Tweets or subtweets that attack, criticize or undermine the work of your colleagues are not allowed,” he wrote. Kahn quickly doubled down, urging newsroom staff not to “vet grievances” online.
But the industry-wide shift underway at places like the Times is easier said than done. And demands for employees to tamp down their political advocacy also introduces some complicated legal questions. Earlier this month, for instance, The Washington Post fired reporter Felicia Sonmez for relentlessly tweeting criticism of the paper’s leadership while calling for greater fairness in the workplace. The drama began, of course, with a colleague retweeting a sexist joke, for which he apologized and was suspended without pay. But Sonmez continued to criticize the Post’s handling of the incident, including what she described as the unequal application of newsroom policies. (Sonmez previously sued the paper after she was barred from covering sexual misconduct stories, including the Kavanaugh confirmation, after she publicly described herself as a victim of assault. The case was dismissed in March.)