On Thursday, just a day after The New York Times announced Sarah Jeong as the newest member of its editorial board, she also joined the small but growing club of journalists who’ve been labeled as the real racists in certain corners of the internet.
Right-wing media outlets dredged up a series of inflammatory tweets Jeong sent between 2013 to 2015, in which she appeared to demonize white people. Creatures of the pro-Trump fever swamps—take actor James Woods, who’s amassed 1.64 million Twitter followers as a bruising defender of the president—employed it in their anti-media crusade. Fox News ran with it in primetime.
— James Woods (@RealJamesWoods) August 2, 2018
— James Woods (@RealJamesWoods) August 2, 2018
— James Woods (@RealJamesWoods) August 3, 2018
Such culture-war dustups are a fixture of digital life. But in the Trump era they’ve jumped from comment sections and Reddit threads to the highest levels of national politics and media, forcing the professional press to belatedly grapple with how to respond. The Times and The Verge both put out statements Thursday following the uproar among conservatives over Jeong’s tweets. Their divergent responses provided a clear snapshot of arguably the largest fault line within journalism today: the one between journalists who have grown up on the internet, and the media organizations who haven’t.
This split can make itself visible at times through political ideology and, in turn, opposing views on objectivity and detachment. But at its core it’s generational. And it divides journalists on issues ranging from how to respond to harassment campaigns to the way to frame coverage of President Donald Trump.
Jeong, for her part, offered contrition in a statement on Thursday. Female journalists are far more likely to be harassed than their male colleagues, and the 30-year-old Asian-American described her past tweets as “counter-trolling” in response to racist and sexist abuse she received while covering tech and digital culture. The Times itself echoed that sentiment in its own statement soon after:
Her journalism and the fact that she is a young Asian woman have made her a subject of frequent online harassment. For a period of time she responded to that harassment by imitating the rhetoric of her harassers. She sees now that this approach only served to feed the vitriol that we too often see on social media. She regrets it, and The Times does not condone it.
Jeong’s tweets were bad, in short, and the writer herself acknowledged “how hurtful these posts are out of context.” But they weren’t bad enough for the Times to un-hire her, leaving many on the right interpreting it as tacit approval of her supposed views. Andrew Sullivan seethed in New York magazine that the idea Jeong was merely mimicking her harassers is “the purest of bullshit.” Fox News’s Tucker Carlson—who’s carved out a large niche as the voice of aggrieved white men—took the occasion to characteristically flay all of mainstream media. “In point of fact,” he said, “[Jeong’s] views are commonplace in the American establishment, maybe universal.”
The notion that a few tweets from one young writer is evidence of an emerging front in institutional racism is proof enough that nothing can satisfy such arguments. It’s bad faith, as many digital journalists have come to call these criticisms, and it willfully ignores historical nuance and context. The Times didn’t bow to that pressure. But it did suggest that the critics had a point.
The Verge, meanwhile, put out a far more muscular response on Jeong’s behalf. A note from editorial leadership of the Vox-owned site targeted her critics rather than engaging with them:
Online trolls and harassers want us, the Times, and other newsrooms to waste our time by debating their malicious agenda. They take tweets and other statements out of context because they want to disrupt us and harm individual reporters. The strategy is to divide and conquer by forcing newsrooms to disavow their colleagues one at a time. This is not a good-faith conversation; it’s intimidation.
So we’re not going to fall for these disingenuous tactics. And it’s time other newsrooms learn to spot these hateful campaigns for what they are: attempts to discredit and undo the vital work of journalists who report on the most toxic communities on the internet.
This may appear hypocritical from the outside looking in; the mean tweets are OK this time because they came from someone on our team. But the reality is this aggressive stance is born from years under fire from critics who give journalists’ work the least generous interpretation possible in order to further their own interests. Does Fox News and the pro-Trump internet really want The New York Times to improve its internal culture and journalistic ethics? Or is painting “the media” as enemy of the people central to their business model and political mission?
Answering such questions requires value judgments about motive, which the Times and many other legacy outlets tend to avoid on issues ranging from Trump’s “lies” to criticism of their respective publications. The Verge pointed to its own experience on this front in its statement, comparing the way Jeong’s tweets were whipped into national news with Gamergate.
The 2014 harassment-campaign-masked-as-media-critique was a formative episode for many digital outlets and reporters, as critics weaponized media norms of civility and balance against journalism itself. Writers who spoke out about gaming’s overwhelming whiteness or masculinity—and who often happened to be women or people of color—were met with hard-edged grievance politics from critics who were overwhelmingly white and male. Their cries about ethics in gaming journalism largely amounted to concern trolling aimed to get the media to do as they wished. You may recognize such tactics by Trump and some of his supporters online today.
Whether the Times and other legacy outlets can employ some of the lessons of Gamergate without drastically reorienting their values—staying neutral without validating bad-faith arguments—remains an open question. The current political environment would seem to make it all but impossible for outlets that prize the appearance of impartiality.
For now, though, young journalists like Jeong are in some ways exposed. As The Guardian‘s Julia Carrie Wong noted on Twitter Thursday, such young writers have long been told to be bold and edgy, to build a brand, develop a voice, and explore their personal identities for $150 a pop. The implicit agreement, longtime Gawker blogger Alex Pareene added, “was that the web would feed us” in return for a new, digitally native style of journalism. But the digital media industry has also proven unable to sustain itself, and as political enemies close in, it turns out that these journalists might be the ones who get eaten.
Editor’s note: James Bennet, editorial-page editor of The New York Times, is a member of CJR’s Board of Overseers.
Correction: This article has been updated to cite Julia Carrie Wong.