New York Times public editor: The anatomy of the Wolfe scandal

Last Tuesday, the day before the inauguration of President Joe Biden, an editor at the New York Times found herself in a firestorm of online fury for a tweet she posted that afternoon: “Biden landing at Joint Base Andrews now. I have chills.” 

Some, such as Glenn Greenwald, formerly of The Intercept, saw it—and another tweet that followed, which described the Trump administration as “childish”—as a sign that the media would not engage in “adversarial coverage” of the Biden administration. Many conservatives, like Fox News senior political analyst Brit Hume, saw it as a show of political bias. 

By the time Biden was sworn in the next day, Lauren Wolfe—the author of the tweet—had been informed she was being fired.

Hume told me that while he believes “journalists should be presented to the audience as neutral in their news coverage” and thinks Wolfe’s tweet failed to meet that standard, “it didn’t seem to me to be a fireable offense.”

But even after the saga received celebrity-scandal treatment on both sides of the Atlantic—complete with a paparazzo dispatched to Wolfe’s Brooklyn neighborhood to snap a picture of her walking her dog—many of the basic facts of the story remain murky. 

I spoke to Wolfe, who told me that she had been working as an editor on the Times’ Flexible Editing Desk, a unit in the newsroom that helps produce the live briefings on major stories, for about nine months. Her position was what’s known at the Times as “casual,” meaning she was paid hourly, with no set schedule. It’s intended as a temporary employment status, and Wolfe, who relied on the job as her sole source of income, had hopes of moving over to a full-time position.

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Those hopes were dashed when she received a call from her boss’s boss in the standards department. (The standards editor did not return my request for comment; Wolfe asked that his name not be included in this story.) “I was told on the phone that the ‘chills’ tweet was why I was fired,” she says. 

Wolfe says she tried to argue that her tweet was being misread. “This was not even a political tweet. I had chills, meaning after the attempted overthrow of our government, the nightmare we’ve all been through, I had chills watching the democratic process work,” she says. “And I get where other people are like, ‘I had chills for Biden,’ but that was not what I was saying.” She says the standards editor told her, “I’m sorry, we can’t have this. We can’t have our name associated with such things.” (Wolfe also says her direct boss, who did not return a call requesting comment, told her, “For me, the ‘chills’ tweet was fine, but the next one”—the “childish” one—“was not okay.”)

For its part, a Times spokesperson told me, the paper is not going any further publicly than a statement it issued citing privacy concerns as the reason it would not go into its rationale for Wolfe’s dismissal: “There’s a lot of inaccurate information circulating on Twitter. For privacy reasons we don’t get into the details of personnel matters but we can say that we didn’t end someone’s employment over a single tweet. Out of respect for the individuals involved we don’t plan to comment further. (To clarify something that has been incorrectly reported, Ms. Wolfe was not a full-time employee, nor did she have a contract.)”

This stance is standard practice among employers, to avoid giving terminated employees grounds for bringing claims against the company—and the New York Times Guild is currently negotiating on behalf of Wolfe with Times management after issuing a statement citing procedural concerns about her termination. But in this instance, the Times’ statement—specifically, its insinuation that there had been a pattern of behavior—is Wolfe’s main complaint. “I don’t want to be hired back,” she says. “What I want is for them to retract this bullshit statement that makes me sound like some shitty employee that they used this as a final excuse for.”

When I asked the Times for further details about any previous issues it had with Wolfe’s social media behavior, the paper declined, referring me to its statement. I asked Wolfe if there had been prior issues with her conduct on social media; the only incident she could think of was last fall, when she was warned by the standards editor that some of her tweets were bordering on inappropriate. 

Paraphrasing, she says that the post at issue “was something like ‘Conservatives who won’t wear masks are an example of extreme toxic masculinity.’ ” She was especially concerned because, in 2018, she had been one of the critics whom Trump blocked on Twitter, which led to a Knight First Amendment Institute lawsuit that went to the Supreme Court. But Wolfe was left with the impression that it was a routine review of the social media policy and, after deleting the tweet, thought the matter was resolved.

Wolfe, forty-five, says editing for the Times was a long-held ambition. “I worship the Times,” she tells me. “I grew up in New York. To me it was the end-all-be-all thing. I mean, my first published story in life was at the Times.” Getting a permanent job with the paper had been something of a quest for her. 

Last spring, Wolfe leapt at the chance to start working on the Flex Desk and began the year optimistic that she was in line for a position on the new Live team, headed by national editor Marc Lacey, that was announced in early December. 

Not being a full-time employee, she says, was also cited as one of the reasons she was fired. In her discussion with the standards department editor, Wolfe says, she was told, “If you were full-time, we would have ways of disciplining you. And because you’re not, we just have a much higher standard.”

“That just made me really fucking mad. You’re painting me as some weirdo freelancer. It’s not true,” she says. “I’m sorry. I’m really emotional, because I loved my job and I know I did well. And I’m just mortified they’d characterize me this way.”

What is left is another example of how easy it is to derail a career with one tweet. The social media guidelines the Times demands its employees follow are vague, focused less on the content of a post and more on how it is read by others; the guidelines bar “anything else that undercuts the Times’s journalistic reputation” or that “appear[s] to take sides on issues.” That means Times staffers do not have a clear way of knowing if they’re committing a fireable offense before they press “post.” 

One of the terrible things about Twitter and one of the main reasons we’d all probably be better off paying less attention to it—though, of course, I have just amplified it further with this column—is the way it can take a morsel of fact and, through a viral haze of likes and retweets, transform it into a grand and urgent saga. 

And until the Times has clearer rules of the road for its newsroom, it would be understandable if more editors and reporters make the decision to simply stop tweeting.

 

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Gabriel Snyder is a contributing editor to CJR.

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