Public Editor

The Post’s masthead will have to accept that it is not God

February 7, 2020

It’s been a grueling couple of weeks for the Washington Post. The paper found itself as the subject of news, rather than its author. Morale is hurting. The newsroom is angry. Management is stumbling. Whether this leads to growth or just to festering resentment depends on the capacity of an entrenched institution to imagine that the way things have always been done may not work any more. 

It began when Post reporter Felicia Sonmez tweeted a link to a story about rape allegations against Kobe Bryant shortly after Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash. She was hit with knee-jerk criticism from the Post’s top editors, resulting in her suspension, even as she was facing hate mail and death threats online. 

The masthead reaction sparked its own backlash from Sonmez and her colleagues in the Post’s newsroom, the staff union, most working journalists, and anybody in the general public who cared about media. Shortly thereafter, the suspension was reversed, a not-actually-an-apology was issued by Post editor Marty Baron, and a bitter public discourse ensued about social media, the myth of journalistic objectivity, and the obligation of media companies to back their reporters. 

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This discourse was intensified by a Daily Beast report that alleged that Baron and managing editor Tracy Grant had last year told Wesley Lowery—perhaps the most high-profile black reporter at the Post—that his tweets criticizing a New York Times story for failing to note the racist roots of the Tea Party “violated the Post’s social-media rules and threatened the newspaper’s credibility.” 

Lowery, who recently left the Post for a job at CBS News, tweeted this week that “reporters of color shouldn’t have their jobs threatened for speaking out about mainstream media failures to properly cover and contextualize issues of race. What’s the point of bringing diverse experiences and voices into a room only to muzzle them?”

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As you might imagine, the working journalists at the Post are not pleased by any of this. Staffers variously described the mood in the newsroom to me as both “riled up” and “demoralized,” and some said that the way that Baron had handled the issues made them consider leaving the paper. Apart from the fundamental disagreement over standards, they noted that the Post’s social media policy feels arbitrarily enforced, and that they lack confidence that management will protect them from the inevitable right-wing internet mobs that come for Post reporters with regularity in the Trump era. 

The newspaper’s union, the Post Guild, spoke out strongly in favor of Felicia Sonmez, but is trying to strike a conciliatory tone in order to have something useful come out of a turbulent week. “Post management has offered up dialogue channels to talk about our social media policy and find ways to improve it together for today’s world while still protecting our work,” the union told me. “We’re encouraged by this and have assembled a working group to help move the conversation forward in a productive way.”

Baron himself, who did not respond to a request for comment, noted in his email to the newsroom that “In recent months, we have begun to review our social media policy to update its provisions in recognition of how social media has changed since our policy was written in 2011.” Sources say that review began late last year, but achieved nothing tangible. Perhaps a public crisis is just what was needed.

These incidents (along with a HuffPost report this week about sexism at the Post) bring up several issues—not least of which is the perpetual and omnipresent struggle of people who are not straight white men to be treated as well as straight white men in the media industry. Since the Post’s social media review committee is unlikely to resolve that struggle, we will focus more specifically on what the company itself probably believes is the issue here: how to, as countless journalism chin-strokers have opined in countless memos, “navigate” the “tricky” and “always changing” nature of social media, in the context of being employed as a journalist. 

This is not something that younger journalists who grew up online worry about, for the same reason that birds don’t worry about heights. Navigating social media is a normal human skill for them, like driving a car or eating without spilling food all over yourself. Some people might be bad at it, sure, but it’s not something you generally need to have a seminar to discuss. 

Unless you’re old enough to be running a newspaper. (Baron is in his mid-60s.) For the 55-and-over demographic—or for anyone who would unironically describe themself as a person with “ink running in my veins”—personal Twitter use seems to be an unsolvable puzzle. The way that people communicate in 2020 often causes such managers to, at least initially, try to muzzle and restrict the very things that make those modes of communication useful and attractive. At the Post (and at countless less prominent newsrooms across the country), the result is inconsistent enforcement of outmoded standards that are guaranteed to leave a good portion of people upset, no matter what decision is made. 

For the Post, or any influential publication, to pretend that it is not a participant in politics is a failure to acknowledge reality.

The problem here is not one of technology. It is one of politics. The attempt of prestige newspapers like the Post to cast themselves as perfect sentinels of objectivity standing outside the tawdry world of political judgment is, as honest journalists have long realized, absurd. And impossible. The Post’s current social media policy forbids posting anything “that could objectively be perceived as reflecting political, racial, sexist, religious or other bias or favoritism.” 

Consider the assumptions inherent in such a standard. It posits, first, the existence of someone capable of telling hundreds of journalists with hundreds of different sets of life experiences covering a complex nation of 330 million citizens what “objectively” is political or racial bias. (Maybe God is up to that job, but Marty Baron is not.) We see in practice that what is ruled to violate this standard is a reporter noting a history of sexual assault in a recently deceased celebrity, or a reporter saying that the Tea Party was motivated by racism. Are these observations “objectively” evidence of some sort of “bias?” No. They are, instead, evidence that it is a fool’s errand for the management of the Post to act as though they alone have insight into objective truth. 

Banning a female reporter from noting that a famous person was famously accused of rape is, itself, a political act. Banning a black reporter from saying that a racially motivated movement was racially motivated is, itself, a political act. Banning reporters at your media outlet from saying anything—no matter how accurate—that sounds like it is criticizing a competing media outlet is, itself, a political act. All of these standards serve to protect existing power structures. That is what politics is: deciding who has power, and how it gets exercised. For the Post, or any influential publication, to pretend that it is not a participant in politics is a failure to acknowledge reality. 

If we as an industry are ever going to move past this interminable issue of social-media use, we are first going to have to stop acting as if it is a simple matter of catching up to the latest technological trends. In truth, it is just the latest manifestation of the old, self-serving, ridiculous notion that the press can stand on a magical, “bias”-free island outside of reality. As long as newspapers are writing policies to enforce that impossible dream world, their policies will fail. Instead, they should stick to a much simpler guideline: reporters should tell the truth.

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Hamilton Nolan is CJR's public editor for the Washington Post.