The Media Today

Emily Wilder, tradition, and the double standards around objectivity

May 24, 2021

Three weeks ago today, Emily Wilder, a twenty-two-year-old journalist, joined the Associated Press as a news associate for the Western US region, based in Phoenix, Arizona. A week or so later, conflict in Israel and Palestine started to consume the news cycle. It would go on to consume Wilder’s AP career. Wilder retweeted other people’s thoughts about the story, and offered her own reflection on the way it was being covered in the US: “‘Objectivity’ feels fickle when the basic terms we use to report news implicitly stake a claim,” she wrote last Sunday. “Using ‘Israel’ but never ‘Palestine,’ or ‘war’ but not ‘siege and occupation’ are political choices—yet media make those exact choices all the time without being flagged as biased.” The next day, college Republicans at Stanford University, where Wilder, who is Jewish, was a student, posted a thread accusing Wilder of being an “anti-Israel agitator” and of making anti-Semitic remarks during her time on campus. The Stanford Republicans’ account has fewer than two thousand followers, but the thread was soon amplified by prominent conservative politicians and media outlets, who used it as grist for the broader right-wing argument that the AP is biased against Israel, and favorable toward Hamas. Days earlier, Israeli forces had destroyed the AP’s offices in Gaza City, alleging that Hamas operated out of the same building. (The AP has denied knowledge of this. Israeli officials have yet to publish proof of their claim.)

This had really nothing to do with Wilder—but by Wednesday, the AP had fired her anyway, citing violations of its social-media policy. “We have this policy so the comments of one person cannot create dangerous conditions for our journalists covering the story,” an AP spokesperson told my CJR colleague Shinhee Kang last week. “Every AP journalist is responsible for safeguarding our ability to report on this conflict, or any other, with fairness and credibility, and cannot take sides in public forums.” The spokesperson said that the violations in question occurred while Wilder was employed at the AP, but did not specify which of her posts were at issue. In a statement over the weekend, Wilder said that she, too, has no idea how or when she violated the policy, and that her bosses refused to tell her when she asked; she believes that she was actually “hung out to dry” in response to the right-wing mob’s loud baying about her past activism. “I have to ask what kind of message this sends to young people who are hoping to channel righteous indignation or passion for justice into impactful storytelling,” she wrote. “What future does it promise to aspiring reporters that an institution like the Associated Press would sacrifice those with the least power to the cruel trolling of a group of anonymous bullies?” Since her firing, Wilder has given interviews, too, including to the Washington Post and SFGATE. She told the latter, “There’s no question I was just canceled.”

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The ramifications of Wilder’s firing go beyond the AP as an institution. Most immediately, as the New Republic’s Alex Shephard noted, they are of relevance to the Post, where Sally Buzbee, the AP’s executive editor, will soon take the top editorial job following the retirement, earlier this year, of Marty Baron. (The AP spokesperson did not respond to a followup email from Kang asking what role, if any, Buzbee played in the firing; Buzbee is not slated to join the Post until next week, and was speaking publicly about the AP’s coverage of Gaza as recently as last weekend, when she said, “The Associated Press does not take sides in conflicts.”) In recent years, the Post’s newsroom has been roiled by similar tensions over objectivity and social media use, particularly around tweets about race and sexual violence—early last year, Felicia Sonmez, a Post reporter, was suspended for sharing a news story about a rape allegation against the basketball star Kobe Bryant following his death in a helicopter crash; Sonmez, who has been vocal about her own experience of sexual assault, was also barred from covering the subject, though Post management recently rescinded the ban. After the Post named Buzbee as its new executive editor, I looked for clues as to how she might approach issues such as these. The Wilder firing, on its face, looks like a big clue, though time will tell what it portends.

Beyond specific outlets, the firing holds lessons for the media industry as a whole, as various observers teased out over the weekend. As with the Sonmez incident, the Wilder incident showed up both the tyrannical nature of newsrooms’ social-media policies, and the fact that major outlets still bend all too easily to coordinated, confected right-wing outrage campaigns online: “The AP didn’t identify a disinformation campaign and react accordingly,” as Janine Zacharia, a former Jerusalem bureau chief at the Post who taught Wilder at Stanford, wrote yesterday. These lessons concern news organizations’ persistent failures to adapt to the culture of the internet, specifically. This is a big problem, to be sure, but such failures also channel power imbalances that are more fundamental to the media industry. Various critics contrasted Wilder’s firing with CNN’s lenient treatment of Chris Cuomo, a star anchor on the network who, the Post reported last week, privately advised his brother, Andrew, the governor of New York, to fight back against allegations of sexual harassment and calls for his resignation that Chris at one point characterized as “cancel culture”; Chris apologized, but will not face disciplinary action. (“I can be objective about just about any topic,” he said, “but not about my family.”) CNN has a less rigid editorial tone than the AP, but the conduct of Andrew Cuomo is of far more direct relevance to Chris Cuomo’s job than the Middle East was to Wilder’s work out of Arizona. Ultimately, as New York’s Sarah Jones put it, CNN “wants to keep its moneymakers and elite influencers. To do this, it’ll ignore the ethical standards that apply to everyone else. At the same time, journalism’s Emily Wilders will scrape for every bit of job security they can find.”

Jones notes that Wilder and Chris Cuomo both cited “cancel culture,” and argues that the disparity of outcomes in their cases imparts a “vital” truth about the phrase: that “in practice, cancel culture cuts one way, against journalists like Wilder or Nikole Hannah-Jones.” While Hannah-Jones is a journalist, for the New York Times Magazine, the dynamic reaches, in her case, beyond the media industry and into the world of academia: she was recently denied tenure at the University of North Carolina’s journalism school following a conservative backlash against her appointment. (She is a hate figure to many on the right due to her work on the 1619 Project, a Times Magazine initiative to center slavery in the telling of the American story; she will still be joining UNC, on a five-year contract, and may be awarded tenure at a future date.) Cancel culture is, in many ways, a meaningless term, and right-wing hypocrisy around freedom of speech is obvious, old, and unsurprising. Perhaps more relevant here is the reason that trustees at UNC gave for declining to rubber-stamp tenure for Hannah-Jones: that she does not have “a traditional academic-type background.” This, too, is an absurd argument: Hannah-Jones has been given a position teaching journalism, for which her predecessors received tenure; she has also studied at UNC. There is an inadvertent truth here, though. “Traditional” views and approaches reliably meet with little friction. The same cannot be said of views that challenge tradition.

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This is a society-wide dynamic; in the context of the media industry, it brings the conversation back round to the debate over objectivity that has taken on a fresh urgency since last year. Objectivity is another slippery term, but in this debate, critics see tradition as one of its central sins: privileged perspectives and practices have ossified, over time, into core tenets of journalism, such that deviating from them can be perceived as deviating from journalism itself. As Wilder pointed out prior to her firing, this debate is deeply relevant to the ways we cover Israel and Palestine. Ironically, her tweet about objectivity—her most opinionated since she started at the AP (that I can see, anyway) amid a string of mostly innocuous retweets—didn’t “take sides” on the Middle East at all, but rather was an astute analysis of traditional media practice; a journalist musing publicly on a pressing current challenge to her craft. Of course, it’s hard to know if this tweet got Wilder fired, since the AP won’t do her, and its readers, the basic courtesy of naming her transgression. But it’s reasonable to guess that tradition carried the day.

Below, more on Israel, objectivity, and consequences:

  • Regret: Ronen Bergman reports, for the New York Times, that some Israeli officials privately now regret the decision to bomb the building housing the AP’s offices last weekend. “In light of the international furor over the airstrike, some high-ranking officials in government and the military now call it a mistake, arguing that Israel needs the media to be open to hearing its version of events, and the bombing made that harder,” Bergman writes. “One official said that while the airstrike was justified militarily, the doubters had been right, and the harm done to Israel’s international standing outweighed any benefit from destroying the Hamas equipment” officials say was inside the building.
  • Bias: Slate’s Aymann Ismail spoke with journalists who have covered Israel and Palestine and say that “an ‘illusive concept of impartiality’ led them to face persistent doubts and skewed editing for years,” typically in favor of the official Israeli narrative at the expense of Palestinian voices. The events of recent weeks have led to further difficult conversations between reporters and their editors—though some perceive a change in the tenor of coverage in the US. “The collective political consciousness has shifted largely because of Black Lives Matter,” a former Times journalist said. “Last summer, our newsrooms as a reflection of a larger society had to take a hard look at state violence, how we perceive it, how we cover it, in a way we haven’t done before.”
  • Canada: Last week, The Intercept’s Akela Lacy reported on similar conversations taking place among journalists in Canada, more than two thousand of whom signed an open letter to Canadian newsrooms criticizing coverage as skewed against Palestinians. Soon after it was published, “letter organizers started hearing from journalists who had been called into meetings with management at their respective newsrooms to discuss why they had signed,” Lacy reports. “At least three people were completely taken off coverage of the region, according to two people familiar with the organizing efforts.”
  • Termination: CNN may not have disciplined Chris Cuomo over his strategizing with his brother, but the network did just terminate its contract with Rick Santorum, a former Republican senator and CNN contributor who recently gave a speech in which he erased Native American culture. A CNN executive told HuffPost’s Jennifer Bendery that the network quietly ditched Santorum after he went on Cuomo’s show and failed to apologize. “Leadership wasn’t particularly satisfied with that appearance,” the executive said. “None of the anchors wanted to book him, so he was essentially benched anyway.”

Other notable stories:

ICYMI: Remote Possibilities

Correction: This post has been updated to reflect recent reporting on possible mergers involving Axios.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.