The bot that saw the Times

A few weeks ago, the person behind the New York Times Pitchbot—not a bot at all, but a Twitter account whose posts satirize New York Times headlines and articles—was at his home, in Rochester, New York, doing laundry with one hand while tapping out, with the other, one of his most frequent refrains on Twitter: “Dems in Disarray.” But the tweet—a parody of what NYT Pitchbot considers one of the media’s laziest constructions—wouldn’t send. “Whoops!” read an alert from Twitter. “You already said that.”

That’s part of the shtick; all told, NYT Pitchbot has tweeted “Dems in Disarray” more than four hundred times. In this case, the Twitter app had malfunctioned. NYT Pitchbot had already sent identical versions of the tweet seconds apart, and was attempting to send a third to his 150,000-plus followers. All the better, he supposed.

Though his subject matter might suggest otherwise, NYT Pitchbot does not work in media or politics. He is a fifty-two-year-old math professor and father of two who describes himself as a “committed Democrat” of the “slightly hardcore left.” He is anonymous on Twitter, and asked to remain so for this story, citing personal and professional concerns. (CJR contacted him via email and spoke with him on the phone, verifying his association with the Twitter account over direct message. He shared his real identity with CJR, which we verified with two other sources.)

NYT Pitchbot began his sideline in online political commentary in the early 2000s, posting anonymous comments on blogs, focusing much of his energy on one called Balloon Juice (i.e., hot air). Under the alias Doug J, he mounted ironic defenses of George W. Bush to “let off some steam” and provoke the blog’s founder, John Cole, a conservative undergoing a liberal transformation. 

“Trolling is what you would call it, but it wasn’t malicious,” says Cole. “It was basically pointing out that what I was saying was stupid—taking things to their logical extremes.” Doug J, Cole says, was a “crowd favorite.” So in 2009, Cole asked him to start writing posts for Balloon Juice directly. 

Early contributions included criticism of Times columnist Thomas Friedman (“writes entire columns about the wonders of free trade…without citing a single figure”) and earnest admiration for Glenn Greenwald, now NYT Pitchbot’s bête noire. (“What really gets me is this combination of nihilism and stupidity,” says NYT Pitchbot, citing Chris Cillizza as another offender.) Around the same time, Pitchbot says, he was banned from the New York Times’ online comment section, for a disparaging remark submitted on the launch of “The Conversation,” a column-in-dialogues by David Brooks and Gail Collins. 

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Doug J still occasionally posts on Balloon Juice, where he also raises money for liberal causes and Democratic candidates. (Through the online donation platform ActBlue, he’s brought in more than $2.8 million to date.) He joined Twitter in 2009, taking @dougjballoon as his handle, but didn’t start tweeting regularly until four years ago, when his first child was born. With kids and full-time teaching, it was easier to tweet than blog, he said.

In 2019, @DougJBalloon changed his name on Twitter to New York Times Pitchbot, committing to a new bit. He was encouraged by a conservative journalist friend and inspired by other “pitchbot” accounts, particularly one, now retired, that satirized The Federalist, a conservative online publication. “It’s a tricky thing, because The Federalist is so insane. How do you parody it?” he says. “What I think is more interesting is just how much of that same kind of stupidity is embedded in ostensibly left-center establishment journalism.”

With his account, NYT Pitchbot imagines the Times formula for stories as a kind of wheezing algorithm, a bot churning out contrarian headlines and half-baked hot takes. “I was a lifelong liberal Democrat,” begins one mock pitch for the Times opinion section. “Then reproductive rights activists held a vigil in front of Brett Kavanaugh’s house.” Another: “Ukrainians Have Sunk the Russian Warship Moskva. Here’s why that’s bad news for Joe Biden.” (Like “Dems in Disarray,” “Bad News for Biden” is something of a catchphrase for the account.)

NYT Pitchbot is a lifelong Times reader and a current digital subscriber. “Obviously, I think the New York Times does fantastic journalism,” he says. Still: “I’ve always had a lot of issues with how the media handles national politics. Like, I really thought that what went on around the Iraq War was insane.” He finds the Times’ framing of political coverage grating, and criticizes its opinion section as contrarian, focused on “concern-trolling liberals”—engaging in disingenuous criticism. “There’s this obsession the Times has with attacking other liberals,” he says. Beyond an attempt at balance, “I think part of it is that’s the ecosystem that they live in, and they find the people around them irritating.”

NYT Pitchbot’s first viral tweet came in March 2020, as covid lockdowns began. (“Sources close to Jared and Ivanka said that privately the couple opposes the pandemic.”) The tweet—a dig at the Times reporter Maggie Haberman and her coverage of the couple—gained NYT Pitchbot thousands of followers overnight. To date, the account’s most popular tweet was during the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. (“We wanted to understand what’s happening in Afghanistan. So we talked to three unvaccinated Trump supporters at an Arby’s in Harrisburg.”) But the author’s favorite pitches are more baroque, combining several jokes. (“Times have been tough in this Ohio town ever since the woke mob shut down the old ivermectin factory.”)

The account has made a particular hobby of mocking the Times’ obsession with man-on-the-street style interviews at Rust Belt diners. (“Nearly 90 percent of people admitted to hospitals due to Covid are unvaccinated. But in this Ohio diner, nearly 90 percent of unvaccinated diners don’t believe that matters.”) Those jokes are intended to sting not the interview subjects, but rather the Times reporters who conduct the interviews. These are stories written with a note of condescension that presume a wealthy, urban reader. “They fly in, they look for people to say stupid things, and they leave,” says NYT Pitchbot. “I think it’s kind of dehumanizing.” (By frequently focusing on white people, he adds, these articles reinforce the false idea of an exclusively white working class.) The Pitchbot account currently links to an online shop where supporters can order a T-shirt, mug, or onesie printed with in this ohio diner… So far, two hundred items have been sold.

Often, in replies to NYT Pitchbot tweets, others try their hand at the formula, riffing along. NYT Pitchbot sometimes retweets them. Recently, another contributor, a journalism professor who likewise asked to remain anonymous, began sending ideas over direct message. “I thought, ‘This is the best media criticism I’m seeing of the New York Times,’” says the journalism professor, who is now responsible for roughly a quarter of the Pitchbot’s output. Then there’s help from the Times itself: when real Times headlines verge on self-parody, NYT Pitchbot simply shares them without comment. (“Opinion | Biden Could Make the World Safer, but He’s Too Afraid of the Politics.”)

With Biden in office, NYT Pitchbot believes, the Times has abandoned the position it had staked out—a kind of anti-anti-Trumpism, as reflected in the hiring of conservative columnists like Bari Weiss and Bret Stephens—and returned to its usual form. The Dems are back in disarray. “Everything is ‘bad news for Democrats,’” he says—which is, of course, good news for his account. 

In 2017, when the Times eliminated its public-editor role, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., then the paper’s publisher, claimed the position was no longer needed, in part because social media platforms like Twitter could perform the same functions. Does that mean, I ask NYT Pitchbot, that he’s the Times’ public editor?

He considers the question. “The one thing that I would hope is that being made fun of for their really mindless rhetoric would make them change their headlines a little bit,” he says. But ultimately, he adds, a real public editor would be “infinitely preferable to randos on Twitter.”

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Caleb Pershan is a CJR fellow.