This morning Politico, in its Morning Media newsletter, published some quotes from New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet. Baquet, it seems, is tired of “policing” his writers’ social media accounts and wants a tougher policy. In the age of Trump, Baquet says “inappropriate” tweets threaten to undermine the paper’s credibility. His view is that journalists “should not be able to say anything on social media” that they wouldn’t say in the Times newspaper or its digital properties.
And this morning the paper introduced a new set of much more rigid rules. Among the rules, writers have instructions about when and when not to block or mute other accounts. Moreover, they must not post anything that “undercuts The Times’s journalistic reputation.” Perhaps worst of all, they can’t take to Twitter anymore to complain about customer service woes!
While many of these rules make sense, this idea that a news organization must keep its writers on a tight leash is not only outdated, it vastly misunderstands the state of the media business. Since his campaign, President Trump has labeled the Times as “fake news,” and many of his followers routinely regurgitate that claim. But the people claiming the supposed left-wing media is fake news are angry at its very existence–not necessarily at the content itself. Breitbart and its readership aren’t trying to critique mainstream media piece by piece. The term “fake news” in this context is an attack on an entire “MSM” institution they want no part of. It’s not about individual articles or tweets.
The Times over the last few years has made strides at appeasing those on the right in an attempt to seem more neutral. But curbing social media banter is not likely to bring in a new conservative audience who believe in a widespread left-wing media conspiracy.
What’s more, people turn to the Times because of its personalities. There are a number of journalists–Maggie Haberman, Mike Isaac, Farhad Manjoo–who have acquired dedicated audiences because of their frequent and unorthodox social media practices. Platforms like Twitter have made it possible for writers to become personal brands, and if Haberman left the Times today, readers would sure as hell read her stuff at wherever she goes next. Baquet’s new plan would basically throttle these personalities for doing what they’re paid to do.
This is all to say: Baquet–who has only tweeted three times–is invoking an antiquated understanding of social media. Yes, writers should be aware that they are posting their words to a widespread audience. But organizations should understand that audiences have a different view of the writer-publication relationship. If the Times wanted a masthead where all aspects conform to its editorial practices, why not take a cue from the Economist and remove bylines?