For all of you, like me, who are perpetually online, you’ve probably been reading about the New York Times‘s latest controversy over its newest opinion writer. The Gray Lady made a surprisingly good decision in hiring The Verge‘s tech writer Sarah Jeong to be part of its editorial board. But when it came to defending its new hire, the paper did not do so well.
First, here’s the abridged controversy: Jeong is a person who tweets frequently and sometimes irreverently. Over the years, she has been the target of numerous online harassment campaigns–both because she’s a woman, as well as a woman of color. In reaction to these vicious onslaughts, she has been known to write biting (and very funny) tweets that target “white men.” Now, over the last day or so, bad-faith online trolls have dug up her past tweets in which she criticized this extremely dominant class of people, and have deemed them “racist.” An online brouhaha ensued, with numerous conservative personalities and blogs like the Gateway Pundit calling for the Times to fire Jeong.
The Times, in its attempt to respond to the situation, published a statement about the controversy. In it, the paper commented on Jeong’s tweets. “For a period of time she responded to that harassment by imitating the rhetoric of her harassers,” the Times communications account tweeted. “She sees now that this approach only served to feed the vitriol that we too often see on social media. She regrets it, and the Times does not condone it.”
Our statement in response to criticism of the hiring of Sarah Jeong. pic.twitter.com/WryIgbaoqg
— NYTimes Communications (@NYTimesPR) August 2, 2018
This is a bad response. As Splinter‘s Libby Watson wrote, “Instead of ignoring this ridiculous complaint and letting it die—which it would have, because who the fuck cares what the Gateway Pundit is doing—they have validated it.” In essence, the Times–in its attempt to still seem amenable to the right-wing audience–caved to a controversy that was made wholly in bad faith. Instead of ignoring calls from people who will raise a stink about literally anything the “mainstream media” does, the newspaper gave credence to their faux outrage and slapped Jeong on the wrist for simply being not white and a bit rude online.
Jeong’s other place of employment, The Verge, did something very different. “Online trolls and harassers want us, the Times, and other newsrooms to waste their time by debating their malicious agenda,” a new blog post wrote. It goes on:
They take tweets and other statements out of context because they want to disrupt us and harm individual reporters. The strategy is to divide and conquer by forcing newsrooms to disavow their colleagues one at a time. This is not a good-faith conversation, it’s intimidation.
So we’re not going to fall for these disingenuous tactics. And it’s time other newsrooms learn to spot these hateful campaigns for what they are: attempts to discredit and undo the vital work of journalists who report on the most toxic communities on the internet.
This is exactly the response a newsroom should make in defense of its own. This controversy was purposely constructed to rankle and cause a commotion; the trolls simply wanted the gratification of seeing a supposed liberal-leaning publication flinch—and respond to a small but loud minority. What these critics wanted was not for Jeong to atone for her words, but for the journalistic establishment to acknowledge their power. And that’s precisely what the Times did.