If it turned out that a significant number of your employees had said racist or bigoted things in the past, the crisis PR manual would usually tell you that the best approach is to apologise, and put out a statement saying that lessons had been learned. Maybe a few individuals could be sent on sensitivity courses, and of course, you’d probably pick the single worst offender and fire them, to make it look like you were taking the whole business seriously.
This is not what the New York Times, facing exactly such a scandal, has done. Instead, it has adopted the novel approach of declaring that reporting on what journalists say is, in fact, an attack on journalism.
The paper recently reported that a ‘loose collection’ of right-wing individuals have collected hundreds of potentially damaging social media posts from the social media accounts of staff from America’s most prominent news organisations.
An editor at the NYT politics desk, Tom Wright-Piersanti, has already had to apologise for anti-Semitic and racist remarks it turns out he had previously made on social media.
The NYT is calling this situation an ‘aggressive operation to discredit news organisations’ which is ‘fundamentally different from the well-established role of the news media in scrutinizing people in positions of power’. The publisher of the NYT said that this was a campaign designed to ‘harass and embarrass’ that was intended to ‘intimidate journalists from doing their job’.
Recall, for a moment, that what’s happening here is that people are simply reporting on what journalists have said in the past. In fact, the idea to do this was pioneered by journalists themselves, who, for several years now, have made careers out of reporting something offensive that some poor minor celebrity or politician said when they were 12 or 15, and then watching that person suffer at the hands of an online mob.
Their explanation for why this is different does ring rather hollow. Journalism is an action, it’s not something you have bestowed upon you by the NYT or CNN or Fox. Any person who gathers truthful information and presents it to the public is involved in journalism. Beyond that anyone involved with the media is a person in a position of power, by virtue of the fact they can influence the cultural and political direction of the country because they can influence the content of that media organisation.
Frankly it appears that the real problem the NYT has with the idea they could be reported on is that they seem to believe that the NYT get to do these sorts of things to the public, the public doesn’t get to do these sorts of things to the NYT. They get to destroy your credibility through insinuation and biased attacks, you don’t get to damage theirs by pointing out that many of their people are partisan hacks with a clear agenda or that they have people on their editorial board who have a splendidly long history of making racially charged comments.
Given the incredibly low levels of trust that the public have in mainstream media I can certainty see why the mainstream media would want to keep others from reporting on their biases and conflicts of interests, but the mainstream media doesn’t get, and shouldn’t get, to decide what is and what is not journalism. The idea that people in media should be free of scrutiny is nonsense, particularly given the way in which many media organisations seem to have spent the past two decades accepting the idea that it’s perfectly reasonable for them to tell the public what they should think.
Initiatives like this are not only journalism, they’re good and necessary journalism. It may even serve to remind journalists that they were the people who first decided that there was to be no gap between a person’s private and professional life, and that it was perfectly legitimate to take some throw-away comment from a decade ago and use it to crucify someone on the altar of public opinion. They may even come to realise why that was such a terrible idea in the first place.