Journalists Are Powerful Public Figures and We Should Treat Them as Such

Trump supporter wants to prove journalists hold their friends to different standards than the rest of us. It'd be nice if they proved him wrong

New York Times building
Getty Images
August 27, 2019

A minor Twitter fight broke out in January after U.S. ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell tweeted that the Trump administration was the toughest ever when it came to taking on Russia.

"Let me get this straight, @RichardGrennell (sic)," responded conservative New York Times columnist Bret Stephens. "Not Harry Truman, who created NATO and ordered the Berlin airlift? Not JFK, who stared down the Russians over Cuba? Not Nixon, who ordered the nuclear alert in 1973? Not Reagan, who named it 'the evil empire'?"

In swooped Trump ally Arthur Schwartz, best known for his genius decision to baselessly accuse Reince Priebus of infidelity in order to attach himself to the rising star of Anthony Scaramucci. "Get this 'straight?'" he asked. "Are you taking a shot at Ric because he’s gay? You’re a despicable human being."

This anecdote explains why I'm not exactly surprised by the New York Times report that Schwartz has compiled "dossiers of potentially embarrassing social media posts" from reporters at the Times, Washington Post, CNN, and who knows where else. If Schwartz thought that was a "gotcha," the bulk of the "embarrassing" tweets he dug up may also be laughably weak.

But if I were a betting man, my money would be that the blind squirrel will find at least one nut: a legitimately offensive or punishment-worthy post from a journalist at a major outlet. Reading the Times's own reporting on the matter, I'm not convinced that reporters are operating with the right mindset to properly handle these cases.

Take these paragraphs outlining other cases in which Schwartz went after journalists:

A week after a White House reporter for CNN sparred with Mr. Trump during a news conference, Mr. Schwartz highlighted a tweet by the reporter from 2011, when the reporter was in college, that used an anti-gay slur. Other similar tweets quickly surfaced, and the reporter apologized, though Mr. Schwartz has continued to antagonize the reporter on Twitter.

In recent months, Mr. Schwartz highlighted a nearly decade-old tweet in which a reporter for The Post had repeated in an ambiguous manner a slur used by a politician.

In March, Mr. Schwartz tweeted a link to an article from Breitbart, written by [reporter Matt Boyle], about a reporter from Business Insider whose Instagram account included anti-Trump references and a photograph of the reporter demonstrating against the president.

"A reporter," "the reporter"... do these reporters not have names? I've never heard of John Haltiwanger, the Business Insider reporter in question, but the Washington Post's Josh Dawsey and CNN's Kaitlan Collins are two of the most influential reporters in the business. Elsewhere in the piece, the Times did name former CNN photo editor Mohammed Elshamy, but seemingly only because he spoke to them at length and on the record.

This is a standard more often used for victims of violent crime, not public figures who made public apologies that received substantial media coverage. It's hard to escape the impression that this grant of anonymity comes because the Times reporters, Ken Vogel and Jeremy Peters, sympathize with their subjects, view the attacks as illegitimate, and want to protect them from further unwarranted scrutiny. That's a fine opinion, but not something you want coloring objective reporting.

Strengthening that impression is the exculpatory framing the Vogel and Peters use when describing their cases: Collins's tweet was "from 2011, when the reporter was in college," Dawsey's tweet was "nearly [a] decade-old." Elshamy, they report, "said he posted the tweets when he was 15 and 16 years old, growing up in Egypt, when he was still learning English and did not fully grasp the meaning of the words." The words in question were: "More than 4 jewish pigs killed in #Jerusalem today" and "HAMAS HAMAS HAMAS."

Other prominent figures do not receive the defensive framing and grant of anonymity that major reporters are receiving in those paragraphs. The Times cannot dismiss a reporter's bad tweets because they date back to college, when it devotes stories to 21-year-old college football star Nick Bosa's deleted tweets (among the thoughtcrimes cited: "One tweet called Beyoncé’s music 'complete trash.'"). What's good for the goose is good for the gander that writes hit pieces on tweets the goose wrote when he was fourteen years old and still in goose middle school.

The Times's bias, while understandable, also creeps into the piece here:

[Using] journalistic techniques to target journalists and news organizations as retribution for — or as a warning not to pursue — coverage critical of the president is fundamentally different from the well-established role of the news media in scrutinizing people in positions of power.

"If it’s clearly retaliatory, it’s clearly an attack, it’s clearly not journalism," said Leonard Downie Jr., who was the executive editor of The Post from 1991 to 2008.

This seems wrong to me. Whether something is "journalism" shouldn't depend on who's doing the reporting or what their motives are, it should depend on whether the facts as laid out are newsworthy and true. Partisan hacks recorded Mitt Romney speaking to private donors about the 47 percent and dug through Democratic governor Ralph Northam's blackface-filled yearbook page, but both cases were still journalism. Schwartz's hackishness should factor into whether his information can be trusted, but not whether it should be widely reported once vetted.

The Times does not quite come out and say it, but there's also an implied false dichotomy in that first paragraph between "target[ing] journalists and news organization" and "scrutinizing people in positions of power." By any measure, a New York Times or Washington Post journalist ranks among the most powerful people in the country. Why shouldn't we treat them the same as other major figures?

An instructive comparison might be the case of Elizabeth Lauten, a former communications director for a GOP congressman. In 2014, she wrote a post on her private Facebook page criticizing Malia and Sasha Obama. Lauten's post didn't just become a story, it became the story, prompting a week-long news cycle even after she apologized. News vans parked outside of her parents' house. Washington Post reporters went through her old college newspaper columns looking for tidbits.

Now, let me give you some names: Scott Washington, Stephen Fincher, Jack Freudenthal, Jeff Burley, Sam Hartman, Mike Allen, Jake Simpson, Allen Rappleyea, Steven Claude, Sean Manginn, and Noah Turner. One of those names is Lauten's old boss, the rest are random names I pulled from the Wake Forest football depth chart. I'd bet even the most politically plugged-in folks at home can only guess the odd man out. We aren't talking about Justin Amash or Rashida Tlaib here, this guy was a total nonentity in the halls of power.

CNN as an institution is infinitely more influential than Congressman What's-His-Name—Lauten's boss. New York Times reporters and their editors craft the national narrative in a way that a communications aide for a backbencher could only dream of. Even if the average reporter is only a third as important or powerful as a congressional aide, in the Lauten case that translates to 11 stories in the Washington Post.

Every "offensive" tweet or Facebook post that Schwartz tries to sell us on should be taken with a mountain of salt. But ignoring or diminishing the legitimately bad ones—if they do emerge—will only convince most Americans of what Schwartz is trying to prove: Journalists hold their friends to different standards than the rest of us. It would be nice if the media proved him wrong.