The recent news that political supporters of President Trump have been searching social media channels for offensive posts by journalists who work for certain national media brought understandable alarm and companion rhetoric from the targeted organizations. Media objections that such dirt digging intends to punish and discourage aggressive reporting are correct, but the better response would have been: “Have at it, and let us know if you find anything.”
The New York Times, one of the outlets in the crosshairs of this campaign, reported on Page 1 on Aug. 25 that a friend and adviser to Donald Trump Jr. and other allies of the current administration have scoured social media feeds as far back as a decade and have supposedly compiled “dossiers” on “hundreds” of journalists at prominent organizations. So far, the group has revealed offending remarks – anti-Semitic or homophobic, for instance – by journalists at The Times, The Washington Post and CNN, resulting in professional embarrassment, apologies and one resignation. Notably, the most recent of the remarks is eight years old. Two cases involve tweets made in college and one involves tweets made as a teenager. (One of the cases involves tweets by CNN White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins in 2011 when she attended the University of Alabama.)
Among the many anti-press tactics within our current political environment, this one may not even be top 10. There certainly is an element of unfairness to dredging up such distant words, and there certainly is zero chance that this group of operatives will present its revelations with all the warranted context of age and meaning. But the public communications of journalists are fair game.
It would be hypocritical to think otherwise. The long-ago statements and actions of political candidates and elected officials have been standard and justified topics for the media for decades. I recognize that journalists didn’t proffer themselves for votes, nor do they make policy or spend your tax money. But as do politicians, they hold a role of public trust. Character therefore matters.
The industry realizes this. “Journalists should abide by the same high standards they expect of others,” says the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists. Concern for public trust also helps to explain why news organizations are swift to investigate and adjudicate cases within their ranks (though they don’t always get it right). And though this seems to merely hide rather than root out a potential problem, this is why organizations have restrictive policies on what their employees can say on social media.
I would never suggest there are no bigots among mainstream journalists. I do believe, though, that by the nature of its calling, the field does not reflect the degree of hate that lies within segments of the American population as a whole. The uncovered “opposition research” may involve lesser failings than bigotry, of course – perhaps conflicts of interest or other lack of adherence to industry best practices. Nonetheless, I do not believe Trump allies are armed with “dossiers” of damaging evidence on “hundreds” of journalists. It’s a bluff. If and when more of this purported treasure-trove of mud gets revealed, I’d wager it’ll be exaggerated or forgivable.
That doesn’t mean journalists shouldn’t be mindful, though. Social media, as too many people have learned the hard way, is permanent and potentially deadly to a professional, especially when political partisans are hankering for a killing.
Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama. He worked for The Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group for 30 years. He published this commentary originally as a post on his blog, The Arenblog. About News is a BirminghamWatch feature that publishes commentary by those who teach the craft and think about the values and performance of today’s journalism, a civic flashpoint. BirminghamWatch shares these articles on Facebook and Twitter and invites readers to join the conversation about their news in those forums.