Journalists can tweet about Black Lives Matter but not about Palestine

Journalists can tweet about Black Lives Matter but not about Palestine

Last week, no one had heard of Emily Wilder. Then she became the focus of a national campaign to get her fired. Days later, she was.

Things move fast. So there’s a good chance that days from now, the story of a rookie journalist who lost her job because of the way she used social media to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, will have faded from the discourse. Her firing will become just another bullet point in future stories about “cancel culture” on the right and left.

On the other hand: I have a hunch that the particular circumstances of Wilder’s narrative will have more resonance than your standard Outrage of the Week. Because it merges two storylines — the long-running, intractable standoff between Israelis and Palestinians, and the newer, intractable fight over fairness and objectivity in journalism that is being hashed out on Twitter and in Slack rooms and in the real world. What do fairness and objectivity in journalism really mean? And do those two ideas have to be linked at the hip? That is: Can you be fair in your reporting but abandon “the unreasonable and hideously stupid expectation that reporters must harbor no strong opinions about the things they care about,” as journalist Laura Wagner put it in Defector?

Answers that might have made sense a few years ago don’t seem to work anymore, so journalists, their bosses, and their readers are coming up with answers on the fly — and, in this case, failing miserably.

First, the chronology, as relayed by Wilder in press interviews and via Twitter:

  • Wilder, who graduated from Stanford in 2020 and had been working as an intern for the Arizona Republic, went to work for the Associated Press this month as a “news associate” in Phoenix, “helping edit and produce content for publication” — an entry-level job.
  • On Monday, May 14, the Twitter account for the Stanford College Republicans circulated old tweets and quotes — commentary critical of Israeli policies and supporters, like calling Republican donor Sheldon Adelson a “naked mole rat” — from her days as a student activist at Stanford. Those were quickly recirculated by right-wing outlets like Fox News and the Federalist.
  • Wilder says an Associated Press manager told her that the news organization would investigate her social media use, but that she shouldn’t worry. “The editor said I was not going to get in any trouble because everyone had opinions in college,” Wilder told SFGate. “Then came the rest of the week.”
  • On Thursday, May 17, she was fired for violating the AP’s social media guidelines. Wilder said she asked the AP to tell her what specifically she’d done wrong but hasn’t received an answer. “I asked them, ‘Please tell me what violated the policy,’ and they said, ‘No.’”

The AP says it fired Wilder for violating the company’s social media policy while employed there — that is, not for tweets she made prior to getting hired — but wouldn’t spell out specific infractions. A rep passed along this statement:

While AP generally refrains from commenting on personnel matters, we can confirm Emily Wilder’s comments on Thursday that she was dismissed for violations of AP’s social media policy during her time at AP. We have this policy so the comments of one person cannot create dangerous conditions for our journalists covering the story. Every AP journalist is responsible for safeguarding our ability to report on this conflict, or any other, with fairness and credibility, and cannot take sides in public forums.

So we’re left to guess at Wilder’s supposed infractions. The most likely candidate is this May 16 tweet — posted the day before the Stanford College Republicans went after her — critiquing the way mainstream media covers the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

Which presumably conflicts with the AP’s policy that “employees must refrain from declaring their views on contentious public issues in any public forum.”

Wilder has also retweeted several other tweets about the conflict, and the AP says that “Retweets, like tweets, should not be written in a way that looks like you’re expressing a personal opinion on the issues of the day. A retweet with no comment of your own can easily be seen as a sign of approval of what you’re relaying … unadorned retweets must be avoided.”

But let’s be clear: Wilder was working out of the AP’s Phoenix newsroom, half a world away from its former offices in Gaza, which were destroyed this month by Israeli airstrikes. Firing her doesn’t “safeguard” the AP’s ability to report on the conflict in any way. All of this tweet-parsing is ridiculous and shameful. The most charitable explanation is that her managers really didn’t like a handful of tweets their new hire had made — which is something they could resolve without firing her. But firing her days after she became the target of a political campaign is an explicit capitulation, and a green light for other groups to target other journalists with similar efforts — which they most certainly will.

It’s worth noting that we still haven’t heard directly from anyone at the AP about its side of the story in any detail. In a memo distributed to AP employees this weekend, executives wrote that “much of the coverage and commentary does not accurately portray what took place,” but didn’t offer their own version of events.

But if the premise of the AP’s actions is that the appearance of wrongdoing is as important as the act itself, then the AP is the guilty party here: It’s signaled that it will throw its journalists under the bus at a moment’s notice if people on Twitter complain loudly enough. And while the AP has told employees it intends to have an internal “conversation” about its social media policy, my hunch is that it’s still going to be fundamentally uncomfortable with a point of view common among journalists in 2021 — which is that they have points of view, and pretending otherwise is dishonest.

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Wilder’s firing is one inflection point in a complex and evolving debate about journalistic objectivity that’s usually addressed sideways, rather than head-on. It highlights the strain newsrooms in the US are experiencing as they try to figure out how to tell journalists what beliefs they can express publicly. And which ones they’re either not supposed to have or that they’re supposed to pretend not to have.

Consider: Last year, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, Americans on social media aligned, at least temporarily, behind the Black Lives Matter moment. There were few willing to defend the actions of the Minneapolis police officers who killed him or didn’t stop his murder. And social media services were bursting with people proclaiming their opposition to systemic racism and support for the Black Lives Matter movement — a movement that had been considered left-of-mainstream just a few years earlier.

That momentum swept up middle-of-the-road mega-companies, like Walmart and Amazon. And it definitely included newsrooms, including my own: Last June, managers sent out a memo reminding us that Vox journalists aren’t supposed to participate in political rallies, and to “refrain from using hashtags associated with movements and organizations we are actively covering, or publicly endorsing them.” That said, the memo added: “Racism is not a ‘both sides’ issue, and employees are free to speak out against racism and inequality.” It was a major shift.

In the recent past, some mainstream journalists would announce, in public, that they didn’t vote because they didn’t want their work to be biased — or because they wanted to prevent anyone, ever, from accusing them of bias. And some of that thinking still, amazingly, exists. But it’s wildly out of step with the present moment, where debates about ideology and politics have been replaced with debates between facts and fiction.

Half of Republicans, for instance, believe that the Capitol Riot “was largely a non-violent protest or was the handiwork of left-wing activists ‘trying to make Trump look bad.’” And that’s a story that requires no work at all to understand — you have to work hard not to comprehend what happened on January 6.

But when it comes to Israel and Palestine, there’s nothing like that kind of clarity, even among people who generally see the world the same way you do: Declare your support for children killed by Israeli artillery in Gaza, and you may find your Slackmate or Instagram followers have a lot to say about Hamas rockets aimed at Israel, or about a spike in anti-Semitic attacks worldwide since the most recent conflict. Or, just as likely, you may hear an uncomfortable silence. And my hunch is that those responses may surprise a younger generation of journalists.

Israelis and Palestinians have been fighting for decades, but we haven’t seen much of the conflict unfold during the social media age that really started in the 2010s, years after the last full-scale intifada: People have certainly employed social media as a weapon in the conflict, but that was before social media was all-encompassing, and before algorithmic design brought stuff to you before you knew you wanted to see it. Which means there’s a generation of Twitterers, Instagrammers, and TikTokers fully accustomed to sharing their views and advocating for causes online, but who haven’t seen pushback from most of their peers or bosses before.

See, for example, a recent tweet from the New Yorker Union declaring support for Palestine by expressing “solidarity for Palestinians from the river to the sea.” After critics argued that the phrase was anti-Semitic — whether that’s true is also up for debate — the union deleted it.

Then again, things are changing. It used to be that mainstream American politics had room for just one response when it came to Israel and Palestine. Now some Democrats, at least, are willing to critique Israeli behavior instead of supporting the country’s actions without reservation.

So are some celebrities, though there are limits to how freely they can express that. Earlier this month, Mark Ruffalo, who has a starring role in Disney’s Marvel universe, compared Israel to South African apartheid. Now he seems to have either walked back that post or something else:

Which is a pretty good summary, maybe, of the mess we’re in right now: Americans have conflicting feelings about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but they aren’t quite sure about how to express that — and how publicly to do it. So of course journalists are in the same boat, but they’re also the ones who are often called on to pretend that they don’t have any opinion at all.

That might have worked in the past. But it certainly doesn’t now. Which is why Emily Wilder’s story may stick with us for a while longer.