Newsrooms Need To Treat Coordinated Online Attacks On Reporters Like Propaganda - And Act Like They're At War

Ed Zitron 11 min read

The latest in the near-endless flow of bad faith attacks on the media erupted last week in a coordinated attack on New York Times reporter Mara Gay. Gay made comments on MSNBC around the growth of white nationalism, specifically mentioning the American flag:

“I was on Long Island this weekend visiting a really dear friend, and I was really disturbed. I saw, you know, dozens and dozens of pickup trucks with explicatives [sic] against Joe Biden on the back of them, Trump flags, and in some cases just dozens of American flags, which is also just disturbing … Essentially the message was clear: This is my country. This is not your country. I own this,” Gay said.

As usual, the right wing media (Fox, New York Post, et. al) turned this into a miniature crisis around Mara Gay “being disturbed by the American flag,” after which they decided to ignore every word she said, and also forget every word before them, and basically operate in the shittiest, worst bad faith way possible. As expected, the Times stood up and referred to the comments as “out of context”:

The problem here is that, as usual with these comments, they are defensive and passive, and fail to address the core problems of what happened. Mara Gay’s full comments were very clear - that we as a country must wake up to white supremacy, but also the vast amount of white voters that believe that we are not in a functioning democracy, and that this problem is not simply going away. To say that things were “taken out of context” is still humoring the bad faith actors by acting as if they regularly take context into account, rather than simply choosing one statement and hammering on that, with the full intention of organizing a targeted harassment campaign against people in the free press.

By treating these outlets as if they are operating to journalistic standards, as full participants in the free press, the Times is simply continuing to give them power. And it’s time to take these attacks far more seriously than they are. Reporters are continually being attacked in an organized, structured manner, with massive media outlets and influencers leading the charge, coordinating them several steps above what should be considered “online harassment.” This is not a case of people being mean to other people, it’s coordinated, anti-democratic, anti-free press propaganda, ironically weaponizing the language and methods of the free press. It is a form of warfare, except it’s not engineered by countries to attack other countries - it’s private enterprises and individuals bringing war to the doorsteps of reporters.

It is a form of war in which reporters are treated as if the problem is being attacked online. Something is said - usually cherry-picked to be particularly upsetting to right wing types - and then a large outlet, be it the Glenn Greenwalds of the world or Fox News, picks it up and has a vacuous discussion about how either the reporter is being racist against white people or is “too soft.” This becomes a shitstorm for the reporter, who now basically can’t read their mentions (if I were a right wing guy I’d choose this part and say “liberals are soft, who cares if you can’t read your mentions?” but also I’d get really mad if I got banned on Twitter or couldn’t read my mentions), who receives death threats, who fears for their safety - and then they are told perhaps to take a few days off, they are offered counseling (this is good, they should get this), and basically other measures that oftentimes are treating symptoms rather than problems.

And yes, this is a war, and it is a war being fought by the New York Post, by Fox News, and by many solo writers that have found a successful career in joining these campaigns, because outrage breeds clicks. When I say “coordinated” I do not believe that everybody is getting together in an email thread and saying “let’s all get mad at this,” but there seems to be a unity around the things that they get outraged at - coordinated interests, executed asynchronously but efficiently. There is a unity around those that are attacked within their sect, with swarms of angry online people who are ready to argue that “their freedoms are under attack” because of the suggestion that, say, white people have it easier than other races, and a united ideology around reading things in whatever way is most convenient to your argument.

Center and left-adjacent publications rarely have the same ideological unity, constantly dancing back to the line for fear that they will not be considered “impartial.” The problem is that no reporter is impartial, and nobody is totally objective, and this also isn’t something the right really gives a shit about. They continually dance around half-truths and bad faith readings, and nobody on their side gives a shit about objectivity or balance - they care about winning their culture and ideological war, which involves but is not limited to the diminishment and eventual destruction of outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post, and anyone else who disagrees with them - which is coincidentally exactly what they claim is happening to them.

T.C. Sottek at The Verge wrote a great piece in February 2020 around how these campaigns operate, and how news organizations continually fail to support and understand these problems. And I quote:

These bad faith attacks target what many newsrooms value: fairness and impartiality. But all reporters have opinions and feelings; becoming a journalist does not mean giving up being human. By pretending to speak the language of editorial values, trolls and organized adversaries have baited newsroom leaders into failing to protect their reporters. The objective of online trolls and harassers is to have editorial organizations waste their time by trying to create wedges in their ranks, whether that’s by digging up old tweets or trying to rules-lawyer an organization’s social media policy. They want to intimidate us and have us disavow our colleagues. And they are using “fairness” and “impartiality” to do it.

Sottek accurately describes the problem - outlets on the center and left are continually pearl-clutching around a non-existent "fairness and impartiality,” while the right uses that language to dog them on air, sending thousands of people yelling the same shit at the reporters in question. The ability to reach anybody online also means that these campaigns have direct mechanisms through which to wage this war - they see it on TV, they know what to say, so they go to the reporter and “just ask the questions,” which they frame as not, in fact, harassing, but just asking questions about something.

To discuss these attacks as “online harassment campaigns” diminishes the mechanisms that empower them, and the effects that they have. This is propaganda for a war against free speech, to directly (and effectively!) disempower reporters at publications that are considered threats to their ideal democracy (what they consider a democracy but is actually a plutocracy, or an autocracy). They are deliberate, they are organized, they are regimented, they have the same talking points and roughly the same thoughts. These are not “discussions” on the right - they are drumbeats of a campaign to make people who don’t fall into a neat white box feel alienated and scared, and to intimidate reporters actually asking questions and interrogating the issues that underly American society, or question those in power.

It’s also the weaponizing of how social media allows us to take the quickest, worst researched opinions and take them as our own without consideration. Like it or not, many of us rely on sources of information that we find online to verify the things that we share and take our information from, and when those sources of information are taking it from sources with an active agenda (or have themselves), many millions of people are happy to follow along. It is the nature of influence and social media - we follow those we trust and appreciate, and thus choose to believe that the sources of information they draw upon are valid and interrogated. Or, well, we don’t, and we just post based on the fact that we like them and are happy to share what they have to say.

Take the Taylor Lorenz Clubhouse situation. What started with Taylor misattributing a vile word said by Horowitz to Andreessen (both co-partners of a multi-billion dollar VC) in a single tweet which she immediately deleted and corrected within minutes, became national news as it traveled from Twitter to Glenn Greenwald to Tucker Carlson. This was quite literally speaking power to truth - ultra-rich VCs and national news broadcasters engineered and invigorated an organized, brutal propaganda campaign to delegitimize Taylor Lorenz’s reporting and ability to live her life. They continued to pile on to send a message - don’t fuck with the rich, we’re here to stay - by coopting the means and methods of the free press, never once addressing the fact that one of the white billionaire guys did in fact say the slur that was so offensive and reputationally destructive that even the *suggestion* that they said it summoned a national news broadcaster to defend them.

All of this was legitimized by the Times not really…doing anything. Their statement:

“Taylor Lorenz is a talented New York Times journalist doing timely and essential reporting. Journalists should be able to do their jobs without facing harassment.”

Who gives a single fuck (no offense Taylor) about her talent. This isn’t about “talent.” Nothing about this statement helps - it is from a position of weakness. Why didn’t Dean Baquet get on Carlson’s show and lay into him? Why are there no letters from the editor? Why is the weight of this masthead not used to fight what is, at its core, an attack on free press?

No, no, we can’t do that, that’d be considered partisan.

The important part of their weaponization that they rely on is their legitimacy. Outlets that seek to be “fair and impartial” are terrified of upsetting the theoretical right-wing audience that they want, and thus they must “hear both sides,” which legitimizes their message and accepts their terms of engagement. As a result, the center and left publications are regularly on the defensive, trying to find ways to provide a college essay-style retort to someone who has no interest in an actual debate, and no real way to be proved wrong. Let’s be clear: they are not reporting. This is propaganda. Treating it as such is the first step to making things better.

What Newsrooms Need To Do

Despite being titanic news organizations with global power and resources, many outlets who have staff harassed act as if the staffers are at fault, somehow. While the Times backed Mara Gay’s reporting, they did so using the language that the attacker wanted - defensively explaining Mara’s argument as if the conservative media would’ve said “ohhh, our bad.” No! That is not what they were doing! That is not the point of the segment! The point of the segment was to scare and upset Mara because she suggested that there is a white supremacy problem in America, and that the flag was used as a symbol!

The problem is that the Times, even when decrying these bad faith attacks, fails to truly address them. The appropriate response would be to simply say that “these bad faith readings only seek to intimidate our reporters, and we will not dignify them with an explanation beyond the facts that we support our reporters, our reporting, and the freedom of the press.”

I understand the conundrum - you’re writing a newspaper, you want to have fair and balanced coverage, but ultimately you as the outlet are the arbiter of that coverage. If you truly have faith in your reporters and your reporting, you should not be updating or explaining their actions based on people being upset with them, unless there are clear facts that challenge the reporting (as opposed to rhetoric and opinions). Including or kowtowing to the “other side” does not actually produce balanced reporting - when one side is responding in bad faith, and regularly does so, and regularly attacks your reporters, there should be no interest in allowing them to have a platform.

These large organizations need to invest significantly in exhaustive, organization-wide education about how these online culture war campaigns start, what they do, what their goals are (intimidating critics and would-be critics) and are not (their goals are not reporting, or correcting facts, for example), the language and means they use to execute, and how they use the newsroom against itself. From the top of the organization there needs to be an appreciation and education of how these campaigns form and what they do, and the responses need to be from a position of power.

These outlets that deliberately, directly and maliciously attack reporters, need to be addressed with a response that directly attacks the root of the problem and acknowledges the forces that push the narrative. It shouldn’t be vaguely saying some people are irresponsible - it needs to say that these methods are anti-democratic and anti-fact, and exist to enrich and empower people at the cost of human lives. When a right wing outlet or influencer decides to spend time attacking a specific reporter, an outlet should respond with force,  calling the outlet and anyone involved what they are - charlatans seeking to profit off of misery and fear, peddling propaganda to keep those in power powerful and suppress equality.

It’s an easy out to say that this is just cyber-bullying or harassment and that the solution is to block people and use block lists (which are useful!), but newsrooms need to deal with the causes of these situations. I refuse to believe that the New York Times, Washington Post and other major outlets have no ability to meet with Twitter and Facebook directly about how their platforms are used to distribute this propaganda. Sure, they have had ho-hum discussions around “disinformation,” but this is a step beyond because it is, by design, not lying. It is misinformation, and yet still propaganda - it is very specific reads of very specific subjects, with a thought process that focuses on engagement using the continual fuel of human suffering.

Twitter and others must be pressured to limit its spread, and actively punish those who engage in it. This means that these social networks actually need the same education about who these bad actors are and what they do, and actually watch and read the stuff they’re housing, and take action as necessary. Here’s an idea - if many, many people are tweeting at one person, maybe look at what they’re doing and suppress those messages if it’s clear they’re being driven by a demagogue on TV. Similarly, if outlets are continually running links about how bad one specific person is, and yes, you will have to read more deeply than just the headline, suppress the spread too. They need to commit advertising dollars to explaining how these campaigns form and are executed, and they need to put the force of the Editorial Board behind explaining and calling out these actors.

Social networks need to actively punish and deverify those who continually engage in these targeted propaganda campaigns, and accept them for what they are - a manipulation of free speech. They are defended as if they are free speech, but they seek to condense and eradicate the speech of others. Outlets that fuel this fire must no longer be considered respected peers, but agitators that operate using the same mechanisms as a free press. Their agendas must be interrogated along with their participants, and when reporters are targeted, newsrooms must be on the offensive - instead of defending the reporter, they should directly attack the way in which the reporter was attacked, and interrogate what the aggressor has to gain from doing so.

These propaganda peddlers will argue that this is an attack on the free press, and the response should be that they are engaging in targeted misinformation campaigns, and they are being dealt with as such. The issue that these platforms have is that they “don’t want to take sides,” but by their inaction they are taking sides - they are siding with those that would use their platforms to intimidate and harm others.

The big mistake is framing these responses to people like Mara Gay as a discussion or as an act of journalism. They are, at their core, an attempt to spread statements about reporters being weak, or biased, or not objective, so that the greater institution of the New York Times as well as other women or people of color in journalism looks bad. It’s fueled by the growth of parasocial relationships with the Carlsons of the world, that build their own little armies that naturally jump online to attack any aggressor against their comfortability in the world, and they are happy to be told what or whom to be mad at.

This is a war, a war fought by people that seek only to protect their own selfish interests in the most cruel, manipulative way possible. They have no interest in balance, or fairness, or democracy, or free speech, or anything other than protecting the agendas of those that they have projected themselves onto. Millions of people are conscious or unconscious participants in this war, fighting these miniature battles as “free thinkers” at the behest of and using the talking points of millionaires and billionaires.

This discord, this direct assault on people and newsrooms, only exists to enrich and reinforce the power structures that are used to suppress free thought, ironically using the terminology and linguistics that have been used to defend free speech for centuries.

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