Target: journalists. Will personal probes undermine media?

Why We Wrote This

A new conservative group is investigating the social media backgrounds of mainstream media journalists. Is turnabout fair play – or an attempt at intimidation?

Susan Walsh/AP
President Donald Trump talks to the media before boarding Air Force One at Morristown Municipal Airport in Morristown, New Jersey, Aug. 13, 2019.

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Mohammed Elshamy posted anti-Semitic remarks on Twitter in 2011, when he was 16. A conservative group looking for negative information about journalists found and published them this August – and Mr. Elshamy, a CNN photo editor, lost his job.

“I think that it was very unfair, because I should not be punished as an adult for things that I said as a child,” he says.

Turnabout is fair play, says the pro-Trump group that uncovered the messages. It promises there’s more dirt on mainstream journalists to come.

News reports and the group’s social media messages describe GOP consultant Arthur Schwartz, a friend of Donald Trump Jr., as a central player in the organization. Its goal: undermine the mainstream media that President Donald Trump often decries.

Will that work? So far they’ve exposed youthful internet misbehavior by Mr. Elshamy and a New York Times editor. Their promised flood of damning information has yet to surface.

Journalists shouldn’t get a pass on bigoted behavior, say press critics. But they shouldn’t get dragged down and examined as if they are part of political warfare, either.

“If we lose the power of the press, we’re going to lose it all,” says veteran newsman Marvin Kalb.

Hit with tear gas and rubber bullets, the CNN photo editor was already having a rough week. In late July, Mohammed Elshamy was covering protests against the Puerto Rican governor on San Juan’s streets. Then his phone erupted with alerts.

Anti-Semitic tweets Mr. Elshamy had posted in 2011 as a 16-year-old in revolution-rapt Egypt were resurfacing on right-wing accounts. Reactions poured in. 

The next day, he apologized to the Jewish community and beyond on Twitter. “I will continue to hold myself accountable for my actions, and work to correct any harm I have caused,” he wrote, noting he no longer relates to the hateful comments made as an uninformed minor. The death threats kept coming. Some reached him by phone. Anti-Muslim slurs mounted against him as the online shaming spread.

“I think that it was very unfair, because I should not be punished as an adult for things that I said as a child,” he says. “I just think it was very easy for those who were attacking me to target someone called Mohammed.”

Mr. Elshamy’s youthful anti-Semitic comments didn’t just reappear by happenstance. A pro-Trump network of conservatives – loosely organized, its funding sources unknown – appears to have found and posted them as part of an effort to undermine individual journalists at mainstream media organizations deemed antagonistic to the president, according to The New York Times, Axios, and tweets from some involved in the effort.

Such public airing of past off-color statements points to a new reality that has already felled politicians and kicked students out of university. Now journalists increasingly find their pasts politicized under similar scrutiny, at a time when the media faces rampant distrust.

For some media watchers, this is fair turnabout for an industry that runs on scrutinizing the moves of others. The question remains how newsrooms will deal with reporters whose muddy digital footprints track in potential liabilities. For Mr. Elshamy, the Twitter blowup cost him a job. 

“As a free speech advocate ... I agree with the people who say that journalists shouldn’t be thin-skinned,” says J. Alex Tarquinio, president of the Society of Professional Journalists. 

“On the other hand, it’s equally absurd to chastise them for remarks they may have made on social media years ago, possibly before they were professional journalists.”

A politicized press 

Marvin Kalb knows press intimidation well. As a CBS correspondent, the veteran journalist earned a spot on Richard Nixon’s “enemies list.” Later the founding director of Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, Dr. Kalb says the conservative discrediting campaign speaks to a larger concern: Journalists “have become part of the political warfare of this country.” 

Along with the Times, CNN and The Washington Post are reportedly the main targets; Mr. Trump has called them out for liberal bias. Besides Mr. Elshamy, another casualty of the campaign so far is Tom Wright-Piersanti, a Times editor who was slammed following the discovery of old posts disparaging Jews and Native Americans, for which he has apologized.

Ms. Tarquinio says politics has always been full of partisans digging up negative information about opponents. It’s turning those same tricks against journalists that’s new.

“It’s difficult to say how much of that is the political moment since the last election, and the hyperpolarization” versus “how much is simply the culture growing up on social media, which is this desperate competition for attention,” she says.

Axios reported Tuesday that a “loose network” involving GOP consultant Arthur Schwartz, a self-described internet “troll,” hopes to raise $2 million to investigate employees at outlets they accuse of “bias and misinformation,” according to a fundraising pitch.

The project will track reporters and editors at not just CNN, the Times, and the Post; it will also pull MSNBC, BuzzFeed, HuffPost, and broadcast networks into the crosshairs. Discovered dirt will get passed to “friendly media outlets” like Breitbart for airing. Ironically, the group is capitalizing on exposure from the Times story to get information, Axios reports.

The White House has reportedly denied involvement or awareness of the campaign. But PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel and other media advocates charge Mr. Trump with setting a tone that implicitly encourages such an effort.

“The president should call for an immediate end to all such schemes, and insist that his supporters and all associated with his administration and campaign refrain from any interference whatsoever with the role of the press,” she said in a statement. 

Mr. Trump’s labeling the press “the enemy of the people” has become a hallmark of his presidency. His loyalists’ latest operation signals that even lesser-known newsmakers are easy prey. Allies like Mr. Schwartz echo Mr. Trump’s attitude toward what he calls “mainstream media.”

A conservative consultant and friend of Donald Trump Jr., Mr. Schwartz has a history of online hate-baiting. Besides shaming some of the journalists targeted by the conservative campaign, Mr. Schwartz spread a false personal rumor about former White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, for which Mr. Schwartz later apologized. He’s also close to Steve Bannon, Mr. Trump’s ex-chief strategist, and Breitbart, the online “alt-right” platform that has published takedowns of journalists like Mr. Wright-Piersanti.

“If the @nytimes thinks this settles the matter we can expose a few of their other bigots. Lots more where this came from,” tweeted Mr. Schwartz, who also resurfaced Mr. Elshamy’s tweets.

The takedowns appear aimed at those who produce critical coverage of the White House. This week Mr. Schwartz attempted to crowdsource dirt on Phillip Rucker and Josh Dawsey, two Washington Post journalists who he claims have behaved unethically on the job. On Twitter Mr. Schwartz called for screenshots of texts and photos of the reporters “that will embarrass them.” He promised senders, “Your identity will be protected.”

“Shocked and floored”

In July Mr. Schwartz resurfaced Mr. Elshamy’s old tweets that referenced victims of a 2011 Jerusalem bombing as Jewish “pigs.”

“I was shocked and floored at the decision by CNN to force a resignation onto me at this point in my life,” says Mr. Elshamy, who believes his minority status as an Arab and Muslim held him to a higher standard on the job and played a role in his exit. He says the success of the Trump allies’ campaign “depends on how the [media] outlets react.”

Asked about Mr. Elshamy’s departure, Matt Dornic, CNN World’s vice president of communication, told the Monitor the company doesn’t publicly discuss individuals’ employment details.

“It’s quite possible to oppose the retaliatory tactics being employed by this administration and its allies while maintaining an expectation of accountability among your staff,” Mr. Dornic said in an email.

Michelle Ferrier, dean of Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University’s journalism school, has seen a sharp rise in right-wing and white supremacist online networks over the past two years that attempt to derail stories by contradicting facts and attacking individual journalists. Their ultimate goal is eroding public trust in the media, she says.

“Unfortunately we also see some significant retaliation by media organizations [against] people who are experiencing this kind of harm online,” says Dr. Ferrier, who founded TrollBusters, a website offering support for targets of online abuse. 

Dr. Ferrier argues that using journalists as the face of media organizations for brand development and visibility puts them at significant risk of harassment. Dealing with trolling diverts their attention from their actual reporting. 

Dr. Ferrier says women and people of color take considerable heat based on their identities. As an African American, she received racist hate mail as a columnist for the Daytona Beach News-Journal in the 2000s. A decade later as dean of FAMU’s School of Journalism and Graphic Communication, she encourages young journalists to consider using a pen name in order to separate their online clips from their private life. 

Echoing other media advocates, Dr. Ferrier highlights the need for news organizations to take social media policies seriously and “really monitor their own talent.” It’s all about preempting the next digital storm.

“It’s not a matter of if it happens, but when it happens,” she says.

Fair scrutiny?

In a public memo to staff, Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger thanked “the journalists at The Times and elsewhere who brave this type of pressure daily to bring essential information to the public.” He also underscored that the Times isn’t above scrutiny.

“If anyone – even those acting in bad faith – brings legitimate problems to our attention, we’ll look into them and respond appropriately,” Mr. Sulzberger wrote.

Conservative media have called out the Times and other mainstream news organizations for hypocrisy on this issue.

Old social media posts have “been an invaluable resource for showing how histrionic, partisan, arrogant, uneducated, and ignorant far too many in our political media are. Their work product shows the results of these traits. And as we all can see, it’s not pretty,” tweeted Federalist senior editor Mollie Hemingway on Aug. 25.

Media writer Jack Shafer also tells the Times and its fellows to toughen up.

“Journalists don’t deserve a get-out-of-bigotry-jail free card just because they’re journalists,” Mr. Shafer writes in Politico Magazine. “If their past tweets, however ancient, undercut their current journalistic work or make them sound hypocritical, they can’t blame their diminished prestige on Trump’s allies.”

Mr. Shafer argues that deep scrutiny of the media – and embarrassing discoveries that ensue – help uphold professional standards that newsrooms say they esteem.

“Instead of damning its critics for going through its staffs’ social media history with tweezers, the Times and A.G. Sulzberger should send them a thank you card.”

Dr. Kalb has heard this argument countless times over his 60-year career.

“I totally agree – go ahead and examine us. But don’t examine the reporter as if the reporter is part of political warfare,” he says. “If we lose the power of the press, we’re going to lose it all.”

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