As some observers (including Charlie Warzel of the New York Times) noted, the Sonmez fiasco is a fresh reminder that newsrooms still struggle when coordinated mobs of online culture warriors target their staff.
Yes, as Sonmez found out, whipping up a mob of the righteous is dangerous. It can be used by others too.
And then it’s not so much fun, is it?
Last year, the Times caused a mini media panic when it reported that “a loose network of conservative operatives” had compiled dossiers incriminating “hundreds” of reporters at leading outlets. (The “loose network” has since been mysteriously quiet.) For some reason, AG Sulzberger, the Times’s publisher, deemed this development worthy of public comment; he called it a clear attempt to harass his reporters (which was correct), but added that the paper would nonetheless be diligent in responding to “legitimate problems” raised by “anyone – even those acting in bad faith”. This handed the harassers a victory, at least to some small extent.
This gives a glimpse into the mentality of these people – legitimate problems should presumably be ignored, in case the wrong people ‘win’…
Sonmezgate also exposes a more routine problem: the tyranny of the newsroom social media policy. Ostensibly, such policies are meant to safeguard journalists and their bosses against the pitfalls of the internet; in practice, they often read like ham-fisted attempts to reconcile competing impulses.
Most thought control does, doesn’t it?
Yes, there are things reporters shouldn’t do: campaign for candidates, lie, display prejudice, etc. But these are so obvious – and so intrinsic to what it means to be a journalist – that they hardly need to be codified in an inflexible policy. Which raises the question: what are such policies for, really? It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that they’re a tool of management control.
Of course they are. And if you champion their use against others, expect them to be used against you too…