New York Times Bureau Chief Isn't Chief of Her Own Tweets

Jodi Rudoren, the weirdly named Jerusalem bureau chief of the New York Times, likes to keep in touch with friends and readers via the social networking web sites Twitter.com and Facebook.com, as literate human beings in the developed world are often wont to do these days. But she is a Timeswoman! And since someone, somewhere, might object to Rudoren's musings if they are reproduced without the intercession of a bureaucrat tasked with draining them of all immediacy and character, she is now being assigned a Twitter Editor.

According to Times public editor Margaret Sullivan—who has devoted much of her tenure thus far to Twitter infractions—the paper has elected to assign "an editor on the foreign desk in New York to work closely with Ms. Rudoren on her social media posts." The reason? Rudoren thoughtlessly wrote on Facebook last week that Palestinians in Gaza seemed "ho-hum" about the widespread death and destruction around them during Israel's air assault, a characterization that many rightly objected to. She also engaged in a dialogue on Twitter with a Palestinian activist, which some Israel partisans crudely and reductively perceived as evidence that she "favors one narrative of the conflict over the others." (And so what if she does?)

Such loose behavior demanded correction, in the view of the Times, because—and I am quoting Sullivan here—the paper didn't want to be "exposed to a reporter's unfiltered and unedited thoughts." Mercy me! What newspaper would ever want to be exposed to the unfiltered and unedited thoughts of the people that it pays to think and write? The very notion of an unfiltered and unedited thought is anathema to the conception of reporting and writing that the New York Times currently suffers from, one that places power in multiple layers of editors whose jobs consist primarily of hammering life, point of view, serendipity, and wit out of the stories their reporters write. One that filters and edits.

Unfortunately for the Times, readers these days tend to show an affinity for unfiltered and unedited thoughts. For immediacy, honesty, even occasional recklessness. That's one of the reasons that social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook have attracted audiences that exceed the Times' by orders of magnitude. And it's one of the reasons that the Times has faced increasing competition from online sources of news that don't regard imparting "unfiltered" information to their readers as an error.

Rudoren's "ho-hum" comment struck me as dumb (and she has expressed regret for using the term). But since she was the one actually talking to people in Gaza whose family members had just been killed, and "ho-hum" was her off-the-cuff description of their reactions, I'll give her the benefit of the doubt. People say dumb things sometimes. They say them to their colleagues, they say them to their family members, they say them to people they just met on the street. And they say them on Facebook. The utterance of a dumb thing now and again doesn't disqualify anybody from being a good reporter, or a fair broker. And—though I'm not one of those evangelists who think reporters have some sort of moral obligation write things on Twitter—to the extent that their presence on Facebook or Twitter is a useful avenue for imparting information and context about the events they cover, the risk of damage done by the occasional dumb utterance is far less than the damage done by submitting every Tweet to a politburo.

The Times has been doing a fairly good job of late, in my view, of re-orienting itself toward the news values that the internet favors—its Lede blog, for instance, is fast and pointed, and categorically different from the paper's news pages. But the fact that it can't tolerate the woman that it pays to cover perhaps the most contentious beat imaginable speaking directly without an official minder suggests that it is still missing the point by a wide margin.

[Image by Jim Cooke]