The suspension of New York Times columnist Andrew Goldman after posting offensive comments on Twitter has once again focused debate on the practicality or otherwise of social media ‘codes of conduct’ for journalists. Goldman, a freelance writer who regularly contributes the ‘Talk’ feature of the NYT magazine, found himself in hot water after he responded intemperately to criticism of his line of questioning to the Hollywood actress Tippi Hedren in a previous article. The subsequent altercation on the micro-blogging site with novelist Jennifer Weiner and others did not, to echo the Emperor of Japan in 1945, necessarily develop to his advantage.
Ironically, the initial question posed to Hedren – whether she had ever considered sleeping with a director in order to advance her career – might be reasonably defended as cheeky yet not entirely inappropriate, particularly since she was famed for having rebuffed the lecherous advances of Alfred Hitchcock, to the considerable detriment of her career. His tweeted response, however, proved to be what some are already calling the ‘Tippi point’ vis a vis giving him the benefit of the doubt:
@jenniferweiner: Saturday am. Iced coffee. NYT mag. See which actress Andrew Goldman has accused of sleeping her way to the top. #traditionsicoulddowithout
Goldman responded (his account has since been deactivated): @jenniferweiner sensing pattern. Little Freud in me thinks you would have liked at least to have had opportunity to sleep way to top.
It is not for this post to discuss the distinctions and nuances of sexism, still less to pronounce judgments regarding misogyny: the resulting Twitter exchange predictably provided more heat than light. What is interesting, however, is that after Goldman apologized and the matter might have been said to be closed, the new Public Editor of the Times, Margaret Sullivan, intervened with a furious attack on the writers ‘obscene and hideous misjudgment’, a blogpost which in turn prompted a codification of the guidelines governing the relationship between professional Times journalists and their manifestations as individuals in social media.
This took the form of a memo, where the associate managing editor for standards, Philip B. Corbett, reminded both staff and freelancers of the Times’s policy. ‘First’, he wrote, ‘we should always treat Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms as public activities. Regardless of your privacy controls or the size of your follower list, anything you post online can easily be shared with a wider audience. And second, you are a Times journalist, and your online behavior should be appropriate for a Times journalist. Readers will inevitably associate anything you post on social media with the Times.’
Notably, Corbett’s instructions emphatically go beyond asking his staff to mind their p’s and q’s. Rather, he explicitly deconstructs the boundary between what is professional and what is theoretically personal; as he makes clear, ‘privacy’ doesn’t come into it. Such, perhaps, is obvious: but in setting down concretely for the first time the rules of engagement, such a memo illustrates the importance of new codes of conduct that must constantly be negotiated by all journalists, the laws of which are somewhat more complex and flexible than that of basic courtesy. Of course, simple politeness would have saved Goldman’s bacon in this case; but the resulting memo, and the principles it identifies, has a more lasting significance than the tawdry exchange of tweets which prompted it.