What is wrong with Liz Spayd?
This morning, The New York Times’ public editor fell for an “alt-right” harassment campaign against a reporter of color for the paper, devoting her entire column to scolding the writer over a tweet.
On Wednesday, the rapper Bow Wow sent an ugly tweet warning President Donald Trump to stop criticizing the rapper Snoop Dogg “before we pimp your wife and make her work for us.” Times culture writer Sopan Deb responded on Twitter by first criticizing the rappers and then by joking that “The outrage from @BreitbarkNews” -- a satirical Twitter feed that uses dog puns -- “is going to be through the woof.”
Mike Cernovich -- a racist, misogynist writer who frequently directs his Twitter followers to launch harassment campaigns -- immediately set his sights on Deb. In a series of tweets, Cernovich declared that Deb thinks “rape threats against the President’s wife" are funny, repeatedly asked Spayd to comment, and urged his fans to email her to “ask about @SopanDeb’s view that human trafficking is funny.”
To be clear, this is what Cernovich does: unleash his followers on what he considers his enemies in order to make them miserable. He was one of the leading proponents of “pizzagate,” a conspiracy theory that baselessly alleged Hillary Clinton’s inner circle was orchestrating a child sex-trafficking ring out of a Washington, D.C., pizzeria. After Cernovich and and others in the “alt-right” pushed the story on social media, the pizzeria’s staff received a host of “abusive social media comments” and phone calls. Eventually a man who was trying to “self-investigate” the claims entered the business and fired a gunshot.
Cernovich’s campaign against Deb worked. Times public editor Liz Spayd devoted today’s column to scolding Deb over his tweet; she explicitly links her decision to receiving numerous emails yesterday from critics. As Spayd relates in excruciating detail, she interviewed Deb, the paper’s culture editor, and the paper’s associate managing editor for standards, and consulted the Times guidelines on social media for the piece.
Spayd concludes that Deb’s “intentions were innocent,” and even acknowledges that the emails she received may have been the result of a campaign by what Deb told her were “far-right conservative groups [that] have latched onto his tweet for their own purposes.”
But having learned that the dogs were rabid, she nonetheless decided to throw them a bone, validating a fringe campaign against her paper’s own writer. According to Spayd, “The problem is, not everyone is ‘in’ on the joke. Conservatives may use such tweets -- or retweets -- to further their case that the ‘liberal media’ will do and say anything.”
This is nonsense. Deb isn’t being criticized by earnest people who really think that he was joking about violence against women. He’s the target of a campaign by professional trolls who want to hurt Deb and have seized on the tweet as an opportunity. As Commentary associate editor Noah Rothman noted, “It's not about conservatism but a willful effort to find offense in humor” by people who are “trying to be offended.”
And Spayd played right into their hands by treating them as if they have a legitimate grievance. Now Cernovich has the opportunity to demonstrate to his fans that they can have an impact by marching to his tune, and he’s taking a curtain call, while continuing to push the envelope
It’s not the first time Spayd has bowed to pressure from conservatives whose only interest is hurting the paper. In December, Spayd denounced tweets from three Times reporters during an interview with Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who read the tweets on-air. She drew opprobrium from the rest of the press for saying the tweets in questions were “over the line” and should have been met with “some kind of consequence.” Carlson, of course, isn’t interested in journalistic standards -- he founded the Daily Caller and has a show on Fox -- but he is very interested in trying to delegitimize the Times.
Spayd is an obvious, easy target for these campaigns. A central throughline of her columns as public editor has been that conservative complaints that the Times is too liberal need to be treated with respect and responded to promptly. The decades-long effort by Republican activists, politicians, and conservative media outlets to convince conservatives that only avowed right-wing sources can be trusted seems to have escaped her.
That’s frankly par for the course, and at this point I can’t imagine Spayd’s work improving. But perhaps this horrendous failure will at least convince her to pause and reflect before doing the “alt-right”’s dirty work.