Incoming Jerusalem NYT bureau chief learns dangers of Facebook, Twitter
Should journalists be tweeting at all, when micro-blogs can blur the line between reportage and opinion?
Ten years ago, I was taken on a tour of the New York Times newsroom, along with a group of Israeli and Palestinian colleagues. We were participating in a State Department-sponsored seminar for journalists from conflict areas and the tour was part of our education on how the news business works in the real world.
Wandering through the cavernous hall in the Times' old headquarters, stretching from 42nd to 43rd Street, I spied a table with a sign on it saying Education. Around the table were a dozen chairs. At the time I was this paper's education correspondent, covering all aspects of learning from kindergartens all the way up to universities, and policy from the local government education departments to the ministry in Jerusalem. The fact that the Times had a whole editorial team, with specific reporters for the city, state and national levels, for schools and colleges and editors dealing specifically with education-related issues, while I was handling all that on my own, brought home to me the sheer scale and power of what is arguably the most influential newspaper in the world.
So welcome to the Middle East: The Times is not Haaretz and 9,230 kilometers divide between New York and Jerusalem. I wonder if the Times' former education editor, and very soon to be Jerusalem bureau chief, fully appreciates that distance. After the deluge of ordure she ran into this week on the blogosphere and in twitterverse, I imagine she is at least beginning to.
Just to bring all readers up to speed, Jodi Rudoren, the NYT's education editor, is about to assume the coveted post of the paper's Jerusalem Bureau Chief and even before reaching these shores, she has managed to get herself into hot water with certain media circles over a few ill-advised tweets. Rudoren's main crime was what seemed to some as an over-friendly tweet to Ali Abunimah, the anti-Zionist founder of the website Electronic Intifada (if you are not a regular reader, you can probably get the gist just from the title ).
Jerusalem hot seat
Hot on the heels of that came her enthusiastic impression of Peter Beinart's soon to be published book, not expected to be very complimentary of Israel's current policies, which she tweeted as, "terrific: provocative, readable, full of reporting and reflection."
Rudoren, who - need we say it? - is Jewish, is about to enter the hot seat in Jerusalem with very little reporting experience on Israel and the Middle East. While no period over the last 64 years has been a calm and uncontroversial one to report on from this part of the world, the Times has in recent months been totally non-grata with the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem. The Netanyahu team is less incensed with the actual news coverage in the paper than with the censorious tone of its editorial pages, particularly that of veteran columnist Thomas Friedman, but the bureau chief will always be the one on the frontline, taking the fire.
Enter the fray Ms. Rudoren, and you wonder who has been briefing her in preparation for her new post. Of course Beinart is a fine and thought-provoking writer, while Abunimah's musings are representative of at least some of the circles in which a writer covering Israel and Palestine is expected to travel, but are those the first colors a new bureau chief wants to be nailing to her masthead?
Just over two years ago, I came to the defense in this column of Rudoren's predecessor in Jerusalem, Ethan Bronner (whom I hasten to add, I have never met ). At the time, Bronner was coming under fire from pro-Palestinian bloggers over his son's service in the IDF. His detractors were calling for Bronner's immediate recall and claiming that having a son in the Israeli army made him inherently unfit to act as a fair and impartial observer of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
I expressed the perhaps naive view that "anyone who believes that having a son in the IDF is proof of biased journalism doesn't understand what good journalism is," and that I was saddened by the fact that instead of Bronner saying in his own defense that having a son on the front lines of the conflict could actually improve his insight and understanding of the inherent issues, he made do with the paper's official response that "Mr. Bronner's son is a young adult who makes his own decisions."
Bronner, unlike his successor, chose to keep his thoughts to himself, leaving the newspaper to answer for him. In retrospect, I think he may have done the right thing.
At least two issues are being mixed up here. Should senior journalists, especially bureau chiefs in sensitive postings, be tweeting at all? Is apparent even-handedness the highest quality a journalist should aspire to? How important are the tweets of a journalist anyway, however senior? We seem to be spending too much time on the debate about the debate. A retweet or a hat-tip on a blog post does not equate to an endorsement, but it deflects attention from the real debates on hand every time a journalist has to explain that he or she is merely quoting an interesting viewpoint, and that this does not amount to an endorsement.
21st century boy
Next week, as part of an attempt to drag myself into the 21st century, I will finally give in to my editor's entreaties, go on Facebook and open a Twitter account. Since, like every journalist, I have had revisited with regret a fair amount of what I have written over the years, this prospect is daunting. But print journalism has no choice other than to adapt to the mediascape which is evolving at a time-warp pace from Internet to blogosphere to social networking to twitterfeed and whatever terrifying ultra-high-speed medium will evolve next.
While we adapt and evolve rather than die, we have to find ways of protecting our integrity and that of the newspapers we write for. It is a challenge facing all news organizations, and there will inevitably be mishaps. Last week, Sky News instructed its journalists to exercise caution while tweeting, and we will all be tripping into these pitfalls as we acclimatize to a new and daunting media landscape.
In an interview on Tuesday with Politico, apres la deluge, Rudoren, unrepentant, said that "maybe six months from now I'll decide that you can't tweet as the Jerusalem Bureau chief of the New York Times, but I think that would be really sad, because a lot of people get their news from Twitter."
She is right - a lot more people get their news from Twitter nowadays, but people also make snap judgments based on the 140 characters of a tweet. We have to evolve into the new mediascape while finding ways of adapting new media to our professional standards and the circumstances of our postings.
Perhaps she would have been doing herself and her readers a better service by going easy on Twitter for the next six months until she is acclimatized to her new posting and found her bearings in one of the most difficult and high-profile media jobs there are, far away from the friendly environment of the Time's newsroom.