If the right-wing sleuths now mining social media and other venues looking for dirt on journalists critical of President Donald Trump find regrettable, offensive or embarrassing statements in my past, allow me in advance to say this:
It was satire. … I was hacked. … You’re taking my words totally out of context. … I was young then and those sentiments do not reflect my current thinking. … Those are just notes for a novel. … (and for screengrabs or photos) You’re looking at digitally altered deepfakes!
Might it be necessary for me to pull out one or more of these excuses/explanations/misdirections?
I’m honestly not sure. I’ve been posting, without a filter and sometimes rashly, on Facebook, Twitter and blog platforms for more than 15 years, tangling with critics and floating notions too half-baked even for a column.
But I’m lucky enough to have come of age well before the era when it was possible to share every fleeting thought with the world. By the time these platforms opened up I was aware of their power and relative permanence. No digital record was ever made of the stupid stuff I might have said in high school and college.
Tom Wright-Piersanti wasn’t so lucky. Wright-Piersanti, a political editor for The New York Times, was demoted last week after Breitbart published a series of offensive, and in some cases anti-Semitic, tweets he’d posted when he was in his early 20s, long before he began working for the paper, and that he described in his apology as “lame attempts at edgy humor.”
The tweets had been unearthed by what a Times news story described as “a loose network of conservative operatives allied with the White House” that is busily compiling “dossiers of potentially embarrassing social media posts and other public statements by hundreds of people who work at some of the country’s most prominent news organizations” in order to “discredit news organizations deemed hostile to President Trump.”
This network has already targeted several other media members, and its goal is clear: “To silence critics and undermine the public’s faith in independent journalism,” as Times Publisher A.G. Sulzberger put it in a message to his staff.
But unfair? Media organizations will have a serious goose/gander problem if they complain about searches of the public record for “gotcha!” moments and evidence of hypocrisy. Reporters routinely rummage through the pasts of celebrities, star athletes, titans and political figures looking for information that ostensibly reflects on their present-day character.
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They have no persuasive claim to immunity, which is what former Mayor Richard M. Daley had in mind when he told reporters to go scrutinize themselves because he got “scrootened every day.”
With luck, this mean-spirited effort will hasten a conversion to a culture of perspective and forgiveness when it comes to certain errors of the past. That conversion is increasingly urgent as oversharing, impetuous children grow up and assume the roles of responsible adults -- and digital archives steal from us the memory-erasing mercies of the sands of time.
With luck, the effort also will help us remember our humanity.
Trump’s critics are themselves flawed people. So, I suspect, are those in the “loose network of conservative operatives” now sifting through online data streams for vintage nuggets of bigotry, inanity and indecency.
What they find shouldn’t and won’t diminish the impact of factual analysis of Trump’s contemporary bigotry, inanity and indecency.
Media organizations seeking to reassure their journalists should establish an informal statute of limitations on what constitutes punishable offenses on social media for all but the most noxious content. And everyone should use stories like this to remind themselves, their friends and their children that today’s “edgy” quip intended for a private audience can turn into tomorrow’s reputation-shattering scandal.
Meanwhile, our social media platforms should give users the option of automatically deleting or privately archiving posts after a certain length of time, since in most cases they are meant to be ephemeral — and the only people reading them after a certain point are snoops.
For the past year I’ve used a third-party app — TweetDelete.net — that gets rid of all my tweets and retweets after a month. To date, Dame Posterity has not called to complain.
Whatever mortifying material remains in any venue, just remember it doesn’t reflect the person who I am today and was merely intended to be funny if it is indeed genuine, which it probably isn’t.