Forward Thinking

Muzzled by the Gray Lady?

By Renee Ghert-Zand

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Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
Jodi Rudoren

Has Jodi Rudoren allowed the Gray Lady to muzzle her?

The New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief has steered clear of controversial topics since the paper’s brass ordered her to submit all social media posts to a special editor on the foreign desk last month.

A Forward review of her Twitter and facebook posts reveals that hard-edged comments about the Mideast conflict have been replaced by links to articles in the Times, and to personal news like Rudoren’s wedding anniversary and her parents’ visit to Israel.

Rudoren insists she is just taking a breather from making news on social media, and is not sulking after being put on so-called Tweet-watch.

“Don’t read too much into it. I’ve taken a few days off…I’m definitely planning on continuing to post substantive things related to Jerusalem/Israel/Palestinians,” Rudoren wrote to The Forward via Facebook.

Rudoren says she has no complaints about the arrangement imposed by the Times.

“It’s a temporary step in which an editor is reviewing drafts of posts and making suggestions before I post,” she explained. “Eventually, after some bigger picture discussions about what we want the feeds to be like, we’ll likely evolve to another arrangement, since the time difference makes this one a bit awkward.”

Rudoren’s use of social media has been under intense scrutiny from even before she officially assumed her post last May.

In February, people were already accusing Rudoren of showing political bias in her tweets. Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic criticized her for “schmoozing up” to Palestinian-American activist Ali Abunimah and praising Peter Beinart’s controversial “The Crisis of Zionism.” Writing in Tablet, Marc Tracy wrote, “the most charitable reading [of her tweets] says Rudoren possesses an astounding lack of sense of the profile of the post to which she has been appointed.”

Then, in an unprecedented move, the Times’ public editor Margaret Sullivan announced last month that, following Rudoren’s use of insensitive—if not biased—language in social media posts about how Gazans were dealing with death and loss during Operation Pillar of Defense (for which she has since apologized), the paper was assigning an editor to review what she puts out on Facebook and Twitter.

It will be interesting to see how things actually play out, but in the meantime some veteran journalists offered Rudoren some advice.

David K. Shipler was the New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief from 1979 to 1984, in the pre-social media era, when his only interaction with readers was by letter. “I don’t think I would have ever been able to make an observation or analysis in 140 characters or less,” he reflected in a phone conversation with The Forward.

“I wouldn’t criticize Jodi. She has to find her own way to interact with readers if she finds the exchanges worthwhile,” Shipler said. “It is not off the mark for a reporter to watch behavior and characterize it,” he added, “but it you need to do it in a context where you can include all ambiguities and nuances.”

Shipler was quick to compliment Rudoren’s reporting for the Times so far, sharing that he had emailed her to praise her recent work in Gaza. He thinks she should continue using social media as she sees fit, but warns that she should be careful to maintain a reporting and analysis posture (as opposed to opining or editorializing) while doing so.

On the other hand, Jeffrey Dvorkin, director of the University of Toronto’s journalism program and former Vice President for News and Information at NPR, recommends that Rudoren lay off the social media completely. “Covering the Middle East is the third rail of American journalism,” he told The Forward by phone. “People are anxious about the coverage and are eager to find signs of bias.”

In a time when there is increasing confusion between fact-based and opinion journalism, Dvorkin doesn’t think Rudoren or any other Middle East reporter has anything to gain from using social media. “The passions are so strong around the story that you run the risk of either being accused of bias, or of ending up self-censoring.”

“A reporter should be judged on their published work,” Shipler said in regards to what he thought was Rudoren’s excellent reporting from Gaza. “That’s the lasting record.”

Dvorkin worries that in the current world of journalism, one’s social media posts also become part of the lasting record. That’s why he strongly recommends that Rudoren refrain from sharing her commentary on the Middle East on Facebook and Twitter. “If I were her, I’d save it for my memoirs,” he said.

The Times’ Sullivan was contact for this piece. She declined to respond to any questions about the matter.

“It’s my general policy not to comment on what I’ve written and to let my posts and columns speak for themselves,” she wrote in an email.


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