Did the New York Times Hire a Racist? Lessons of the Sarah Jeong Saga

Sarah Jeong

The media world hailed a decision by the New York Times this week to add Sarah Jeong, a senior writer at the tech website The Verge, to its editorial board. Many saw it as a shrewd hire: Jeong, a Harvard Law graduate, is whip-smart. She also engages in a notably gutsy style of writing about the technology industry that’s all but absent from the pages of the Grey Lady. (One of her Verge stories from April: “I Tried Leaving Facebook. I Couldn’t.” Another from last month: “How a Cabal of Romance Writers Cashed In on Amazon Kindle Unlimited.”)

Then Thursday happened. A Twitter account that calls itself Human Garbage published a screenshot showing a collection of Jeong’s old tweets that contained racially inflammatory language. The screenshot doesn’t present the tweets in any sort of context, but some of Jeong’s phrases are jarring, including “dumbass f***ing white people” and “how much joy I get out of being cruel to old white men.” (Jeong is an American of Asian descent.)

The tweets set off a predictable pinball effect. From my corner of Twitter, I tweeted what I believed to be an obvious proposition: Jeong is a great hire for the Times but her tweets appeared to be blatantly racist, whatever their intention. This triggered indignation from some Jeong supporters who called me a “moron” and much worse. Meanwhile, my tweet also received gleeful endorsements from some people (or possibly bots) who appeared to be white supremacists.

Fortunately, a handful of helpful comments pierced the Twitter dreck. These included an observation by Public Knowledge lawyer John Bergmayer, who personally knows Jeong, that her tweets amount to irony or barbed humor, not racism. “In the context of her social circle (which includes me), they are clearly understood as hyperbolic jokes, similar to various ‘ban men’ tweets,” he replied to me.

And activist Parker Higgins pointed out that much of the apparent outrage over Jeong wasn’t in good faith but instead a coordinated campaign by alt-right outlets to smear her and the Times, providing an example of a Twitter user whose avatar on the service is a “photoshop of Harvey Weinstein in blackface”:

The editors of The Verge made a similar point in a statement of support for Jeong published Thursday. They warned that the backlash to her old tweets amounted to a harassment campaign by trolls who had misrepresented the Twitter posts, and that Jeong has been subject to “an unrelenting stream of abuse from strangers on the Internet.”

The New York Times chose to address the controversy by issuing a statement of support for Jeong. The paper described the tweets as an in-kind response by Jeong to the harassment she herself received. It added that Jeong now regrets the tweets and views them as contributing to the general vitriol on social media.

The paper’s response received praise by many in the media. Some, however, asked if it amounted to hypocrisy, since the Times had months earlier abruptly nixed the hiring of another female technology journalist, Wired’s Quinn Norton, based on her racially inflammatory statements.

The Times appears to have handled the Jeong situation the right away, but the outcome does little to resolve the ongoing dilemma over how to reconcile a person’s online past with their present employment. Another recent example came this month from the paper’s own sport pages, which have excoriated Major League Baseball fans for cheering a 24-year-old pitcher for the Milwaukee Brewers, Josh Hader, whose high-school Twitter account contained racial slurs. (Hader is white.)

Should the baseball player, who has apologized profusely, receive a similar measure of understanding as Jeong? And is the comparison even legitimate, given that Hader—like Jeong’s white male tech journalist peers—gets to do his job without being subjected to racial harassment from online troll armies? Does it matter many ordinary Americans don’t see a distinction but only a double standard for racist remarks?

These are hard questions and beyond the scope of this column, or any other rift on the day’s news. To explore these issues requires a forum for sensitive, measured discussions that can take place over months or years.

But we don’t have such a forum. (Fortune’s RaceAhead newsletter, by my colleague Ellen McGirt, is a great start.) Instead, we have social media machines that serve as repositories of everyone’s worst moments. This why the phrase “delete your tweets” has become depressingly familiar, promoting a form of forced amnesia. It’s as if, in other eras, citizens told each other to burn their letters and youthful writings to avoid a public shaming.

Meanwhile, those brave enough to keep their tweets will discover it takes only minutes for someone to unearth a wayward comment and display it out of context—and only hours for an online mob to blast it far and wide. In response, allies of the mob’s targets don’t dither with a nuanced response, but instead rush to partisan battle stations. A winner or loser emerges, but little is gained in the way of dialogue or mutual understanding.

Sarah Jeong won today’s battle. That’s a good thing. But we can only hope for a day when we can have these discussions in another, more productive, way.

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