Recognize a bad-faith campaign to discredit a journalist when you see one

The latest target of Two Minutes Hate on the Internet is somebody unusual, in that it’s somebody I know. But the story here is manufactured outrage as usual.

Until Thursday, few people outside tech-journalism circles could have name-checked Sarah Jeong or described her Twitter presence. I’ve been following her since sometime in 2014, so I can: sarcastic and often bitterly so, expletive-laced, and grounded in a deep knowledge of how tech intersects culture and the law

That makes Jeong an essential read in my world, and also an amusing one–see her unpacking of the PETA’s monkey-selfie case. She’s also a student of how social networks fuel online harassment and wrote an excellent book about it, The Internet of Garbage, that led me to quote her in Yahoo Finance posts in 2015 and 2016.

Now Jeong is again experiencing the subject of her own research, thanks to a cut-and-paste screencap compilation quoting her saying such mean things about white people from 2013 to 2015 as “it’s kind of sick how much joy I get out of being cruel to old white men.”

Why 2014 tweets in 2018? The New York Times announced Wednesday that it had named Jeong to its editorial board. The creator of that image, who calls himself Garbage Human on Twitter, apparently saw a chance to bully the Times into hitting the Undo button on its hire–what’s happened to other young writers, some right-wing, hired by traditional media outlets.

So is Jeong a racist whom the NYT should dump? That argument is, as Jeong would put it, bullshit.

First: No, she isn’t racist. I have interacted with her, online and in person, more than enough to determine that, and I’ve yet to see any co-workers of her say otherwise. And yes, that insight trumps yours if you hadn’t heard of Jeong until yesterday. Seen in context–as you can, since she hasn’t deleted them–most of the tweets at stake are cranky jokes received as such by white friends. One’s a profane distillation of a multiple-tweet legal argument. Others look like her venting about the misogynistic, racist word vomit that can greet a woman or person of color on Twitter; I will not tone-police people in that position. 

Second, consider the sources. After Garbage Human, whose tweets show a fondness for InfoWars hoaxer Paul Joseph Watson, Jeong’s tweets got publicized by Gateway Pundit, a conspiracy-theory-spouting factory of lies. I first became acquainted with its dreck last January, when it wrongly named my friend Doris Truong as the Asian reporter taking pictures of Rex Tillerson’s notes at his confirmation hearing without bothering to ask her if she was even there.

These are not honest critics, and their arguments are no more founded in a belief in racial equality than GamerGate harassment was about ethics in gaming journalism. You don’t owe time to the talking points of a bad-faith actor, not when it’s based on a context-free sample of a handful of tweets out of 103,203 available.

I know this because I saw this strategy employed successfully against my then-Post co-worker Dave Weigel in 2010. That’s when the journalism-gossip site FishbowlDC and then the Daily Caller (both with a history of ginning up right-wing outrage, facts or context optional) published cranky e-mails about various politicians that Weigel had sent to a private mailing list. Post management did not have the spine to stand up for its new employee against this selective copy-and-paste hit job or the absurd theory behind it that reporters should never share opinions about the stuff they cover, and Weigel resigned.

Five years later, the Post hired Weigel back. He’s been kicking ass at the paper since.

I look forward to Jeong doing the same at the NYT, as it declined to take the bait. Its PR department defended their new hire while adding that it “does not condone” her earlier banter and including Jeong’s tweeted apology that “I deeply regret that I mimicked the language of my harassers.”

Jeong’s current employer until she starts at the Times, The Verge, took a stronger line in a post:

Online trolls and harassers want us, the Times, and other newsrooms to waste our time by debating their malicious agenda. They take tweets and other statements out of context because they want to disrupt us and harm individual reporters. The strategy is to divide and conquer by forcing newsrooms to disavow their colleagues one at a time. This is not a good-faith conversation; it’s intimidation.

Exactly.

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Large reviews for tiny gadgets

I’ve spent most of my career writing within a pretty narrow range of word counts. My Post tech column started out budgeted at 25 column inches, or 950 or so words, and then got whittled down to 22 inches, some 750 words. At Discovery News, I’m allotted 500-plus words per post; my CEA blogs have a 700-to-800-word limit; USA Today’s tech site expects 700, tops, per Q&A column.

(Writing a solid 2,000 words of reported feature for Ars Technica could have been some sort of remedial boot camp for journalists, except it was a hell of a lot more fun.)

But maybe I haven’t been writing nearly enough. A few days ago, I thought I’d compare the word counts (as measured with DEVONthink’s free WordService plug-in for Mac OS X) of four recent reviews of Sprint’s HTC Evo 4G LTE.

My post for Discovery News clocked in at 583 words. That’s about 200 fewer than I once would have considered a minimum, but after almost a year of blogging for Discovery it now seems like a natural length.

Over at PCMag.com, however, my friend Sascha Segan (in a prior millennium, he worked at the Washington Post’s online operation) devoted 1,388 words to reviewing the same device. The Verge’s David Pierce cranked out 2,458 words in his own assessment–which also included a photo gallery and a video review. And the staff of Engadget outdid both of those writers by producing a 2,841-word opus that included its own multimedia accompaniment.

I’m not going to say that 600 words is the right and proper length for a review. That limit forced me to leave out details like the Evo 4G LTE’s hidden microSD Card slot and its frustrating lack of international roaming. And in terms of strict market success, I’m quite sure that the page-view stats for the Engadget and Verge reviews utterly destroyed mine.

But I could do without many of the cliches of the extended-review genre: the throat-clearing intro “Does this measure up to [its promises/its competitors/our expectations]? Read on after the jump to find out!”; the digressions about the varying plastic and metal components of a gadget’s exterior; the table of detailed performance benchmarks without equally detailed battery metrics. Are that many people interested in this sort of long-form tech journalism?

Better question: If they are, what other sorts of long-form writing would those readers appreciate?