I know what it feels like to be in the crosshairs of “the mob,” online and otherwise, black and white. It’s not pleasant. But there’s no reason for a journalist to respond in kind. That tension was at the heart of the Sarah Jeong flap after she was recently hired by The New York Times and a group began digging through her Twitter account and exposed numerous unpleasant things she tweeted about white people.
While lead columnist at The Sun News in Myrtle Beach, S.C., a group of angry readers, mostly white and conservative, coordinated efforts to get me fired. They bombarded my publisher and editor with emails and phone calls and cancelled subscriptions (or threatened cancellation) and tried to provoke me into saying something that could become the basis for my firing. A subset of that group eventually set up a Facebook page declaring they would never read The Sun News again until I had been ousted. It didn’t work. Years after their efforts began, I left on my own for other opportunities and to fully recover from a serious illness.
My big sin was that after I spent years reminding liberal readers to not slander President George W. Bush with baseless conspiracies—even as I sometimes agreed and passionately disagreed with his policies—I did the same during the two terms Barack Obama was in the White House, debunking conservative-inspired myths and conspiracy. In the Bush era, white conservative readers frequently said they wanted more black people to read me because I was a credit to my race. During the Obama era, those same readers said I was a race-baiting radical who couldn’t see past my own skin color.
A few years later, I unwittingly ran afoul of Black Twitter for writing a piece in Politico titled “Why Obama must reach out to angry whites.” I argued that it was vital for Obama to go to where the angriest white people were and listen to them, to ensure that they wouldn’t become convinced that only a man like Donald Trump was listening to them. I didn’t expect Obama to be able to get through to most, or even many, of them, but just enough to stave off the rise of Trump. I spent a full weekend answering tweets calling me among the worst names I’ve ever been called, most a variation of “sell-out” or “Uncle Tom.”
Even as a straight-news reporter before my columnist years, I felt the ire of readers, including multiple death threats and being called the full gamut of racial slurs. That was before Twitter, Facebook, and other online outlets magnified every misstep and gave every creep a bullhorn. There were many days—many days—I wanted to respond in kind, and on a few occasions, I went right up to or maybe even crossed the line. But that was not acceptable in the pre-Internet days, or now.
That also goes for journalists who receive the most grief. It’s not fair. It’s not right. It may even seem insensitive. It’s the truth nonetheless. As a recent study highlighted, women are often targeted more frequently and harshly by Internet trolls, probably for the same reasons waitresses must navigate sexual harassment obstacles waiters seldom experience—they face more mobs than their male counterparts. It’s an extra burden in an industry in which they already face too many.
Women should not be burdened with coming up with practical ways to counter these online onslaughts. The organizations for which they work must be on the frontlines running as much interference as possible. They must make it clear—internally and externally—that they will stand by journalists who are unfairly attacked, that they won’t give in just because a mob demands a journalist’s head, even if that journalist on occasion unwisely gives into her darker angels.
Their male colleagues also have a responsibility to speak up. That should have happened, for instance, when Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton took a sexist swipe at The Charlotte Observer’s Jourdan Rodrigue during a press conference. The male journalists in the room should have made it clear to Newton—in that moment—that was unacceptable. Rodrigue should not have been left to deal with the sexism alone.
Which brings me back to Jeong. A motivated group hoped her ugly tweets about white people would either force the Times to rescind its offer to Jeong or expose supposed liberal media double standards. The Times was right to not give into the mob while explaining its decision-making. That doesn’t mean all the criticism was unwarranted. It is not unreasonable to view some of Jeong’s tweets as anti-white, or at least purposefully demeaning. They were.
That’s true even if you account for their sarcastic and satirical nature, as many of Jeong’s defenders have, or if you believe they resulted from the frustration of a journalist of color who had grown tired of being harassed. She did not have to give in. She should not have given in.
It’s always unwise to respond to online trolls in kind. That’s particularly true during times such as these, in which media credibility is being challenged from the White House, and elsewhere, in ways it hasn’t in quite a while. It’s not going to be easy to avoid the landmines others are placing in our paths. But avoid them we must. That’s not to placate others, but to remain true to the craft we love.