Media critic

The New York Times is shedding fresh light on an overlooked Washington moment. At a Brookings Institution event with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in late March, a woman used the Q-and-A session as follows: “Thank you for this informative discussion. My name is Contessa Bourbon from the New York Times.” By the time she asked the question, DeVos had left. “I was supposed to ask the secretary, but … how supportive should government — federal and state — [be] in promoting STEM education within the context of school choice? Should there be an increased budget on school choice for promoting STEM education? What is your view?” asked Bourbon.

Brookings senior fellow Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst responded, “I think the secretary’s view … would be that this is a state and local matter, not primarily a federal matter.”

Somehow that material didn’t soon appear in the New York Times under the byline of Contessa Bourbon. That’s because the New York Times has no reporter under that name — and it’s unhappy that someone has been representing herself as such on social media and other forums. “Despite the lack of any employment relationship between Ms. Bourbon and The Times, Ms. Bourbon has repeatedly represented herself as a journalist employed by The New York Times since at least May 2015,” reads a civil complaint filed against Bourbon by the New York Times in a New York state court.

The complaint stated that at the Brookings event,  Bourbon identified herself to an actual New York Times reporter as a New York Times reporter. Exclamation mark!

Brookings was allegedly a fake-journo playground for Bourbon, according the newspaper’s complaint. Not only did she interview the Turkish ambassador “and other officials” in May 2015, the complaint says, but she on four occasions represented herself as being from the New York Times in the 2013-2014 period at the Washington think tank.

The newspaper is resorting to the courts only after trying less-public means of persuasion. On two occasions, the newspaper sent letters to Bourbon asking that she knock it off. One of the letters — written just after Bourbon’s appearance at the Brookings education event — alerts her to the fact that impersonation is “treated as a crime in the New York Penal Code” and constitutes a “misuse of The New York Times Company’s intellectual property.” It also “defrauds” anyone — such as all those folks at Brookings — “who take actions in reliance” on the idea that Bourbon works at the New York Times.

The misrepresentations didn’t end at Brookings, claims the complaint. Bourbon allegedly: asked a Capitol Hill staffer whether she could cover the Congressional Gold Medal event for the New York Times; uses a Twitter account that identified her as “Journalist for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, London Times, Guardian, Washington Post: Queen of BARCELONA” (the “New York Times” part no longer appears on the account); once tweeted, “News I wrote: PresTrump backs American victims of terrorism @ Supreme Court. W views of Congress. Read NYT WSJ Wapo LondonTimes Watch TV news.”; and uses other social media platforms to advance the idea that she writes for the New York Times.

Lawyers for the newspaper may well have added that its newsroom has had enough trouble restraining the Twitter activity of its duly hired employees.

The problem, according to the newspaper: “Because journalists who work for The New York Times use Twitter and other social media in their professional capacity, the presence of postings falsely purporting to represent the work of a New York Times journalist harms its reputation.” For this “dilution of the distinctive quality” of New York Times trademarks, the paper is seeking a permanent “injunctive relief” barring Bourbon from this alleged activity, as well as attorney’s fees and costs.

The Erik Wemple Blog didn’t receive a reply to an email sent to a Bourbon email account cited in the court file. Perhaps the following tweets pertain to the complaint?

Clay Calvert, a University of Florida professor often consulted in this space, says the complaint makes sense. “This is a strong trademark case that hinges on Bourbon’s fraud in representing herself as a New York Times reporter having the impact of diluting and harming the strength of the Times’s brand name as a source of journalistic integrity,” he writes in an email. “She apparently has no journalistic credentials and thus her masquerading as a New York Times reporter tarnishes the newspaper’s brand strength. To maintain a trademark, you have to police and protect it — that’s what the Times is doing here.”