Is a news organization responsible for what its journalists put out on Twitter? And what if those journalists are opinion writers? Those questions came up in October when The Post’s Right Turn opinion blogger, Jennifer Rubin, retweeted a controversial tweet by Rachel Abrams, an independent blogger and board member of the conservative Emergency Committee for Israel.
The original tweet was about the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was let go on Oct. 18 after five years of captivity by Hamas and in exchange for Israel’s release of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. Abrams wrote, and Rubin retweeted: “gilad is free and home. now round up his death-worshiping captors and turn them into food for sharks tinyurl.com/3jfugq2.”
Most readers I heard from were less offended by the text of the tweet than they were by Abrams’s blog post that it linked to. Readers said that blog post was full of anti-Palestinian hate speech and racism, and that no employee of The Washington Post should be retweeting a link to something so offensive. Many of those readers suggested that if a Post liberal blogger had retweeted an equivalent anti-Israel broadside, American pro-Israel groups would be screaming for his or her head.
I think the critics are right: Rubin should not have retweeted Abrams’s tweet.
But some critics were mistaken in their assumptions. There’s a lot going on here, so bear with me as I lay it out.
First, here is the blog post by Abrams:
GILAD!!! He’s free and he’s home in the bosom of his family and his country. Celebrate, Israel, with all the joyous gratitude that fills your hearts, as we all do along with you.
Then round up his captors, the slaughtering, death-worshiping, innocent-butchering, child-sacrificing savages who dip their hands in blood and use women — those who aren’t strapping bombs to their own devils’ spawn and sending them out to meet their seventy-two virgins by taking the lives of the school-bus-riding, heart-drawing, Transformer-doodling, homework-losing children of Others — and their offspring — those who haven’t already been pimped out by their mothers to the murder god — as shields, hiding behind their burkas and cradles like the unmanned animals they are, and throw them not into your prisons, where they can bide until they’re traded by the thousands for another child of Israel, but into the sea, to float there, food for sharks, stargazers, and whatever other oceanic carnivores God has put there for the purpose.
I think this post — with its ghoulishness, its odd sexual undertone and its preoccupation with violence — is reprehensible.
But how responsible is Rubin for it? She didn’t write it. It did not appear anywhere in The Washington Post — online or in print. It appeared on Abrams’s independent “Bad Rachel” blog, and then Abrams broadcast it on Twitter.
Some readers suggested that because an employee retweeted this link, The Post somehow condones genocide against Palestinians. That’s nonsense. The Post’s journalism and its editorials show a deep commitment to human rights around the globe, from Russia to China, to North Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and beyond.
It’s also worth noting that the rules of objectivity that apply to editors, reporters and bloggers in The Post newsroom do not apply to Post opinion bloggers and columnists. Post opinion writers are given greater leeway to say what they want. That’s how it should be. If the opinion section were too politically correct, it’d be dull.
Still, The Post’s new digital guidelines for the newsroom offer a useful reminder in the context of how Post employees should use social media:
Social-media accounts maintained by Washington Post journalists — whether on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or elsewhere — reflect upon the reputation and credibility of The Washington Post’s newsroom. Even as we express ourselves in more personal and informal ways to forge better connections with our readers, we must be ever mindful of preserving the reputation of The Washington Post for journalistic excellence, fairness and independence.
Now, again, these guidelines do not apply to Post opinion writers. But I think The Post’s reputation and credibility are paramount to its success, and some nod to these standards by the Post Opinion staff is appropriate. Furthermore, I think most columnists and bloggers working for the opinion section follow them.
But I don’t think Jennifer Rubin did in this case.
When I spoke with her, Rubin made several points in her defense. “First, a retweet is not an expression of agreement. . . . A retweet does not suggest one agrees with everything in that tweet,” she said. Technically she is correct. You might retweet something for the same reason you might follow someone on Twitter — not because you agree but because you disagree, or because it’s provocative.
But in this case Rubin told me that she did agree with Abrams. Rubin said that she admires Abrams, has quoted her a lot, thinks she’s an excellent writer and endorsed the sentiment behind the Abrams blog post. Rubin said, however, that she did not see it as a call to genocide against all Palestinians: “The post expressed an understandable desire for righteous vengeance against the kidnappers and human rights abusers of Gilad Shalit. It is a sentiment I share. If I were writing on The Washington Post Web site, I would not have used that language. . . but the sentiment underlying it — that the captors deserve the final penalty -- is one that I share.”
Abrams’s post is so full of dashes it’s hard to follow, but the subject of her run-on sentence does appear to be “captors” not Palestinians in general. The language is so over the top, though —“child-sacrificing savages,” “devil’s spawn,” “pimped out by their mothers,” “unmanned animals” — it’s easy to how some people might see it as an endorsement of genocide. Furthermore, other posts on Abrams’s blog also refer to Palestinians with a broad brush.
Rubin suggested that the letters I received denouncing her retweet were part of an “orchestrated campaign to get The Washington Post to fire a pro-Israel blogger.”
It is true that a lot of the letters did call for Rubin’s firing. I’ve received lots of letters objecting to her conservative views since I came here in March. Many of them call for her firing. Regular readers of the ombudsman will know that I defended Rubin back in July. I think The Post needs conservative voices to balance its many liberal ones.
It is also true that two groups did seem to be driving some of the reader reaction to the retweet. One was a Al-Akhbar English, a Middle East-focused Web site, where Max Blumenthal (son of journalist and Clinton White House aide Sidney Blumenthal) denounced the Abrams blog post and Rubin’s retweet and encouraged people to contact me. The other was J Street, a liberal American Jewish group frequently at odds with the conservative Emergency Committee for Israel. J Street denounced Abrams’s blog post as an “unhinged rant filled with incitement and hate speech.”
But even if some e-mails were motivated by those groups, it doesn’t mean the outrage wasn’t genuine. And I heard from people all over the country, and abroad, who thought Abrams’s post was over-the-top and that Rubin was wrong to seemingly endorse it with her retweet.
I agree with the critics. Rubin is not responsible for the offensive words; Abrams is. But in agreeing with the sentiment, and in spreading it to her 7,000 Twitter followers who know her as a Washington Post blogger, Rubin did damage to The Post and the credibility that keeps it afloat.
The Abrams brand of incendiary rhetoric has gained too much purchase on the landscape of American politics. It pollutes our discourse and erodes the soil on which reasonable solutions and compromises can be built, whether at home or in the Middle East. It seems to be preoccupied with violence rather than weary of it. That a Post employee would retweet it is a huge disappointment to me.