They are bad actors. They are driven to suppress legitimate inquiry. They are by no means journalists.

And they read Twitter very carefully!

Those are the contours of an alarm rung on Sunday by the New York Times. “A loose network of conservative operatives allied with the White House is pursuing what they say will be an aggressive operation to discredit news organizations deemed hostile to President Trump by publicizing damaging information about journalists,” wrote Kenneth P. Vogel and Jeremy W. Peters.

And just what would this “damaging information” be? Illicitly obtained DMs? Gossip about their sexual habits? HIPAA-protected information?

Nope. “Four people familiar with the operation described how it works, asserting that it has compiled dossiers of potentially embarrassing social media posts and other public statements by hundreds of people who work at some of the country’s most prominent news organizations.” Bolding added to note that this “damaging information” is available not only to a “loose network of conservative operatives” but also to the loose network of everyone with access to the Internet.

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Among the “central players” in the network, notes the Times, is “combative 47-year-old conservative consultant” Arthur Schwartz, a man who makes no apologies for his work. Breitbart News published a story last week based on the work of the “loose network of conservative operatives,” revealing that a Times editor, Tom Wright-Piersanti, had written anti-Semitic tweets a decade ago, when he was in college. The Times called it a “clear violation of our standards.”

After Wright-Piersanti apologized on Twitter, Schwartz tweeted:

As the article notes, the network has surfaced anti-Semitic and otherwise offensive posts from other reporters in the mainstream media.

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The revelations about Wright-Piersanti, report Vogel and Peters, “seemingly” came in reaction to a Times editorial titled “Mr. Trump, Stop Questioning the Loyalty of American Jews," as well as an unflattering profile of White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham. A companion memo issued from the office of Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger: “This represents an escalation of an ongoing campaign against the free press. For years the president has used terms like ‘fake news’ and ‘enemy of the people’ to demonize journalists and journalism,” reads the memo. “Now, the political operatives behind this campaign will argue that they are ‘reporting’ on news organizations in the same way that news organizations report on elected officials and other public figures. They are not. They are using insinuation and exaggeration to manipulate the facts for political gain.”

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Yet at the same time, Sulzberger all but admitted that the information supplied by Schwartz and Co. can be relevant to the management of the New York Times: “No organization is above scrutiny, including The Times. We have high standards, own our mistakes and always strive to do better. If anyone — even those acting in bad faith — brings legitimate problems to our attention, we’ll look into them and respond appropriately.”

Good! There’s an incompatibility in the Times story and the Sulzberger memo: On one hand, there’s an attempt to tar the motivations of the “loose network of conservative operatives”; on the other, there’s a stubborn admission that they have brought actionable information to public attention. For decades now, representatives of the mainstream media have answered conservative critiques by imploring: Judge us by the work we produce, not by the fact that more than 90 percent of us are liberal/Democratic. Mainstreamers cannot have it both ways. Cut the idle and unverifiable talk about motivations. If the tweets presented by the “loose network of conservative operatives” are racist or anti-Semitic or otherwise problematic, take action. If they’re nonsensical distractions, ignore them.

In the meantime, the “loose network of conservative operatives” must be celebrating right about now, having triggered not only an extensive scolding in the Times, but also an eight-paragraph memo from its publisher.

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