Lauren Wolfe made no ripples last May when she started as a freelance editor at the New York Times. She worked three to six days a week as part of the paper’s “live updates” team, covering coronavirus briefings, racial justice protests and the November elections. In addition, she bylined stories on Kellyanne Conway’s positive coronavirus test, Minnesota’s elections and the worldwide covid-19 death toll.

None of that work, however, drew the sort of attention that Wolfe aroused with a Jan. 19 tweet: “Biden landing at Joint Base Andrews now. I have chills,” she wrote the day before the inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris. Writer Glenn Greenwald, formerly of the Intercept, ripped the tweet:

Brit Hume of Fox News chimed in:

Wolfe deleted the tweet. Shortly thereafter, the Times severed its relationship with her, as journalist Yashar Ali reported:

That development prompted a fresh round of commentary on Twitter, this one aimed at the Times. What was the basis for this move? What prompted it? Don’t other Times journalists veer into opinion on social media? As reported by The Post’s Jeremy Barr, the Times subsequently issued this statement:

There’s a lot of inaccurate information circulating on Twitter. For privacy reasons we don’t get into the details of personnel matters but we can say that we didn’t end someone’s employment over a single tweet. Out of respect for the individuals involved we don’t plan to comment further. (To clarify something that has been incorrectly reported, Ms. Wolfe was not a full-time employee, nor did she have a contract.)

What a dreadful statement: On the one hand, the Times wishes to limit “the details of personnel matters.” On the other hand, it clearly insinuates that there were unspecified instances of substandard performance by Wolfe. When the Erik Wemple Blog asked the Times to provide some specifics, spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha declined to comment further.

During an interview with this blog, Wolfe said that an editor at the paper contacted her after she published the “chills” tweet. The Times couldn’t be associated with such a tweet, said the manager, and that her gig with the paper would be ending. Months ago, recalls Wolfe, she received a warning from the same manager about her Twitter activity; as an example, he cited a tweet in which, Wolfe says, she’d connected the resistance of conservative men to wearing masks to “toxic masculinity.” She deleted the tweet. But, according to Wolfe, the manager said her posts in general were “borderline” and that other Times staffers had done “worse.” Last week’s tweet was “the only reason they fired me,” Wolfe says.

The controversy has upended Wolfe. The freelance arrangement was going well, she told this blog. She received a lot of praise from her colleagues, she says, and was awaiting a chat with her supervisors about joining the live team at the paper on a full-time basis. On her Twitter feed, Wolfe has tried to calm the outrage to the Times’s handling of the controversy:

Such sentiment is consistent with Wolfe’s comments to the Erik Wemple Blog. “The people I’m mad at are the people who put out the statement,” says Wolfe. “I respected tremendously the people I worked with. I respected them to the end of the earth and still do. They were the end-all, the be-all.”

The stint on the “live” team was a “dream job” for Wolfe, a former columnist at Foreign Policy and author of a years-long investigation of violent rapes against children in a village in eastern Congo. That it ended with the Times issuing a statement promoting speculation about her job performance has been painful. “Every day, I was scared I was going to do something wrong,” says Wolfe, noting that her edits and her reporting were clean. “So whatever they’re implying, it’s a shot at my reputation, which I worked very carefully to build.”

As for the reputation of Wolfe’s former employer, the Times’s social media policy includes this guidance: “If our journalists are perceived as biased or if they engage in editorializing on social media, that can undercut the credibility of the entire newsroom. We’ve always made clear that newsroom employees should avoid posting anything on social media that damages our reputation for neutrality and fairness.”

Those guidelines are in steady need of reinforcement. In the early days of the Trump era, the Times issued repeated memos to its newsroom concerning social-media hygiene. “As I’ve noted before, people following Times newsroom staffers online expect them to be well-informed and thoughtful. But we should leave the editorializing to our colleagues on the Opinion side,” noted Times standards editor Phil Corbett in a September 2016 memo. The Post’s Paul Farhi, weeks later, flagged derisive tweets about Trump from reporters at the Times, among other outlets. In October 2017, the newspaper issued the current guidance. In another notable Times-Twitter episode, the newspaper in 2019 demoted Jonathan Weisman, a deputy Washington editor, for arguing that “saying @RashidaTlaib (D-Detroit) and @IlhanMN (D-Minneapolis) are from the Midwest is like saying @RepLloydDoggett (D-Austin) is from Texas or @repjohnlewis (D-Atlanta) is from the Deep South. C’mon.”

All of which is to say that the Times will never achieve a uniformly enforced standard for the social media behavior of its journalists. Each tweet is different from the next; each tweeter occupies a different rung on the paper’s hierarchy; and each controversy comes at a different moment in the national political mood.

In light of that reality, the Times should consider junking its language about journalists being “perceived as biased.” Thanks to the work of unprincipled folks in American politics, the mere expression of an opinion, or an emotion, is now viewed as evidence of ingrained bias. Opinion and bias are not the same.

News organizations’ perpetual quests to stifle their journalists’ opinions — whether uttered on Twitter, at a conference, or in a recorded chat published by Project Veritas — is an Sisyphean struggle. And while the Times deals with that reality, it needs to issue a new statement about its actions regarding Wolfe — one that, in accordance with Times standards, shows more “respect for the individuals involved.”

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