The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How the AP wronged Emily Wilder

(AP Photo/Hiro Komae)
Placeholder while article actions load

On May 18, the Associated Press reported on the arrest of an arson suspect over a Los Angeles wildfire: “The man detained Sunday near the fire zone was being treated for smoke inhalation, said Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Ralph Terrazas. He did not identify the suspect or offer details about the investigation.” At the foot of this classic AP story is a line that reads, “AP journalist Emily Wilder contributed to this report from Phoenix.“

Two days later, AP management dismissed Wilder from her job as a news associate at the AP. Had she botched her contribution to the arson-arrest story? Or had she botched her contribution to a May 7 report about an Idaho school shooting?

Nothing like that, as the media world now knows. The 22-year-old Wilder received her dismissal notice following a successful attempt by conservatives to promote outrage over her activist work while attending Stanford University, where she served as a leader of Students for Justice in Palestine. The episode points to two emerging facts of life in contemporary mainstream media — one, that editors at large news organizations quake when right-wing actors target their colleagues; and two, publishers’ concerns over ethical appearances and perceptions are reaching irrationality.

As part of her work for Students for Justice in Palestine, Wilder, a Jewish woman raised in an Orthodox community, helped organize a 2017 protest against Birthright Israel, a group that funds trips to Israel for young people of Jewish heritage. In a Facebook post promoting the protest, Wilder wrote that the event would coincide with a “fundraising gala with far-right, pro-Trump, naked mole rat-looking billionaire Shel Adelson,” according to the Washington Free Beacon. Adelson was a Birthright benefactor as well as a prominent GOP donor.

Follow Erik Wemple's opinionsFollow

The story in the Washington Free Beacon fed off the work of the Stanford College Republicans, a group that found news value in Wilder’s accession to the AP in early May. A May 17 tweet, now pinned to the top of the group’s account, provided screenshots of Wilder’s collegiate activism:

According to Wilder’s dismissal letter, the rumblings from Stanford — and inquiries from the Washington Free Beacon, Fox News and others — prompted a deeper look into the AP rookie’s social media history. “As discussed, over the last few days some of your social media posts made prior to joining AP surfaced,” reads the dismissal letter. “Those posts prompted a review of your social media activity since you began with the AP, May 3, 2021. In that review, it was found that some tweets violated AP’s News Values and Principles.“

Did the AP receive independent objections to Wilder’s tweets, or did it decide to scrutinize those tweets only after the Stanford College Republicans raised hell about her college days? (We asked the AP to clarify this point; Wilder tells the Erik Wemple Blog that she didn’t know whether “someone else raised concerns.”) AP managers found stuff like this when they ventured into Wilder’s feed:

There are also several Wilder retweets relating to the latest chapter of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, during which an Israeli strike destroyed a Gaza building containing the AP’s offices. “I was really proud to see how AP was handling the coverage of what was happening in Gaza,” says Wilder. “I posted so much about this because I was really invested in it. I mean, this is my organization’s building.”

When Wilder accepted a job at the AP, she was adopting the journalistic religion of studious neutrality. The wire service, which feeds thousands of member outlets across the country, bills itself as the “most trusted source of fast, accurate, unbiased news in all formats.” It’s no wonder, then, that its social media guidelines frown on opinion: “AP employees must refrain from declaring their views on contentious public issues in any public forum and must not take part in organized action in support of causes or movements,” read the guidelines.

The first Wilder tweet highlighted above appears to opine on a “contentious public issue” and thus may skirt the wire service’s internal rules. Two former AP staffers told us that it’s the sort of tweet that might just trigger a talking-to from a manager — but certainly not a dismissal. (Because Wilder was still serving her 90-day probationary period at the AP, there are no grounds for a grievance, according to the News Media Guild, which represents AP journalists.) Social-media brushback talks, say the former staffers, occur regularly at the AP, which has 1,400-plus journalists — but the guild says that a “great majority” of these situations are resolved “quietly” and “discipline-free.”

Meaning, Wilder was wronged by her editors.

For its part, the AP issued a lengthy statement about Wilder’s dismissal:

As we have said, though AP generally refrains from commenting on personnel matters, we have confirmed Emily Wilder’s comments on Thursday that she was dismissed for violating AP’s social media policy during her time at AP.
We understand that other news organizations may not have made the same decision. While many news organizations offer points of view, opinion columnists and editorials, AP does not. We don’t express opinion. Our bedrock is fact-based, unbiased reporting.
Because we’re a global news organization, we recognize that expressing opinion in one part of the world can compromise our ability to report a story in another. It can limit our access to sources and information. In some cases it could endanger our journalists on the ground. So we do our best to protect against even the perception of bias.
To that end, every AP journalist is responsible for safeguarding our ability to report with fairness and credibility. Our News Values and Principles, including our social media guidelines, exist to ensure that the comments of one person cannot jeopardize our journalism or our journalists.

The organization also issued a memo to staffers on Monday pledging to engage the newsroom in discussions about social media. The pledge follows a letter signed by more than 100 AP staffers objecting to these events. The AP memo to staff includes this line about Wilder’s dismissal: “We can assure you that much of the coverage and commentary does not accurately portray a difficult decision that we did not make lightly.” NPR’s David Folkenflik reports that outgoing AP Executive Editor Sally Buzbee, announced as The Post’s new executive editor earlier this month, did not take part in the Wilder decision.

Janine Zacharia, a Stanford University journalism professor who taught Wilder, applauds her previous work at the Arizona Republic and says the AP made a mistake in this case. “She was opining on the question of objectivity, which I wish she hadn’t done — but it wasn’t a fireable offense,” says Zacharia, a former Middle East correspondent for The Post. In its guidelines, the AP encourages its journalists to use social media — a stance that carries an obligation, says Zacharia: “They’re going to have to have some cojones when the James O’Keefes and the Stanford College Republicans come after their journalists.”

In a long interview with the Erik Wemple Blog, Wilder expressed admiration for the AP’s journalism and thrill at having joined the organization. Had her managers laid out their concerns about any tweets, she says, she would have been “receptive.” After the backlash launched by the Stanford group, Wilder did have a discussion with management in which she received an admonition about having “Black Lives Matter” on her Twitter bio. She promptly removed it, she says. Following her dismissal, she restored it. “They said it was probably toeing the line of objectivity,” says Wilder. “The point is that I did it because I took them seriously and I wanted to be at the AP.”

Three sentences from the AP’s dismissal letter demonstrate the perils of ethical purity gone bananas:

It’s paramount that journalists working for The Associated Press cover the news impartially, do not have any conflicts that could be perceived as leading to bias in reporting and on social media refrain from sharing opinions or engaging in any activity that could compromise AP’s reputation for objectivity.
Emily, some of your social media posts violated AP’s News Values and Principles. With this, you have not successfully completed your probationary period. This letter serves as notice of the termination of your employment effective May 19, 2021.

Boldface added to highlight a standard that could be weaponized against any journalist. Just what conflicts are at issue with respect to Wilder? She worked on the AP’s Western U.S. desk, helping with coverage of 14 states. Much of her work consisted of writing so-called “pickups,” which Wilder describes as local stories from AP member outlets that she prepared for distribution on the wire.

As for those “conflicts”: A bona fide journalistic conflict is generally either familial or financial: CNN’s Chris Cuomo, for instance, cannot cover his brother, whom he loves and advises; journalists at The Post must run disclosures when they cover Jeff Bezos, who owns the newspaper.

On the other hand: Having opinions on foreign crises — or having participated in college activism on such issues — is not a conflict. It is, rather, a set of beliefs, or a personal intellectual history. Every sentient being has opinions, and news editors have the fun job of banishing the resulting slant from their organizations’ stories. “I don’t know how they could possibly say I had bias because I hadn’t done a bit of reporting,” says Wilder, “and my reporting in the past speaks to my ability to be fair and accurate and critical and fact-based.” (Before joining the AP, Wilder covered criminal justice at the Arizona Republic.) In her application for employment at AP, says Wilder, she wrote that her best stories “engaged with the pain and resilience of aggrieved communities.” Asked whether she disclosed her activist past in her application, Wilder said she hadn’t because she considered it “irrelevant” but said that much of it was discoverable via Google.

The AP is not the first news organization to deal with this kind of situation. Last year, Project Veritas released videotape of ABC News correspondent David Wright speaking about politics at a New Hampshire bar. He spouted a few opinions, as people will do at watering holes. The ABC News response? “Any action that damages our reputation for fairness and impartiality or gives the appearance of compromising it harms ABC News and the individuals involved. David Wright has been suspended, and to avoid any possible appearance of bias, he will be reassigned away from political coverage when he returns.”

ABC News and the AP are in lockstep: They are privileging “appearances” over their own work product. And they fail to recognize that those “appearances” are orchestrated by people who are preying on misunderstandings about the making of a news product: It is done by people, not robots.

Read more:

Alyssa Rosenberg: Hey conservatives, this is why liberals don’t believe you care about free speech

The Associated Press terminates new staffer amid uproar over tweets about Israel and Palestinians, sparking backlash

CNN parts ways with pundit Rick Santorum, former senator who made much-criticized comments about Native Americans