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New Washington Post Editor Sally Buzbee

Photo by Knight Foundation (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0)

Reprinted with permission from Press Run

Two weeks ago, the Washington Post announced with much fanfare that it was hiring Sally Buzbee to be the newspaper's new editor. Arguably the second most important newspaper in America, the top Post position carries with it enormous responsibility. Buzbee will soon join the Post in June after she finishes up her current position as senior vice president and executive editor at the Associated Press, the world's largest news outlet.

But suddenly Buzbee and the AP are facing a barrage of questions after the wire service fired a young reporter, Emily Wilder, last week. She became the target of a concerted right-wing smear campaign because of Pro-Palestinian tweets she had posted in college. (Wilder is Jewish.)

The episode is not only troubling for the AP, it's also a problem for the Post, as it prepares for Buzbee's arrival. The last thing the paper wanted during this key transition period, which followed an extensive, high-profile search for a new leader, was to be grappling with doubts about Buzbee's leadership. But after watching the Winter debacle unfold last week at the AP, it's impossible to not question the editor's newsroom guidance. Post reporters must be wondering how many of them will soon be thrown under the bus by management if GOP activists target them with bogus claims of "bias."

The stunning termination of Wilder came just 16 days after the Stanford University graduate was hired. Her AP bosses told her she had violated the company's social media policy, although they would not detail how. Her college tweets became newsworthy when conservative news outlets, including The Federalist, Washington Free Beacon, and Fox News, began highlighting them and accusing AP of having an anti-Israel bias. Note that the entry-level Wilder was working out of the AP's Arizona bureau and her journalism output had nothing to do with the Middle East.

Wilder was initially assured that her previous tweets were not a problem and that the AP would stand by her, but was subsequently fired. The move came just days after the AP's bureau in Gaza was bombed by the Israeli military as part of the May fighting that erupted in the Middle East. The Israeli government insisted the building housed Hamas operatives, but has not provided definitive proof in order to justify leveling the AP building. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) pointed to Wilder's employment and tweeted, "Not a surprise from a media organization that shared office space with Hamas." He also suggested the AP colluded with Hamas and allowed reporters to be used as "human shields."

It's clear the AP found itself in the middle of a contentious, international national standoff when the Wilder story, and the manufactured claims of bias, began to gain traction. Rather than defend its targeted reporter, AP caved to the right-wing mob, thereby encouraging to take aim at more journalists in the future.

"It feels like AP folded to the ridiculous demands and cheap bullying of organizations and individuals," Wilder said. "What future does it promise to aspiring reporters that an institution like The Associated Press would sacrifice those with the least power to the cruel trolling of a group of anonymous bullies?" she asked.

Added Columbia Journalism School professor, Emily Bell, "If news organizations cave in to pressure from bad faith campaigns, if they cancel workplace contracts on the basis of student activism or errors of judgment, then the field will miss out on some great reporters. Newsrooms are too often unprepared for this predictable onslaught."

The whole sordid chapter represents a black eye for the AP and raises real questions about its leadership.

Whether Buzbee directly ordered Wilder's firing is unclear. But Buzbee is a high-ranking executive of the news operation and everyone there must have known terminating Wilder would generate lots of news. More significantly, Buzbee has remained silent as the controversy has escalated and the AP has been widely denounced within journalism circles for giving in to disingenuous, right-wing trolls who aren't seeking fairness, but instead want media scalps as trophies.

It was clearly Wilder's college tweets that prompted AP's review of her online content. But in justifying her firing, the AP insists she was fired "for violations of AP's social media policy" for tweets posted this year.

None of this is believable and it all reflects poorly on the AP. If the Associated Press did have a problem with a new hire regarding a tweet or two, the normal course of action would be for an editor to counsel that person and warn them about the social media policy. It's completely irrational to fire someone hired just 16 days earlier because of a minor social media guidelines transgression.

It's obvious the AP did not want to defend Wilder and did not want to do battle with bogus GOP allegations, so the wire service took the cowardly way out.

And soon, the AP's executive editor will be taking over the Washington Post newsroom.

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