Never OK to delete journalists’ work
For 17 years, I worked in New York as a journalist or, as Donald Trump might characterise it, “an enemy of the people”.
Delegitimising the media is an authoritarian’s signature, and Trump does it intentionally with this kind of malicious, dangerous labelling.
His favourite, longer-running appellation for journalism that is inconvenient is “fake news”, which is rich coming from a man whose material success of the past two decades was a reality show on which he pretended to fire people who were not working for him and insisted the drama was real.
This is part of who he is: an incorrigible liar who believes he can bend reality to his will simply by insisting loudly and repeatedly that things are not what they are.
It is not just Trump. I learnt a few months ago that his son-in-law, for whom I worked as editor-in-chief of The New York Observer in 2011 and 2012, is as willing to undermine the work of journalists seeking to publish the truth as Trump is.
I have written about what Jared Kushner was like to work for as a businessman, but I had an unexpected coda to my time there a few months ago when a technologist I had worked with confessed to me that Kushner had asked him to delete stories that were unflattering to his friends and that he had done so.
This was not the first time Kushner apparently displayed a disregard for journalistic norms — he never really understood why he could not just tell the journalists in his employ what to write — but it is egregious to do something such as secretly erase stories.
The technologist, Austin Smith, and I are friends, and I was working out of his company’s offices when he made the disclosure, expressing some regret he had removed the stories.
He had never been put in that position before, he explained, and it was not clear what responsibilities a third-party technology vendor has or should have in enforcing journalistic standards at a client publisher.
I was sympathetic to Smith — to his lack of clarity about his role — but furious at Kushner for apparently having gone behind my back and ordering the person who was effectively our chief technology officer to delete stories that made him uncomfortable or were inconvenient.
He could have tried to talk to me about why he objected to the stories, which is a conversation media owners and editors have on occasion at nearly all publications, but he did not.
To be clear, the stories were published, initially — some of them in print, and all of them on the web.
The impetus behind deleting them after the fact was to erase the digital trail of the hard work the journalists had done and to undo the factual reality of what they had reported, as far as the public record was concerned.
As I understand it, the stories were deleted long enough after publication that the journalists and their editors, including me, would not miss them.
That is not a difficult deception to execute. It is hard to understand this if you do not work in a newsroom, but particularly in a digitally enabled operation, news publications produce many stories a day, even many stories an hour.
Over time, that means you have an archive of thousands and thousands of stories. So the removal of two or 20 or even 50 stories months after the fact would be unlikely to draw attention and would be insignificant even in the site’s analytics data.
If you wrote the story yourself, you might need to reference it for a later story and might notice you could not find it.
That, too, usually has an easier and more obvious explanation: On-site search for many publishers is subpar. Add site redesigns and data migrations, and the occasional story being lost does not seem unusual.
There are a number of other technical reasons you might not be able to find a story in the archive, but one that would never occur to any rational journalist, or even any reasonable person, is that your boss, the owner of the paper, is stealthily destroying your work and damaging the credibility of his own media publication in the process.
Even in the annals of terrible media owners, this is something that would normally be credible only to a conspiracy theorist.
Yet, that is what allegedly happened. Smith decided to talk about it publicly during a recent debate about ethics in technology on a site called Hacker News.
BuzzFeed published a follow-up story detailing some of the articles Kushner supposedly had had deleted.
Smith had told me about the deletions in confidence, years after the fact, so I chose not to write about them until he had disclosed them himself, because unlike my former boss, apparently, I care about journalistic ethics and take pains to observe the rules even though I am not working as a full-time journalist any more.
One sure thing standing in the way of the corruption of the paper during and before my tenure was the editorial staff, which would not tolerate it.
If any of us had known our work was being deleted after publication, I am fairly certain there would have been a raft of resignations. Being reminded of what happened was newly infuriating, and sometimes I tend to express my frustration in the same medium the President uses.
So I called Kushner a coward on Twitter for going behind my back instead of confronting me and noted I did not have a wide enough range of expletives to describe my feelings about his apparent decision to actively undermine the newspaper for personal ends.
However, it is in keeping with what appears to be Trump family values: an active hostility to real journalism, which, if done correctly, is almost always inconvenient for people in power, and a willingness to use deceit to thwart it.
Fake news, in the sense that is empirically definable and not just a slur for anything that does not fit the President’s agenda, is an actual problem and a threat to the public’s understanding of what is happening to us and who or what is causing it.
Neither Trump nor Kushner can delete reality. We still have a free press, at the moment. If one platform is not available because its ownership has been corrupted, others will do the story.
That will continue to be true only if we hold the President accountable for the lie that journalism is bad for America.
• Elizabeth Spiers is the chief executive of The Insurrection, a progressive digital messaging firm