For Washington Post employees, one of the pluses of Sally Buzbee’s appointment as executive editor, in addition to her heavyweight journalism bona fides, was that she would be coming from a place that was practically devoid of controversy. The Associated Press, where Buzbee has been executive editor since 2017, is kind of like the good-natured Puritan of news organizations—buttoned up, undramatic, allergic to stories like the one you are reading. And so it’s ironic that, on the eve of Buzbee’s June 1 start date at the Post, the AP became engulfed in an epic controversy.
Depending on whom you ask, the AP’s firing last week of a 22-year-old, Phoenix-based news associate was either a ham-fisted enforcement of social media policy or a rash acquiescence to a conservative mob, which aimed its pitchforks at Emily Wilder over her college-era pro-Palestinian activism. The AP has not publicly specified the exact offenses that led to Wilder getting the boot after less than a month on the job, but speculation has focused on a May 16 tweet in which she called attention to the media’s “choices” in the language it uses when covering the Middle East conflict. “I am one victim to the asymmetrical enforcement of rules around objectivity and social media,” Wilder wrote in a lengthy statement about her termination. As the controversy was snowballing on Sunday, an AP spokeswoman told us Wilder “was dismissed for violations of AP’s social media policies during her time at AP.”
The situation bubbled up at an extremely tense and sensitive moment for the AP, whose Gaza bureau had just been leveled by Israeli bombs. In a staff memo on Monday, newsroom leaders said, “Sharing more information about Emily Wilder’s dismissal is difficult, because we do not publicly discuss personnel matters. We have that policy to protect the privacy of our staff, now and in the future. We can assure you that much of the coverage and commentary does not accurately portray a difficult decision that we did not make lightly.”
Sources said the people involved in the discussions would have included
managing editor Brian Carovillano, U.S. news deputy managing editor Noreen Gillespie, Western U.S. news director Peter Prengaman, and H.R. chief Jessica Bruce. Here’s what I’ve been able to piece together based on conversations with people familiar with what went down behind the scenes. Not long after Wilder started, her boss, Prengaman, sat down with her for a one-on-one social media training. It was described to me as a sort of friendly counseling session, intended to coach Wilder on steering clear of anything resembling opinion, bias, and so on. They went through Wilder’s Twitter timeline specifically, flagging certain things that could potentially be seen as problematic or questionable. So far, so good.
A couple of weeks went by. The Gaza conflicted erupted. Then Wilder was targeted by conservatives who dredged up old Facebook posts highlighting her Palestinian activism during college. As the right-wing campaign caught fire, Wilder’s managers took another look at her Twitter timeline. They saw a number of new tweets related to Palestine, including the tweet about the media’s word choices, that they felt did not comport with the guidelines Prengaman had recently gone over with Wilder, and the decision was made to let her go. (Wilder declined to comment.)
What seems apparent to me is that there was a disconnect between what Wilder took away from her social media training and what the brass actually expected of her. Wilder did not think she was tweeting anything that crossed a line for the AP. The AP believed it had sufficiently clarified its especially stringent guidelines to a brand-new junior employee in one of her first journalism jobs. Both things can be true at once, and as with many controversies of this nature, the truth of the matter is not black and white.
Even if the editors responsible for Wilder’s firing were genuinely acting in good faith—as people who know and respect them believe they were—the decision nonetheless led to a sharp debate within the AP about whether Wilder should have instead been allowed to continue working through the probationary period that new hires are subjected to, perhaps with a stern warning or an official reprimand. An AP spokeswoman said in a statement, “We understand that other news organizations may not have made the same decision…. 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.”
More than 150 staffers have signed an open letter saying they “strongly disapprove of the way the AP has handled the firing of Emily Wilder,” a “young journalist, unnecessarily harmed by the AP’s handling and announcement of its firing of her.” The letter also states, “The lack of clarity on the violations of the social media policy has made AP journalists afraid to engage on social media — often critical to our jobs — in any capacity.”
The letter was a step that an AP veteran described to me as “striking and unprecedented” for the news service, and one that appeared to echo the broad consensus of the wider journalism community. “If [Wilder] somehow violated @AP’s social-media rules,” remarked the Post’s Glenn Kessler, “the solution is to offer guidance, not termination, to a new reporter.” (On Monday the AP informed staff it was beginning a review of its social media policies.)