Dan Gainor: NY Times PR account with few followers on Twitter is paper's odd line of defense against critics

The PR account has been a front line of defense for prominent Times staffers

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When New York Times staffers get caught up in controversy, the Gray Lady turns to … its public relations Twitter account.

The PR account has been a front line of defense for prominent Times staffers including Washington correspondent Maggie Haberman, editorial board member Mara Gay, and controversial 1619 Project author Nikole Hannah-Jones. That’s just in the month of June. 

The NYTimesPR Twitter account makes an odd choice with just 73,600 followers, including many in the media. The Times’ main Twitter account has nearly 50 million followers. That’s 677 times more. Hardly full-throated institutional support. But it keeps The Times from fighting publicly in front of its readers and leaves the story to media-oriented outlets.  

It also seems aimed to downplay the controversies. But that is a work in progress. 

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Haberman was the latest example of what is becoming a refined but subtle Times PR strategy. Executive editor Dean Baquet’s tweeted defense declared her "one of the finest journalists of her generation." This came in response to a critical piece from Fox about Haberman’s obsession with all things Trump, which also quoted me. 

The Haberman defense tweet mustered just 743 likes. Not likely to go down in history with chess’s Sicilian Defense.

Baquet teamed up with Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger and Times magazine editor-in-chief Jake Silverstein to defend the 1619 Project and Hannah-Jones on June 15. The 1619 Project is a Times Pulitzer Prize winning bit of propaganda. It openly declares "it aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative." Still the bosses backed it, "We stand behind The 1619 Project." Of course.

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Both the project and its author have been much criticized since the United States wasn’t actually founded until more than 150 years after her bogus "narrative." Times bosses took umbrage at the criticism and "bills that would ban classroom discussions of the 1619 Project." I guess propaganda is "journalism" when The Times does it.

The Twitter response was heated, complaining of the"deeply vitriolic attacks that Nikole has faced." That tweet received all of 19 likes.

Gay landed in hot water a week earlier after an explosive MSNBC interview. Gay told the world she was bothered by the patriotic and pro-Trump displays she saw during a recent trip to Long Island. "I saw, you know, dozens and dozens of pickup trucks with explicatives [sic] against Joe Biden on the back of them, Trump flags, and in some cases just dozens of American flags, which is also just disturbing, because essentially the message was clear. This is my country. This is not your country. I own this."

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Times Twitter PR was there to ride to the rescue after that controversial declaration by blasting her critics. This defense wasn’t even attributed to anyone, which underscores the evolving nature of these responses. "New York Times editorial board member Mara Gay's comments on MSNBC have been irresponsibly taken out of context. Her argument was that Trump and many of his supporters have politicized the American flag. The attacks on her today are ill-informed and grounded in bad-faith."

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That lame response was much mocked with memes and snark on… you guessed it, Twitter.. It helped that everyone had the video to show that she said exactly what her critics claimed. The response received more than 2,400 likes but several of the responses to it have thousands of likes. At least one poster resurfaced another Gay MSNBC appearance where she and anchor Brian Williams both did positively embarrassing math.

In most respects, the Times’ PR account is what you’d expect. It highlights awards, promotions and hires and celebrates favored staff like "Sway" host Kara Swisher. But the account is also a huge hint of The Times’ political and cultural agenda. 

Recent tweets have encouraged readers to "Celebrate Juneteenth with" Times staff as they "explore Black joy in all its forms." An obituary noted, "Jobriath was the first openly gay glam rocker, America's answer to the more sexually ambiguous David Bowie." Then there’s The Times’ "podcast series about the far-right infiltration of Germany‘s security agencies." 

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Politically minded readers were urged to "Join editorial board member @mcottle to discuss Kevin McCarthy’s appeasement of Donald Trump, Biden and McConnell’s frenemy summit and all things politics." Subtle.

Thankfully, the PR account also provides an unintentionally humorous narrative. It told readers how it was "thrilled to announce that a docuseries based on @nhannahjones and @nytmag's ‘The 1619 Project’ is coming to @hulu." Critics should note that the announcement occurred April 1 … April Fool’s Day.

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