It feels strange, and it appears unseemly, but the New York Times did not act unethically when it tweeted multiple Republican senators’ office phone numbers Wednesday, urging readers to call in protest of the GOP tax reform bill.
It’s not even an act of “media bias,” as many on the right have come to understand the term. That is, this isn't a clearly partisan act, cloaked carefully in the thin veneer of "objective journalism."
Tweeting the phone numbers is partisan. It’s certainly politically biased. However, this political act didn’t come from the paper’s news side. Rather, the paper tweeted the phone numbers from its official opinion account, which had been taken over for the day by the editorial board.
“The NYT Editorial Board is temporarily taking over this acct. to urge the Senate to reject a tax bill that hurts the middle class and the nation's fiscal health,” the board, which has long been just a bit left of Lenin, announced in a note posted to the opinion account’s biography page.
Though it’s a departure from the regular order of things for the Times’ board to tweet from their opinion account, what they wrote was the normal sort of partisan stuff that opinion sections have been printing for decades.
“Contact [Senator Collins], (202) 224-2523, particularly if you live in Maine, and ask her to oppose the Senate tax bill because it would repeal Obamacare's individual mandate, driving up the cost of health insurance,” read the first tweet.
Contact @SenatorCollins, (202) 224-2523, particularly if you live in Maine, and ask her to oppose the Senate tax bill because it would repeal Obamacare's individual mandate, driving up the cost of health insurance. #thetaxbillhurts pic.twitter.com/id69OJ4CPC— NYT Opinion (@nytopinion) November 29, 2017
Though this cartoonish characterization of the tax bill deserves a hard eye-roll, it doesn’t quite amount to unethical journalistic behavior. The Times followed up with a second note that included a passage from the paper’s most recent editorial, which reads, “Senator Susan Collins of Maine has correctly noted that any temporary tax cuts for the middle class would be more than offset by the higher cost of health insurance — a good reason for her to vote against the bill."
"Senator Susan Collins of Maine has correctly noted that any temporary tax cuts for the middle class would be more than offset by the higher cost of health insurance — a good reason for her to vote against the bill." https://t.co/bHYJcMTMjU pic.twitter.com/NgfvgnOypL— NYT Opinion (@nytopinion) November 29, 2017
At first blush, this patently political act by the editorial board feels unethical, and even slightly immoral. But it's difficult to articulate a good argument for what, exactly, the paper did wrong. In fact, the more one thinks about it, the less strange it seems.
First, editorial pages engage in political activism all the time. This is not a new development, and it certainly shouldn't come as a surprise for anyone who has been around a newsroom. Every four years, for example, major newspapers endorse presidential candidates. Most aren't shy about it. There’s rarely a coy suggestion that the readers ought to support a certain candidate. Most papers come right out and say, “vote for this person.”
One could argue that the routine act of endorsing presidential candidates is far more consequential than urging readers to ask that some senators reconsider their respective positions on a looming vote.
This brings us to the second reason as to why the New York Times is in the clear, ethically speaking, when it comes to tweeting Senate phone numbers.
The numbers that the Times highlighted Wednesday are public, as they should be. Senators are answerable to the electorate, and they should be readily accessible. And as it turns out, their office phone numbers are easy to find online. If anything, someone should criticize the Times for assuming its readers are too stupid to find this public information on their own.
More seriously, though, the paper didn’t publish anything Wednesday that wasn’t already public information.
Where does that leave us?
We can’t accuse the Times of sharing private information. We also can't say the editorial board crossed a line by exhorting its readers to engage in political behavior (calling their senators). That's basically what editorial boards do. Sure, the Times pushed the envelope Wednesday, but that's the most that can be said.
What the Times did feels unseemly, and the board likely made things more difficult for its straight news reporters, many of whom are struggling to combat charges they're biased in favor of Democrats. That said, the Times didn't do anything here that can be categorized as journalistically unethical.