The New York Times fired writer Quinn Norton the same day it announced her hiring, after the Twitterverse uncovered past tweets in which she used offensive slurs and referred to her friendships with neo-Nazis.
Norton, who has also written for Wired, was picked to be the editorial board’s lead opinion writer on technology, covering "power, culture and the consequences of technology."
But just hours after the hire announcement on Tuesday, New York Times editorial page editor James Bennet stated they had “decided to go our separate ways.”
The decision came after Twitter blew up with screen grabs and retweets of old Norton tweets, in which she used racial and homophobic slurs and defended her friendship with hacker Andrew Auernheimer — know as “weev” online — who now works for The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi and white supremacist website.
Norton had previously tweeted that she was “friends with various neo-Nazis” - adding she “never agreed with them.”
“Despite our review of Quinn Norton’s work and our conversations with her previous employers, this was new information to us,” Bennet stated.
The question now is: What kind of vetting does the Times undertake when hiring editorial? Employers often look over candidates’ online profiles and accounts to scan for any red flags. It is common practice for college graduates to clean up their digital footprint to prepare for the job hunt.
Granted, Norton has published over 83,000 tweets. That's a lot of tweets to analyze. And the offending ones seem to come from 2014 and earlier. But if the Twitterverse can dig and find posts where she used the "n" word, why couldn’t a newspaper known for its investigative and thorough reporting?
In a blog post Norton published in the few hours between the announcement of her hire and fire, she explained how she got the job.
She said The Times approached her with the position, which she first turned down.
“I live in Luxembourg, I explained. I have surgery coming up, I'll be out of the picture for as much as two months. Also, I tried to imply, strongly, I'm kind of weird,” she wrote.
Norton continued: “As I interviewed with Katie, then James, they made it clear they weren't going to get put off by a little weird. As for how weird, well that's for them to discover. Nevertheless, I talked candidly about my background, my philosophy, and my approach to the topic. I caveated everything with: If this is at all uncomfortable, not what you were looking for, no harm no foul, thanks for the ask. But they kept talking to me. “
She added, “I haven't tried to make myself look more professionally acceptable, more conventional, or any of that, for the benefit of my new employer. I plan to just be me, and bring my ideas to the table. I hope those ideas help. And if that doesn't work out, no harm no foul.”
This isn’t the first time The New York Times has received backlash for hiring a controversial writer. Last spring, the newspaper added conservative op-ed columnist Bret Stephens, a cynic of climate-change science, to its payroll. His hire spurred some readers to cancel their subscriptions.
At the time, Bennet defended Stephens’ hire: "If all of our columnists and all of our contributors and all of our editorial agreed all of the time, we wouldn't be promoting the free exchange of ideas, and we wouldn't be serving our readers very well.”
A newspaper needs to demonstrate a difference of opinion, it's true; a healthy balance ensures a publication is giving a fair representation to various voices.
After The New York Times dropped her, Norton explained her use of homophobic slurs, describing herself in a string of tweets as a "queer activist," adding: "When I speak to communities, I use their language to do it."
She also said she believes in engaging with those she does not agree with, like neo-Nazis.
But a line must be drawn for writers who use the n-word and slurs for gay people freely. That is not a unique opinion or "engaging" with certain communities, that is downright intolerable. The voices of people who defend using such language should not be amplified by a publication as storied as The New York Times.