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Why Did a Major Newspaper Get a Random Woman Fired?

Social isolation could contribute to the culture of moral outrage.

Kathleen Kingsbury, acting editorial page editor of the New York Times once said, “Even journalism organizations must have thresholds to allow for moral outrage.” Perhaps. But in recent days, that threshold seems increasingly low and the penalties increasingly high.

Prolonged social isolation is not good for us. Even if the economy had begun to open up sooner, by some estimates, deaths of despair would have been in the tens of thousands. The most dire predictions foretell an epidemic of more than 150,000. (And that doesn’t take into account non-fatal self-injury or domestic abuse.)

More than 40% of Americans are worried about their anxiety levels going up, 44% say they are lonelier than ever, and 68% say they feel like “everything is out of their control.” And the negative effects of both the virus and responses to it are felt most by people of historically marginalized identities.

All of this is bad enough for individuals, but what about the effect on society? What does social isolation do to our sense of shared values? How much easier is it for us to be provoked? What does it do to our own humanity?

Research indicates that prolonged social isolation can increase fear, hypersensitivity, and aggression. Engaging in “normal” activities like going to the store and socializing are considered “risky,” and prompts thoughts of contagion, which can provoke concerns about moral purity. Seeing daily reports of Covid-19 deaths makes us think about our own mortality, which can motivate us to become aggressive toward people who threaten our worldview. Add our increasingly tribal thinking, and we have the perfect conditions for behaving toward people in ways that are… well… mean.

Walking alone on an empty Manhattan street in May, a friend of mine was startled by a woman yelling down from her window: “Where’s your mask, bitch?” (Her mask was in her hand. She had removed it since there was no one anywhere in sight.) Who knows what the woman in the window was like before the pandemic. Maybe that kind of thing wasn't out of character. But it's also possible that before spending months in lockdown, she wasn't in the habit of yelling out her window at unsuspecting passersby.

After months of being kept away from other human beings, we’re probably all a little rough around the edges.

Even journalists.

Which brings us to the strange story of the Washington Post publishing what might be described as gossip about something unpalatable that a random woman did — almost two years ago.

On October 26, 2018, NBC fired Megyn Kelly over a comment she made on air indicating that wearing blackface was okay as long as it was part of a respectful costume. A random woman, we’ll call her “Rando,”* thought it was ridiculous not to realize how offensive blackface was, even when part of a costume that wasn't trying to be disrespectful. Naturally, with Halloween around the corner, she thought that dressing as Megyn Kelly in blackface would be an amusing satirical costume to underline that point. (Just stay with me.)

She wore said costume to a Halloween party at the home of the Post’s editorial cartoonist, Tom Toles, where several guests told her that the costume was inappropriate and offensive. The party’s co-host eventually instructed her to “wash that off or go.”

Rando eventually realized what a terrible mistake she had made and left the party ashamed. She was so abashed, in fact, that she didn't want to be seen by a taxi driver, and asked her cousin to drive her home. Rando called Toles the next day to apologize for what she’d done, and has reportedly been in therapy since then, dealing with it.

Fast forward to June of 2020: A woman who had attended the 2018 Halloween party contacted the paper, wanting the Post to write a story about what happened at the cartoonist's 2018 Halloween party. She and another guest felt harassed by the costume, and thought Toles should make a public example of Rando.

Her stated goal in convincing the Washington Post to run the story was to publish a cautionary tale of moral pollution. She explained, “I want people who read this story to say to themselves, ‘I cannot excuse my friend’s bad behavior because it does reflect on me if I say nothing.’” In other words, unless we denounce our friends who have violated taboos, we are as morally contaminated as they are.

In order to pass the purity test, Toles was to assert in a national news story that Rando is “not the kind of person that he knows to be a good person.” Toles was morally tainted by his friendship with Rando and because he was a public figure, needed to publicly apologize in order to rid himself of the moral stain. “We are an extension of the company we keep,” she said.

But instead, Toles offered to connect the women who felt harassed to his chastened friend so Rando could “explain and apologize.” The accuser (a management consultant) was not interested. She insisted on “a public apology, not a private one.”

All of this would be nothing more than a difference of opinion about how to deal with lingering resentment over a nearly two-year old horrible choice of Halloween costume, except that for reasons unknown to just about everyone, the Washington Post decided to write a 3000 word story about it, naming the random woman.

Rando, who was aware of the forthcoming article, told her boss about it. She was promptly fired.

Was there a reason this story needed to be told? “No one I’ve spoken with at the Post can figure out why we published this story,” one prominent insider said, adding “We blew up this woman’s life for no reason.” Journalists Josh Barro and Olivia Nuzzi in their essay in New York Magazine, surmise that the Post ran the story to prevent it from being written elsewhere in a way that might have been less flattering to the paper.

But there’s another possibility.

“Critical discussion disappears,” wrote political commentator Walter Lippmann, “as the internal opposition is liquidated in favor of men who think and feel alike” (emphasis added). The insistence on an ideological monoculture, whether at a newspaper, in a company, or on a college campus, is not merely about conviction in the rightness of opinion. It is also about shared moral emotions. If you are not disgusted and repulsed by those who fail purity tests, if you do not feel contempt for them and are not willing to condemn, humiliate, and shame them, you are as odious as they are.

What happened to the random woman in the Washington Post piece is not isolated. Scott Alexander, a pseudonymous psychiatrist, recently deleted his popular blog, Slate Star Codex, because the New York Times planned to reveal his real name. Alexander has received death threats in the past because he discusses hot-button issues. His patients have until now been unaware of his personal perspective on controversial topics — which is as it should be. His ability to air his views without affecting his patients or his livelihood depends on his ability to remain anonymous. The New York Times, however, is unconvinced. (There is now a petition asking the Times not to reveal his name.)

During this pandemic, having been separated from one another for months, many of us are lonelier than ever. We are facing fears of contagion and our own mortality. We may all — journalists included — be hypersensitive, more aggressive than usual, and less compassionate. Our threshold for moral outrage may be especially low and our willingness to behave in inhumane ways too high. And the next purity test is just around the corner.

Maybe journalists should stop working from home. ♦

Wikimedia Commons image transformed by Pamela Paresky
Source: Wikimedia Commons image transformed by Pamela Paresky

Pamela Paresky served as primary researcher and in-house editor for the New York Times bestseller, The Coddling of the American Mind. Her opinions are her own and should not be considered official positions of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education or any other organization with which she is affiliated. Follow her on Twitter @PamelaParesky


* Her name is public in other places, but my preference is to leave out names of people who are not public figures and whose behavior can subject them to ridicule. For the same reason, I am not naming the women who urged the Washington Post to write the story.