In June 2017, Andrew Beaujon reported in the Washingtonian on a new policy at the Washington Post that prohibits the Post’s employees from conduct on social media that “adversely affects The Post’s customers, advertisers, subscribers, vendors, suppliers or partners.” In such cases, according to the policy, Post management reserved the right to take disciplinary action “up to and including termination of employment.” According to the report, the Post’s policy went into effect on May 1 and applies to the entire company.
In addition to restricting criticism, the Post’s new policy encourages employees to snitch on one another: “If you have any reason to believe that an employee may be in violation of The Post’s Social Media Policy . . . you should contact the Post’s Human Resources Department.” The Post declined to comment on the policy to the Washingtonian.
At the time of the news report, the Washington-Baltimore News Guild, which represents newsroom and commercial employees at the Post, was protesting the company-wide action and was seeking to have the controversial parts of the policy removed in a new labor agreement.
As Whitney Webb noted in a report for MintPress News, “This new policy offers a simple loophole to corporations that wish to avoid criticism from the Post, as becoming a sponsor of the paper would quickly put an end to any unfavorable coverage.”
Webb’s report also addressed how the policy might affect the Post’s coverage of stories involving the CIA. Four months after Jeff Bezos purchased the Post, Amazon Web Services signed a $600 million contract with the CIA for web hosting services that now serve “the entire U.S. intelligence community.” (Bezos is the CEO of Amazon.) According to Webb, “long before” the Post’s new policy restricting employees’ use of social media went into effect, “some had speculated that the connections between the CIA and the Post were already affecting its reporting. For example, last year, the Post openly called for the prosecution of [Edward] Snowden, despite having previously used the whistleblower’s leaks for their Pulitzer Prize–winning report on illegal NSA spying.”
Former Post reporters suggested that, although criticizing the CIA would not technically be prohibited under the company’s new policy, doing so might jeopardize one’s career. In 2013, John Hanrahan, a former Post reporter, told AlterNet, “Post reporters and editors are aware that Bezos, as majority owner of Amazon, has a financial stake in maintaining good relations with the CIA—and this sends a clear message to even the hardest-nosed journalist that making the CIA look bad might not be a good career move.”
Corporate news coverage of the Washington Post’s social media policy has been extremely limited. In July 2017, Fox Business News caught up with the story in a brief 74-second “Business Alert” during its Mornings with Maria program. The segment cited the Washingtonian as the source of its information, while adding that Jeff Bezos “was not part of the executive team that determined the policy,” according to a spokesperson for the Post. “This is tricky territory when we get into free speech here,” Fox Business News’s Tracee Carrasco concluded. The Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece by James Freeman, which questioned the policy, speculated that it was “corporate boiler plate accidentally imported from some non-journalistic digital outfit,” and called on Bezos to “do what journalists do when they make a mistake. Retract it.”
Andrew Beaujon, “The Washington Post’s New Social Media Policy Forbids Disparaging Advertisers,” Washingtonian, June 27, 2017, https://www.washingtonian.com/2017/06/27/the-washington-post-social-media-policy/.
Josh Delk, “Washington Post Prohibits Social Media Criticism of Advertisers,” The Hill, June 28, 2017, http://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/339930-washington-post-prohibits-social-media-criticism-of-advertisers.
Whitney Webb, “Bezos Bans WaPo Staff from Criticizing Corporate Advertisers on Social Media,” MintPress News, July 17, 2017, https://www.mintpressnews.com/washington-post-staff-banned-criticizing-advertisers/229821/.
Student Researcher: Bryan Sergel (Indian River State College)
Faculty Researcher: Elliot D. Cohen (Indian River State College)