The NY Times Fires Tech Writer Quinn Norton, and It’s Complicated
Tuesday afternoon, the New York Times announced it was hiring an opinion writer named Quinn Norton to write about “the power, culture, and consequences of technology.” Late Tuesday night, the Times fired her.
Norton, a writer-activist who covered, among other things, the Occupy and Anonymous movements for WIRED in the 2000s, has been an outspoken voice for hackers, the open-source and free-speech communities, and for people working on digital security and privacy. She has been a chronicler and target of harassment online and in the physical world, and she was the romantic partner and friend of Aaron Swartz, the renowned coder and activist who committed suicide in the face of a federal investigation of his activities. Norton knows the field, in other words.
But even as congratulations-twitter spun up for Norton, detective-twitter did a double-take. People resurfaced old Tweets where Norton employed derogatory terms for African Americans and gay people—words I find difficult to even type, frankly, about which more in a moment—and writing where she evinced friendships with well-known neo-Nazis. This took all of a couple hours, and I’ve been on enough HR-related conference calls to imagine what kinds of meetings people at the Times were having: How did we miss this, does it matter, is she racist or is she just using racist words, we hired her because she’s connected and complicated….
Arguably one of the world’s experts on the ebb and flow of online communities, Norton didn’t exactly try to defend herself. The use of—oy, find me a better way to say this than “the N-word,” but OK—was part of an ill-conceived retweet of John Perry Barlow, who was trying to make a point about racists. Those similarly foreclosed-upon words referring to gay people were sometimes, Norton said, because she herself has been active in the queer community and were covered by in-group privilege, and sometimes because she was code-switching to the language of 4chan and other online groups that use vile epithets like cooks use salt.
Complicated. And as Norton is a journalist covering free-speech and privacy issues online, maybe this kind of language isn’t just allowed but appropriate. She’s speaking the language of the people she writes about.
But what about the friends-with-Nazis thing?
In particular, Norton had defended Andrew Auernheimer, a hacker (who wrote an opinion piece for WIRED in 2012) and went to prison in 2013. Upon his release about a year later, Auernheimer said that he was also a white supremacist and anti-semite.
Everyone is redeemable, Norton explained, and silence or disengagement make racism worse. She pointed to an article she posted on Medium about talking to racists as part of fighting the good fight against them, but also keeping open the lines of communication—as opposed to just, you know, punching Nazis.
Anyway, the Times compounded its apparent lack of due diligence with surrender to the mob, and fired her. Here’s the official statement from James Bennet, the editor of the editorial page: “Despite our review of Quinn Norton’s work and our conversations with her previous employers, this was new information to us. Based on it, we’ve decided to go our separate ways.”
A few journalists, including a crowd of current and former WIRED staffers whom I greatly respect, criticized the decision. As my colleague Steven Levy wrote, “she’s no racist or Nazi sympathizer. She’s a smart edgy writer whose tweets are too easily taken out of context.” They described her as a complicated, forceful voice for the underrepresented—for women, for people of color, for the poor and the technologically disenfranchised.
Those he-saids got she-saided by anti-Nazi hardliners (a phrase I did not know I would need, because, come on) and especially women of color. In Norton’s writing they saw a bad-faith ally.
I don’t remember working with Norton when she was at WIRED, though our tenures overlapped. Her writing, then and now, is as personal as it is political, often coming from a place of empathy rather than sympathy, if you see what I mean. (I reached out to Norton, and I’ll update this post if she gets back to me.)
Responding to the situation on Twitter as it unfolded, Norton said that she was no longer in touch with the Neo-Nazi she’d described as a friend, but that if he did reach out, she’d talk about his dumb racism, as she always did. It’s tough to know whether Norton had described him as a friend because he was, or to be edgy or open-minded. Maybe what she was actually talking about was a cordial relationship with a source. Have I ever become friends with a source for a story? Of course. Have I ever spoken with sources whose views I found odious? Sure. But I’ve never become friends with one of those.
Norton became a part of the communities she reported on; Norton reported on communities of which she was a part. That can be a strength. Sympathy can mean distance, and in the online world, there’s little difference between understanding the technology, the sociology, and the actual feelings of it all. The hacktivists of Anonymous don’t reveal themselves fully to just anyone. Maybe you have to have a touch like Norton’s, or they’ll remain, well, anonymous.
We reporters argue about this kind of thing all the time, mostly in private. Do you have to be of a subculture to report on it? We sometimes affect an intellectual openness and approachability that we might not feel; part of our job is to assure people we’ll represent their views and statements in good faith. But does that mean we have to agree with them? Or seem to agree?
Even if that argument has an answer, it wouldn’t necessarily have been relevant. In the old days, whenever those were, Norton’s social life wouldn’t have been public. She wouldn’t have typed those words. Her writing would be separate. But now, like all of us, Norton’s social persona is integral to her body of work. The internet remembered that she was comfortable enough with the language of 4chan and of Neo-Nazis to not only write about it but deploy it.
In Norton’s construction, this was a case of “context collapse,” and a display of what a mob can do when empowered by the internet. On the other hand—complicated!—every journalist reads the demur “I was taken out of context” to mean “you quoted something I wish I hadn’t said.”
It’s clearer now, though, how much those words matter. Gamergate, the far right’s attempt to take over science fiction’s Hugo Awards, and the general awfulness of social media for women and people of color have all been signals of a cultural problem that nominally mainstream reporters like me didn’t pay enough attention to. The rise of Neo-Nazism and hard-right politics online has played out in the physical world to deadly effect. The media saw it happen. And it doesn’t want it to happen again. So this time, the mainstreamiest of mainstream media outlets drew a bright line around Nazis. Who, frankly, could blame them?
So now the Times editorial board won’t get the benefit of Norton’s diverse background and expertise—and won’t be as well-positioned to reach the people Norton covers. She’ll no doubt continue to write, but the Acela corridor still prefers the Times and the Post to Medium. Those people need to understand what’s happening on the internet, from brightest open spaces to darkest corners. They should find someone who can explain it to them.