On Monday, the Washington Post sent out a memo to its employees outlining what is considered acceptable off-the-clock behavior for its employees concerning attending certain events. While the memo is meant to reinforce the longstanding policy that employees do not engage in overtly political behavior in public, the guidance given is a bit contradictory.
To start, the Post gives some interesting examples of what is considered to be political events versus what is not
“With these principles in mind, we want to make clear that newsroom employees may participate in celebratory parades or festivals that are not partisan or political. For example, newsroom staff may attend Pride or Juneteenth celebrations, July 4th parades, heritage festivals and other such non-political gatherings. Protests, demonstrations and partisan activities are another matter – we intend no relaxation of our longstanding expectation that newsroom employees refrain from such expressions of public advocacy. As a rule, we are witnesses and observers in the public square, not participants or activists. Context matters: It would be fine to participate in a celebration at BLM plaza but not a protest there or attend a Pride gathering but not a demonstration at the Supreme Court.”
One could argue over the idea that Pride and Juneteenth celebrations being non-political and non-partisan -- they are a celebration of LGBTQ people and the abolition of slavery respectively -- but both events have distinct political undertones. The guidance on attending a BLM event is even more confusing, as attending a BLM celebration would imply approval of the Black Lives Matter movement, which is overtly political. As to the distinction between attending a celebration versus a protest, who makes that distinction? What happens if a Post employee attends a peaceful gathering that turns into something more, as happened so many times last summer? What consequences would an employee face if their department head or HR deems that the event they attended crosses these murky lines? If one is a Post employee, do they run the risk of violating this policy or do they avoid all potentially offending events altogether?
The memo goes on to advise on more controversial topics
“We should do everything possible to avoid partisanship or advocacy for specific policies or special interests, or the appearance of such activity. For instance, a newsroom employee would not hold a protest sign at a parade or wear a hat supporting or opposing a political candidate or legislative policy, but might wear a rainbow cap, wave an American flag or wear a t-shirt celebrating their identity. Here, details matter. A shirt with the flag of the District of Columbia is fine. One supporting statehood would not be – that would be an expression of public advocacy on a matter we cover.”
The Post is walking a very thin tightrope as to what it is deeming to be political -- for most people, wearing a rainbow cap or a shirt celebrating their identity is just as political an act as endorsing a specific candidate or carrying a protest sign. As far as the idea that waving an American flag isn’t overtly political, I’m sure the Post would see the overtly political significance of an employee burning that same flag.
I understand that the Post is trying to maintain a veneer of non-partisanship but there is a much easier and less offensive way to do that -- institute standards for their on-the-clock work. If a reporter submits a story that their editor feels slants too far in one direction, then that editor should send the piece back with editing notes and ask for a rewrite. I would give the same advice for columnists and those writing for the opinion section, although odds are readers already know those writers’ sympathies.
I’m not comfortable with the idea of an employer creating policies as to its employees’ off-time behavior, especially when those policies infringe on employees’ constitutional rights. If the Post wants to appear non-partisan, then it can do everything possible to make sure the writing it publishes reflects that goal. Asking employees to police their behavior to give the paper that appearance isn’t a fair ask.
Moreover, asking employees to live a publicly apolitical life is an impossible task. Thanks in part to publications like the Post, every decision a person makes -- from where they shop to who they date to where they get their chicken sandwiches -- is a political act. The politicization of everything has destroyed the idea that a person can make everyday decisions in an apolitical manner; every action is scrutinized through that lens. To use some of the examples the Post cites in its memo, the act of not attending a Pride or BLM event is seen as a form of political speech. In this environment, how are Post employees expected to appear non-political in public?
And then there is the one major area of political expression not mentioned in the memo -- social media. If the idea behind instituting this policy is to prevent employees from expressing partisanship or support for any specific cause, then there are quite a few prominent Post writers who are going to have to deactivate their Twitter accounts. It’s very curious to me that the Post limited its guidance to in-person events; is tweeting support for a protest less prejudicial than physically attending the protest? Or is the Post trying to avoid angering its high profile talent at a time when a certain newsletter platform is openly poaching writers from mainstream publications?
Even if the Post’s intentions were good, the execution was awful. Creating a confusing set of standards for in-person events while not addressing online activity at all leaves the impression that the Post is trying to have its cake and eat it too by giving the appearance it is addressing its image without acknowledging where the real issues lie.