The New York Times Spamming Incident Wasn't That Big a Deal

The New York Times's Home Subscriber alert heard round the world on Wednesday is now enjoying a second, silly turn in the news cycle, mostly thanks to News Corp and Anonymous.

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The New York Times's Home Subscriber alert heard round the world on Wednesday is now enjoying a second, silly turn in the news cycle, mostly thanks to News Corp and Anonymous. Thursday morning, the cover of Rupert Murdoch's American tabloid the New York Post did its best not to sugarcoat the issue with a realistic depiction of the email accident's importance. The headline read, "BAD Times: Caught in lie over 8.6 million 'spams'." Not to sensationalize the event or anything.

The incident also got the Anonymous treatment after a group sympathetic to the hacker collective called DestructiveSecurity, or DestructiveSec for short, took grammatically incorrect credit for sending the email. "New York Times Hacked - We gained access 'shortly' to there [sic] email server," DestructiveSec said on Twitter. "We hacked their email server & they're the Corporate media, spreading lies & hate" read another tweet. DestructiveSec, added, "We're taking down any media that is related to a Corp."

Oh, brother, we should've seen this coming. Just to set the record straight, Anonymous affiliates take credit for Internet-related events and make empty threats all the time. All it takes is a Twitter account or a YouTube video to send the media grasping for meaning. We'll give The Times the benefit of the doubt, when they say it was a simple mistake by a Times employee that led to the email blast, but clearly the paper's many detractors offer other interpretations.

Fox News's coverage of The Times's Spamgate (sure, why not just give it a predictable scandal brand) really made the biggest stretch, though. Flagged by The Village Voice's Jen Doll, went with the headline, "The New York Times Has a Weiner Moment," referencing the Twitter Direct Message that a congressman accidentally sent to all of his followers and eventually ruined his political career, just as the The Times accidentally sent a please-don't-stop-subscribing email to every email in its database, instead of the 300 or so folks who were supposed to receive it. According to Fox News:

When former congressman Anthony Weiner's embarrassing photos emerged in June, he promptly lied, dissembled, and did everything possible to cover up the story. The Times appears to have a similar strategy. First the paper tweeted that users should simply ignore the email -- it came from someone else. After an hour of confusion, misinformation and mistakes, The New York Times' corporate communication department offered a mea culpa. The email was, in fact, simply a mistake.

Again, we have every reason to believe that it was, simply, a mistake -- not a "lie" or a hacker conspiracy or even a scandal. Doll makes the leap, sarcastically, interpreting Fox News's take: "JUST LIKE WHAT HAPPENED WITH ANTHONY WEINER. … But can we disregard such a truly heinous, perverted thing? Can we ever move beyond it? Can again?" Yes, we probably can. We're deep in the news doldrums between Christmas and New Year's Eve and media reporters (this one included) were quick to latch on to the viral sensation that was Spamgate on Wednesday afternoon. It even earned its own entry on Buzzfeed, right next to a post on "How to Speak Wookie."

Slow news day argument aside, the amount of attention given to Spamgate is a reminder that The Times is having a pretty rough holiday season, PR-wise. In finishing up what could amount to a pretty major shift in the newspaper's management strategy, The Times spent a startling amount of money to push out its soon-to-be former chief executive Janet Robinson. At first, everyone was shocked by the $4.5 million "consulting fee" the company paid Robinson to stick around for a year, after her very abrupt decision to retire at the end of the year. Then, Reuters revealed that the full cost of Robinson's departure was closer to $15 million, since she was reportedly offered the early access to her hefty pension fund. Once you include the cost of buying out a baker's dozen of the newsrooms veteran journalists, we estimate that The Times has spent nearly $20 million eliminating a handful of positions. That's not counting the impending layoffs due to be announced today by Halifax Media Holdings, the brand new owners of the New York Times Company's Regional Media Group.

When Spamgate itself was unfolding, sucking up the breaking news bandwidth on our Twitter feed, one wise blogger offered a good alternative to freaking out about an accidental email blast. "What if instead of reporting on slow news day stories we all went outside?" Brian Lam, founding editor of The Wirecutter, suggested in a tweet. A few minutes later, he decided, "Instead of complaining about how annoying everyone is on Twitter, I'm going to go outside."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.