It’s safe to say that Matthew Callan, a 34-year-old book production editor, was no one’s go-to source for commentary when CNN anchor Anderson Cooper came out July 2. But in the Twitter tizzy to cover the breaking (if not surprising) news, at least two news outlets published a quip by Mr. Callan—only they attributed it to New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane.
Mr. Callan is the tweeter behind @TimesPublicEdit, a parody of Mr. Brisbane, whose handle is @thepubliceditor. Mr. Callan began the account in January, shortly after The Times published Mr. Brisbane now-infamous column, “Should the Times Be a Truth Vigilante?” asking if newspapers ought to fact-check all remarks made by newsmakers.
“I was aghast at the sort of sophistry that was on display for that,” Mr. Callan told Off The Record.
The feed began as a place to mock the concept of truth vigilantism (“Should The Times have asked some follow-up questions when Rick Santorum told us he was a vampire?”) but later became a sort of ombudsman-at-large, questioning the fixations of the reporters who hang around on Twitter.
Indeed, Mr. Callan’s parody became so refined that when he wrote “CNN is reporting that Anderson Cooper is straight” (a reference to CNN’s incorrect reporting on the Supreme Court’s health care decision), reporters from other outlets—unable to resist a catty and colorful quote from a Times editor—forgot to be their own Twitter truth vigilantes.
“Awful lot of snark coming from Art ‘Should we check facts?’ Brisbane,” wrote Atlantic associate editor David Graham, before quickly recanting. “Blast, that’s a fake Times Public Editor account. Apologies.”
Reporters for the New York Post’s Page Six and The Hollywood Reporter, were more easily fooled; both attributed to the joke to Mr. Brisbane.
Forty-eight hours, 719 retweets, and some 3,000 “favorites” later, Mr. Callan’s account was shut down by Twitter.
The situation would make a fine topic for a Public Editor column. (In fact, it’s one Craig Silverman, who was reportedly approached to replace Mr. Brisbane, has discussed on Poynter.) As journalists increasingly treat their subjects’ Twitters as a primary source, should the microblogging platform regulate parody Twitters? Or is it the job of a journalist to vet its social media sources?
When Mr. Callan appealed his suspension, Twitter told him it had received a “valid impersonation report regarding your account.”
“Twitter firmly believes in the freedom of expression,” the company wrote to Mr. Callan, “However, impersonation that misleads, confuses, or deceives is against Twitter Rules.”
But Mr. Callan, who writes for the sports blogs The Classical and Amazin’ Avenue, says his intention was parody, not deception.
“Occasionally I would get a retweet or a mention but up until this past week nobody to my knowledge thought that was really him,” he said.
Per the rules, Mr. Callan has added “fake” to his profile and been reinstated. Any confusion will soon be settled, however. Mr. Brisbane, who declined to comment on this story, will abdicate the public editor post in September. The Times has yet to name his replacement but is reportedly circling in on candidates.
Off The Record wondered whom the ombudsman’s ombudsman might like to see take over the position.
“A person of color, a woman, someone out of the mold,” he said. “The New York Times already skews toward the Arthur Brisbane demographic. It should bring something different to a paper that’s already fairly monochromatic.”