The Seattle Times before the internet killed the newspaper business and reporters hit on each other in person.
The Seattle Times before the internet killed the newspaper business and reporters hit on each other in person. SEATTLE MUNICIPAL ARCHIVES

Seattle Times real estate reporter Mike Rosenberg has been suspended.

On Sunday, New York-based writer Talia Jane posted screenshots on Twitter of a direct message conversation between her and Rosenberg, who is best known for his coverage of housing affordability issues in Seattle and the Bay Area. Jane did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but in the screenshots she posted online, the two briefly commiserate on the state of journalism, the conversation seems to end, and then, 10 minutes later, Rosenberg sends Jane two messages in quick succession: “Anyway you’re so beautiful,” reads the first, followed quickly by, “Anyway you are hilarious.” There’s a gap of about 40 minutes, and then he sends a third message: “there is so much cum on your face.” According to time stamps on Jane's end, this conversation took place at nearly 4 in the morning on Sunday New York time, or around 1 AM Seattle time.

According to the screenshots, Jane responded, “this isn’t appropriate or acceptable,” and Rosenberg quickly replied, “holy shit, you’re entirely right, that wasn’t intended for you, I am incredibly sorry (If I were you I would kill me).”

Jane doesn’t seem to believe him. She tells Rosenberg to show his wife the messages and permanently delete his Twitter account. He replies that he can’t delete his Twitter account because he will “get fired and be unemployed,” and that his wife will be “devastated.” Jane responds, “I told you what you need to do. If you can’t handle the consequences of your actions then you shouldn’t do them.” Rosenberg agrees, apologizes, and shortly later deletes his Twitter.

Later that day Jane emailed Seattle Times executive editor Don Shelton, informing him of Rosenberg’s behavior with screenshots attached. In both screenshots of the emails sent to the paper and the DMs she posted on Twitter, Jane initially obscured Rosenberg’s identity. Then, she says, Rosenberg emailed her and promised to donate $1000 to the National Organization for Women if she didn't out him. This email was not posted to Twitter, but, perhaps feeling like the donation was a bribe, she then named him to her 20,000 Twitter followers. Soon after, the Seattle Times announced Rosenberg had been suspended.

Rosenberg did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but Crosscut’s Lilly Fowler reached him on Sunday, and he confirmed that he sent the messages and said that they were meant for someone else. This happens—just last week I accidentally texted a friend asking for good excuses to bail on plans with that very same friend, and another person at this paper told me he once accidentally sexted a family member. If indeed it is a case of mistaken identity and he's not just trying to cover his tracks, this should be fairly easy to prove: If he was consensually sexting with another person, the receipts should be right there in Rosenberg’s DMs. I’d hate to be the human resources manager tasked with reading through an employee’s sexts, but if this was a genuine mistake—and if more stories about Rosenberg don’t come forth—he should be cleared of wrongdoing by his employer, if not by his wife.

Had I been in Talia Jane’s position, I might have posted screenshots myself. Receiving an unwanted message involving the words "cum" and "face" would be, to me, truly revolting. Still, Mike Rosenberg and Talia Jane are not colleagues. He’s got a staff job at a daily paper but he doesn’t actually have any power over her personally. From the screenshots, it doesn’t look like he was offering to help her get a job, and this incident didn’t take place on the clock. While it’s possible the Seattle Times pays Rosenberg’s phone bill and includes “don’t slide into DMs” in their in-house ethics code, I find this trend of turning private behavior into fireable offenses disturbing. It’s a bit like being fired from your job because you did drugs on vacation. If what we do outside of work doesn’t impact our performance at work, why should it be the boss’s business? I suspect that not so long ago, the response among most employers to charges that someone inappropriately hit on someone outside of work would be, “Who cares? Now get back to work.” The downside of this hands-off attitude is that it may protect and enable workers who act unethically, but, still, do we really want bosses to be in the business of penalizing people for what they do off the clock? I say no, but surely plenty of other people would say yes.

Either way, it’s happening, and things that happen off the clock are becoming reasons for job termination. Take for instance, the case of Jack Smith IV, a former reporter for the website Mic who was fired after Jezebel published an article accusing him of being a shitty boyfriend. Like Rosenberg, Smith wasn’t accused of harassing colleagues, but—also like Rosenberg—he had a significant number of followers on Twitter. This, I suspect, may give people the false impression that beat reporters have power, but these men aren’t Les Moonves or Harvey Weinstein or even executive editors like Don Shelton. The idea that a beat reporter at a mid-sized daily paper could make or break anyone’s career is, frankly, absurd. Bad DMs, however, can get you fired.

I completely understand why the Seattle Times would suspend Rosenberg. No matter the quality of his reporting, writing this off as something between two adults would have created an even bigger headache for the paper, and the only wise option for a business in this position is to investigate. Whatever they find—if this is an isolated incident, a mistake, or if Rosenberg has a long history of being a creep—his good name, if not his career, may very well be over. The story hasn’t just made local and national news, it’s made international headlines as well. Rosenberg’s wife and colleagues might forgive him, but the internet doesn’t forget, especially not in the #MeToo era.