The Media Today

The ongoing fight against racism in newsrooms

February 26, 2021

Yesterday, Alex Goldman—a co-host of Reply All, a popular tech podcast produced by Gimlet—popped up in the show’s feed with a brief programming announcement: “The Test Kitchen,” Reply All’s recent series about racism at the food magazine Bon Appétit, has been canceled; the show as a whole is going on hiatus; and two of its journalists—P.J. Vogt, a co-host alongside Goldman, and Sruthi Pinnamaneni, who reported the Test Kitchen series—won’t be coming back. Goldman also offered an apology. “We now understand that we should never have published this series as reported, and the fact that we did was a systemic editorial failure,” he said. “We’re very sorry for our many failings.”

These failings were not ones of shoddy fact-gathering; on the contrary, the Test Kitchen series won wide praise for its detailed, nuanced exploration of the toxic working environment at Bon Appétit under Adam Rapoport, who stepped down last summer. Rather, the failings pertained to hypocrisy. Two weeks ago, after Reply All released the second episode of its series (of an intended four), Brittany Luse and Eric Eddings, two podcast hosts who formerly worked at Gimlet, wrote on Twitter that although staffers at Bon Appétit deserved airtime for their stories, Reply All was not an appropriate messenger. Eddings wrote that he felt “gaslit” by the Test Kitchen series because Vogt and Pinnamaneni “contributed to a near identical toxic dynamic at Gimlet”; the pair, Eddings wrote, had “AGGRESSIVELY” opposed efforts to diversify the company, including by wielding the internal power of the Reply All team as a “cudgel” against a unionization push spearheaded by staffers of color. (Pinnamaneni had addressed her opposition to the union in the second episode of the Test Kitchen; she said that she should have made “different choices,” but added that “ideally, employees shouldn’t have to make those kinds of choices at all.”) Eddings’s tweets went viral. Vogt and Pinnamaneni publicly apologized; Nicholas Quah reported, for Vulture, that both would be leaving Reply All. (Pinnamaneni was already scheduled to move on at the end of the Test Kitchen series; Vogt was not.) Yesterday, Goldman promised that Reply All would enter a period of introspection. He also said that the first two episodes of the Test Kitchen would stay online. “We had a lot of debate about it,” he said, “but ultimately, we don’t want to bury our failure.”

New from CJR: Bridging gaps in year-round election coverage

A podcast about workplace racism causing its own reckoning with workplace racism may have been a bit meta, but it was not an outlier incident in the journalism world. Early this month, Donald G. McNeil, Jr., a veteran science reporter at the New York Times, left the paper after the Daily Beast reported that he used an anti-Black slur and made other bigoted remarks while accompanying high-schoolers on a Times-led trip to Peru. His exit, and the Times’s botched handling of it, led to a debate—conducted with wildly varying degrees of good faith—about the use of the slur in various contexts; last week, Mike Pesca, a podcast host at Slate, argued in an internal discussion about McNeil that white people should be allowed to say the word in some cases, and was subsequently suspended. (According to Defector, Pesca has used the slur at work before.) In the world of TV, Meg James, of the Los Angeles Times, reported on allegations that Peter Dunn and David Friend, senior executives at CBS Television Stations, were responsible for institutionalized racist and sexist bullying at the company; both have since been suspended pending an investigation; their employees are speaking out. (James also reported on concerns about a deal Dunn brokered to buy a Long Island TV station that came with a tony golf-club membership attached.) In the world of public radio, Cerise Castle, a former producer at KCRW, in LA, spoke out this week about “blatant racism” she faced at work, “starting when I was physically prevented from entering the building multiple times within my first month of employment.” (KCRW called some of her claims “unsubstantiated.”)

In recent weeks, we’ve also seen the conclusions of longer-term reviews commissioned last summer, including a content audit at the Philadelphia Inquirer—where, last June, the headline “Buildings Matter, Too” led to a staff sickout and the resignation of the top editor. In a roundup for Poynter, Andrea Wenzel, an academic at Temple University who helped conduct the audit, wrote that the disproportionate whiteness of the Inquirer’s staff is reflected in its coverage, not only in terms of “how often communities of color were covered, but how they were covered.” This week, the Times published a report that focused less on diversity metrics and more on the culture of the newsroom; it concluded that “the Times is too often a difficult place to work for people of all backgrounds—particularly colleagues of color, and especially Black and Latino colleagues.” Black staffers in non-leadership roles were found to leave the paper more often than white colleagues; Asian-American women and other staffers of color reported feeling “unseen—to the point of being regularly called by the name of a different colleague of the same race.” The Times promised to hardwire diversity, equity, and inclusion into its HR practices.

Since the summer, quantitative and qualitative assessments of newsroom racism have run alongside each other, with frequent overlap. On the former front, major outlets—including Bon Appétit—have hired journalists of color into senior editorial positions; several created new roles focused on “diversity and inclusion.” And yet “minorities remain underrepresented at nearly every level of these companies and across departments,” as NBC’s Ahiza García-Hodges reported last week, based on data from Condé Nast, Hearst, and Vice Media. “Also, while some companies showed improvements in the hiring of employees of color, at most companies, the majority of new jobs continued to be filled by white people.”

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Lately, news organizations have published packages re-evaluating, and often apologizing for, decades of racist coverage; the Kansas City Star, in one representative example, removed from its masthead the name of William Rockhill Nelson, who founded the paper and advocated racial segregation. But future-facing cultural shifts have proven harder. Last month, hundreds of public-radio staffers signed a statement, organized by Celeste Headlee, calling urgently for an “anti-racist future” for public media. “The work that faces us is painful and frustrating and profoundly uncomfortable,” they wrote. “We hope to tear down public radio in order to build it back up.” Recently, CJR’s Alexandria Neason explored the history of newsroom apologies—which long predates last summer—focusing, in particular, on the case of North Carolina’s News & Observer, whose publisher, Josephus Daniels, used the paper in 1898 to support a white-supremacist coup. “The press of today has a different relationship with white supremacy, but the modern manifestations—of language, of omission, of framing—are the offspring of Daniels’s tactics, only softened, normalized, and couched in industry norms,” Neason observed. Apologies, she wrote, are crucial to accountability, but also inadequate. “Something else is required,” she wrote. “And, certainly, something else is possible. We’re ready when you are.”

Below, more on racism and the press:

  • Diversity work: For CJR’s latest magazine, Maya Binyam explored whether media unions might be able to make newsrooms inclusive. “Nearly every union organizer I spoke with expressed some variation on the belief that their managers genuinely wanted to possess diversity,” Binyam writes. “At the bargaining table, most bosses even tout it as a common cause. But when presented with language that would bind the company to concrete obligations, these same managers fall back on noncommittal rhetoric or vacate the conversation altogether.”
  • The back story: Before news broke of Vogt and Pinnamaneni’s departures from Reply All, Eddings spoke with Justin Ray, of the LA Times, about his criticism of the Test Kitchen. Eddings said that Pinnamaneni emailed him and tried to set up a call about her opposition to the Gimlet union drive, in the context of her reporting on Bon Appétit. “It was upsetting just because it really actually brought up a lot,” Eddings said. “It’s been frankly about two years at this point since all these things went down.” He added, “Doing it in this context felt really disingenuous.”
  • Abuse: Yesterday, Seung Min Kim, a politics reporter at the Washington Post, posted on Twitter about racist abuse that she has received in response to her reporting on Neera Tanden, President Biden’s seemingly-doomed nominee to lead the Office of Management and Budget. (The abuse was triggered, in particular, by a photo of Kim showing the Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski one of Tanden’s old tweets.) Steven Ginsberg, national editor at the Post, put out a statement in support of Kim. “No one should have to deal with the hate that has been directed at Seung Min,” he wrote.
  • A firing: Last week, WTTW, a TV station in Chicago, ousted Hugo Balta, its news director, after several staffers complained to management about the political views expressed in his social-media posts. In a letter to the Chicago Sun-Times, Balta, who is Latino, said that he was fired because “I don’t hide behind the handicap of objectivity as if journalists can check their humanity at the door.” Instead, he writes, “I subscribe to transparency in the pursuit of truth. By acknowledging my own biases, I surround myself with people who don’t often share the same experience, background and ideologies.”
  • A good job?: For Nieman Lab, Summer Harlow, a journalism professor at the University of Houston, summarized her recent research—with Danielle Kilgo, of the University of Minnesota—showing that journalists still tend to think that they are doing a good job covering protests for racial justice, “even though studies that I and others have done repeatedly show that mainstream media tend to delegitimize protesters and their causes.” Harlow and Kilgo surveyed reporters in Missouri, Virginia, Arizona, and Texas and matched their answers against a content analysis of nearly a thousand protest stories. (In June, Cinnamon Janzer interviewed Kilgo about protest coverage for CJR.)
  • A renaissance: Alison Bethel McKenzie, of Report for America, writes that Black-owned and -operated publications are enjoying “a renaissance,” after years of being hard hit by the financial headwinds buffeting the news industry. “Following increased attention on racial inequality in the United States and a call in Black communities for more news by and for African Americans, funders are beginning to focus their attention—and dollars—on helping support the Black press,” McKenzie writes.

Other notable stories:

  • The Biden administration will imminently release an intelligence report linking Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the killing, in 2018, of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi; various outlets reported that we would see the document yesterday, but still, we wait. Biden did speak yesterday with King Salman, MBS’s father. Publicly, the White House has been critical of the Saudi regime, but, per the Times, its account of yesterday’s call was “polite” and “vague,” and made no mention of the Khashoggi report.
  • CJR’s Lauren Harris spoke with Jessica Huseman about her work leading Votebeat, a new nonprofit newsroom that is partnering with local journalists to prioritize stories about voting rights and administration, as focus on the subject begins to ebb post-election. “For a really long time, voting has been the sort of ugly stepchild to campaign coverage,” Huseman said. “We’ve decided that it’s not important because it’s not always sexy.” (To subscribe to Harris’s weekly newsletter on the news business, click here.)
  • Tara McGowan—a Democratic operative whose strategy firm, Acronym, created a stable of “local news” sites with a partisan slant—is launching the Project for Good Information, which will pursue similar objectives without the direct backing of an overtly political group. McGowan’s allies “say she is one of the few Democrats willing to fight fire with fire,” Recode’s Theodore Schleifer writes. “But PGI wants to ‘restore social trust’ in media, and its critics argue ideological outlets only erode that even further.”
  • On Wednesday, staffers at the Southern California News Group, a chain of local papers owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, announced that they are unionizing. The same day, journalists at the Austin American-Statesman voted officially to unionize after that paper’s owner, Gannett, declined to recognize the effort voluntarily. And the National Labor Relations Board ruled that staffers at four Washington State newspapers owned by McClatchy can unionize as a single unit. Poynter’s Angela Fu has a roundup.
  • In media-jobs news, Amy Walter is leaving The Takeaway, where she hosted a weekly show focused on politics. Her final episode will be broadcast today. Elsewhere, Mehdi Hasan, who currently hosts a show on NBC’s streaming service, is getting a prime-time Sunday-night slot on MSNBC. And Sunday will be Marty Baron’s last day at the Post. Yesterday, his colleagues threw him a virtual farewell party featuring pre-taped tributes from various media luminaries—and from Liev Schreiber, who played Baron in Spotlight.
  • This week, Janet Cruz, a Democratic state senator in Florida, proposed a bill that would make it a hate crime to threaten or attack a journalist—a designation that, currently, only applies to protected characteristics such as ethnicity and sexual orientation. In a statement, Cruz cited the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol as an impetus behind the bill. Colin Wolf, of Creative Loafing: Tampa Bay, has more details.
  • For CJR, Jessica Lipsky reports on the relaunch of Wax Poetics, a hip-hop magazine that halted its regular print distribution in 2017, amid declines in ad revenue and readership. “Four years later, Wax Poetics has new owners: Alex Bruh and David Holt, British marketers and brand consultants,” Lipsky writes. Holt “has faith that WP can be financially viable again while keeping to the editorial mission of the original magazine.”
  • Barkha Dutt, a journalist in India, writes for the Post about a recent viral video that called for her to be hanged, alongside eight of her colleagues, for her reporting on farmers’ protests in the country. Trolls targeted Dutt after her work was mentioned in a protest “toolkit” that was shared online by activists including Greta Thunberg. Recently, police arrested Disha Ravi, an Indian climate activist, for “conspiring” to share the toolkit.
  • And Twitter unveiled “Super Follows,” a new feature that will allow users of the platform to charge their followers to see bonus content. Nieman Lab’s Laura Hazard Owen reports that journalists are “drooling” at the prospect—though it’s an open question, she writes, “whether newsrooms will let reporters paywall their tweets and keep the money.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.