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12 June 2020

A moment of reckoning for the US media

Arguments concerning discrimination against non-white staff, editorial judgement and bias are ongoing. But fair and transparent journalism should impart values as well as facts. 

By Sophie McBain

On 6 June, as anti-racism protests surged across the US, the top editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer resigned after 44 journalists on the paper called in “sick and tired” over a story he’d headlined: “Buildings Matter, Too.” The following day, the head of The New York Times editorial pages, James Bennett, resigned after staff publicly objected to the publication of an op-ed by a Republican senator calling for the military to disperse the Black Lives Matter protests.

On 8 June the editor-in-chief of Bon Appetit resigned after a photo of him emerged wearing “brownface” and journalists of colour revealed how they were underpaid and marginalised while working at the monthly food and entertainment magazine. On the same day, the editor-in chief of Refinery29, a woman’s lifestyle publication, resigned after former employees said they were discriminated against because of their race.

The public uprising against systemic racism, sparked by the police killing of George Floyd, is also reshaping American newsrooms. Despite the potential risks to their careers, journalists of colour have been speaking out about the lack of diversity and persistent inequalities in the newsroom, and senior managers, mindful that the political climate has shifted around them, are finally responding. 

The scandal at Bon Appetit drew scrutiny of its parent company, Condé Nast. Anna Wintour, the firm’s artistic director and the editor-in-chief of Vogue, apologised in early June for publishing content that was “hurtful and intolerant” and conceded that she had done too little to support black staffers. “It can’t be easy to be a black employee at Vogue, and there are too few of you. I know that it is not enough to say we will do better, but we will,” she wrote in a letter to staff that was obtained by PageSix.

The LA Times management has also sought to pre-empt criticism of the title’s lack of diversity, with reporter Esmeralda Bermudez posting on Twitter that after dozens of journalists fought for greater racial equality, the newspaper had committed to recruiting more black and Latino staffers. Her requests “have gone unheard for years”, Bermudez tweeted. Now, the media is reaching a moment of reckoning. 

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The newsroom rebellions at the NYT and the Philadelphia Inquirer reflected broader disputes over the limits of acceptable argument, the definition of journalistic objectivity and how a person’s identity can (or can’t) be upheld as evidence of bias.

In an open letter condemning the headline “Buildings Matter, too”, journalists of colour at the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote: “We’re tired of seeing our words and photos twisted to fit a narrative that does not reflect our reality. We’re tired of being told to show both sides of issues there are no two sides of.

“As journalists of color, we do more than report on the community – we are the community. We’re tired of working for months and years to gain the trust of our communities – communities that have long had good reason to not trust our profession – only to see that trust eroded in an instant by careless, unempathetic decisions.”

At the NYT, journalists shared the controversial (and inaccurate) op-ed’s headline, “Tom Cotton: Send in the Troops”, on Twitter with the message: “Running this puts Black @nytimes staff in danger”. The public campaign was coordinated by Black@NYT, a group on Slack, the digital communication platform used by staffers who are working remotely. The journalists also used Slack to discuss their concerns and outrage internally. 

Despite attempts to characterise the dispute as a left-right or generational divide, the rebelling staffers’ coordinated messages made clear that the problem wasn’t that they simply disagreed with the argument, or even that they found it hurtful or offensive. They recognised that in calling for the military to disperse unarmed civilians asserting their equal worth and the right of all Americans not to be killed with impunity by the state, the op-ed directly threatened black journalists. As one activist told the NYT’s media columnist Ben Smith, “It wasn’t just an opinion, it felt violent – it was a call to action that could hurt people.” 

The NYT publisher A.G. Sulzberger delivered a similar message, saying after Bennet’s resignation: “We’re not retreating from the principles of independence and objectivity. We don’t pretend to be objective about things like human rights and racism.” 

In his column, Smith traced how the 2014 Ferguson protests against police violence helped seed the debates we are witnessing today. America’s “biggest newsrooms are trying to find common ground between a tradition that aims to persuade the widest possible audience that its reporting is neutral, and journalists who believe that fairness on issues from race to Donald Trump requires clear moral calls,” he wrote

On Twitter, the veteran NYT writer and Pulitzer Prize-winner Brent Staples looked back even further to demonstrate how reporting on anti-racism protests has shaped reporting itself, writing: “White newsrooms only hired black reporters at all because of the civil unrest of the 1960s. African-American reporters at the time could actually tell you which riot got them hired.

“We came in under suspicion of ‘split loyalties’. Early in my career, I criticised coverage in the paper where I worked at the time. A manager called me in and said – without even a hint of irony: ‘We worry that you are here pushing a black agenda.’

“In other words, I was welcome to stay – only if I subscribed to what critical race theorists would later describe as the ‘white normative view’ of world events.”

His tweet points to another struggle in US newsrooms, between the kind of editorial leadership that mistakes a “white normative view of world events” as the perspective of the ideal, objective observer, and those who are rebelling against this model. An internal memo written by The Washington Post on social media policy summarises the problem well:

“Expressing identity and personal experience can be particularly treacherous for certain reporters, as some aspects of personal identity are viewed as inherently political or controversial in our society, such as race and gender.” 

The memo also mentioned a “two-tiered system”, that means white male reporters are able to get away with more “problematic” social media messages “while female and minority colleagues are not given the benefit of the doubt”.

One of the more egregious examples of this has unfolded at the Pittsburg Post-Gazette, where an African-American reporter named Alexis Johnson was stopped from covering the anti-police violence protests in her home town over a joke tweet comparing the damage caused by looting to the aftermath of a country music concert. The editors told her she was too biased to cover the story

When her colleague, Michael Santiago, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer tweeted in support of her, he was also stopped from reporting on the protests. The newspaper “has chosen to silence two of its most prominent Black journalists during one of the most important civil rights stories that is happening across our country!” he tweeted

Dozens of other staffers who retweeted the joke with the hashtag #IStandWithAlexis were then prevented from reporting on the protests; two found their protest-related stories had mysteriously disappeared from the newspaper’s website. A white reporter with the paper revealed that he had also been reprimanded for an ill-judged tweet describing looters as “scumbags”, but had not been deemed too “biased” to report.

The Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, the union that represents the paper’s staff, has rallied behind the reporters. The public has sent thousands of letters in support of Johnson and her colleagues, and advertisers have started withdrawing ads.

And yet, the top editor Keith C. Burris on 10 June published an open letter in which he denied many of his staffers’ allegations and attempted to defend his decision-making. His argument was revealing. He wrote: “No one was taken off the protest story because of race. One person was not assigned a story because of the suggestion of bias. A tweet was issued and a dialogue followed that editors felt was strong commentary – opinion – on a story the reporter was only supposed to report.” 

The dreadful, unspoken suggestion is that you shouldn’t be allowed to report on Black Lives Matter if you strongly believe that black lives do, in fact, matter. The dangerous misunderstanding is that affecting a position of indifference or neutrality towards a struggle for social equality suggests “objectivity”, rather than bias. 

As the president of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, Michael A. Fuoco, told the NYT: “They seem to think that racism is only shown by burning crosses. This piece today shows how insidious institutional and systemic racism can be where you think that your actions are normal and just, when they traumatise and marginalise black people.” 

In a recent interview on journalistic objectivity with NPR, the New York Times Magazine writer Nikole Hannah-Jones pointed out that all journalists view the stories they write through a “racialised lens”, but in a white-majority country white journalists rarely acknowledge, it while black journalists are “perceived to wear our bias on our skin, so people presume we’re biased because of our race”. 

It will be evident to most observers that the leadership of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette will find itself on the wrong side of history, and much sooner than they realise. The newsroom rebellions taking place across the US do not suggest that journalists are abandoning their commitment to truth or fairness. Instead, they are arguing that fair, transparent journalism imparts values as well as facts. There is no such thing as objectivity, and as they bear witness to a transformational civil rights movement they refuse to pretend there is.