If your newsroom doesn’t like to be described as racist, it’s bad to publish stories that suggest “Black people are genetically inferior.”
When Kendra Pierre-Louis tweeted that newsrooms should not publish or uplift stories that do exactly that, she said the New York Times’ Standards Desk had a response, delivered to her by way of an editor:
“Don’t do it again.”
Pierre-Louis, a Black reporter who previously covered climate for the New York Times, said she was not asked to delete her tweet thread, which went on to critique American journalism’s failure to diversify and its failure to use the “R word.” But she was sanctioned for it, supposedly because it was not her job to cover race.
In other words, her tweets critiquing white supremacy or racism threatened her job. Pierre-Louis, whose career is rooted in science journalism, was punished not only for caring about newsroom diversity, but for writing a tweet thread that used research to explain each one of her points. She wasn’t just speaking to the realities of her identity, she was doing what any good journalist would do: reporting.
Pierre-Louis, who left The Times in May, said the obvious about her tweet thread: “It was not an inflammatory tweet to anyone but this institution.”
But Black reporters around the country now come to expect getting a similar or call, text, or email: “RE: About your tweet.”
It’s a common enough occurrence that there are numerous documented examples of legacy newsrooms passing on implied and direct threats to their reporters, many of them Black, indigenous, or people of color, for their tweets. The difference now is that many of those same reporters, who now have substantial followings on Twitter, are willing to say their truth. Publicly.
Last week, two prominent Black reporters at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette were suspended for what editors said was “bias.” One of the reporters, Alexis Johnson, was suspended from covering Black Lives Matter protests because of her tweet critiquing how American media frames looting (NPR noted that a white reporter in the newsroom was also reprimanded for disparaging a man accused of looting, but was not banned from coverage). At the Philadelphia Inquirer, after the paper published a story entitled “Buildings Matter, Too,” journalists of color at the paper said they would strike the next day (the paper’s Editor-in-Chief has since resigned).
At the same time, Twitter in the last week has erupted with stories from Black journalists around the country. Several Black women said they worked inside a toxic company culture at Refinery29 that validated racism and underpaid them. Others on Twitter talked about how management at the prominent outlets they used to work for were constantly demeaning.
All of these incidents mirror the reckoning that already came for one of the largest newsrooms in the country: The Washington Post.
Last year, when Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter Wesley Lowery suggested on Twitter that it was irresponsible for a New York Times piece to not mention the Tea Party as rooted in racism, Post Editor-in-Chief Marty Baron threatened his job. Ben Smith, at The Times, obtained Baron’s written warning to Lowery. “Failure to address this issue will result in increased disciplinary action,” Baron’s memo reads, “up to and including the termination of your employment.”
When Kobe Bryant passed away last year, many reporters were content omitting part of his legacy. Post national political reporter Felicia Sonmez tweeted (with no commentary) about Bryant’s sexual assault allegation. Sonmez, who had risked her career the year before in speaking out against a journalist that assaulted her, was suspended from The Post, at a time when she was already receiving death threats for her tweet.
“The tweets displayed poor judgment that undermined the work of her colleagues,” Post Managing Editor Tracy Grant said in a statement at the time.
Both reporters posted accurate information, but because it was in some way controversial in the minds of top editors, Baron and Grant deemed the tweets inappropriate. There are polite, coded ways that top editors describe why the information they shared was inappropriate (for example, that their newsrooms desire to be “a-political” or that the reporters were not cordial enough in their interactions online), but these excuses are just the thin film on top of spoiled milk. The Post’s Editor-in-Chief and Managing Editor wanted their reporters to be quiet because they didn’t want to consider the alternative: that their form of journalism, built on vague platitudes about “objectivity” and “truth,” keeps the newsrooms out of reach for many Black and brown journalists unwilling to be quiet.
Black journalists are often told they shouldn’t cover movements like Black Lives Matter because of their own bias, but that problem is, For Some Reason, limited to reporters that look a certain way. White reporters are never told, for example, that they shouldn’t cover a majority white U.S. Congress because of their own bias. White journalists in American journalism are often considered the default, rather than being acknowledged as having an identity with their own biases and experiences.
While this issue is not just limited to social media policy, the conflict has a unique home on Twitter, because the platform’s emergence has allowed reporters to openly challenge their own newsrooms.
If you take their comments at face value, top editors like Baron have suggested that they think about these issues a lot. “In this environment, it’s essential that you feel safe and supported. It’s no surprise to you that your stories and social media activity can elicit a strong and often deeply offensive reaction from certain individuals,” Baron said last year, after Sonmez was reinstated. “Sadly, far too often it is threatening, especially for women and journalists of color. Your safety should never be in jeopardy, and we will always do everything possible to make sure it never is.”
He added: “The benefits of sound policies will accrue to all of us, and further conversations can help us figure out the proper course. I look forward to hearing more from you.”
But over the last year, The Post has made their lack of leadership commitment clear. “As promised, we would like to engage in conversations about our social media policy,” Grant wrote in a newsroom-wide email in February. “We’d like to know what you believe the standards should be.”
Nothing substantive has changed since.
It should go without saying that you cannot retain a diverse array of employees when you’re constantly telling them their writing and understanding of the world doesn’t matter, especially when you are policing their Twitter, a platform often used by underrepresented journalists to jumpstart their careers.
Leadership of legacy newsrooms like The Post and The New York Times still see their papers as divorced from the political realities of the world. But that luxury is impossible for journalists whose skin color and identity is determinant of how they are treated.
While newsrooms shouldn’t be partisan, it is a failure not to go beyond AP Style or slogans like “All the news fit to print.” Prof. Jay Rosen, at NYU, describes this as the difference between “political and the politicized.” Politicizing is when journalists “operate as cheerleaders for individual candidates,” but reporters need to be political in rejecting the current White House’s claims explicitly — not because it is held by Republicans, but because they are often lying. Newsrooms need to explicitly state their values if they don’t want to have a patchwork of inconsistent coverage. And there are positive examples of steps to take. For example, Chalkbeat, a nationwide network of education newsrooms, has committed in the last week to their reporting being defined by an additional value: anti-racism.
Writing for the Columbia Journalism Review, Hamilton Nolan has the clearest description of why being political (not politicized) is inescapable for any newsroom — because at its core, Nolan writes, politics is about “deciding who has power, and how it gets exercised.”
“For the Post, or any influential publication, to pretend that it is not a participant in politics is a failure to acknowledge reality.”
Last week, if you were watching Twitter at a precise moment in time, and followed a number of Black New York Times reporters, you saw the same tweet. Over and over again.
“Running this puts Black @nytimes staff in danger.”
Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton’s op-ed calling for “an overwhelming show of force” on people protesting the death of George Floyd was the breaking point for many Black staffers, who collectively voiced their opinion in terms of workplace safety. Black reporters and their allies in the newsroom used Twitter to make their voices clear not just to management, but to the outside world. Reporters are for the most part barred from speaking about the opinion side of the newspaper, and yet, many of them putting their jobs on the line, spoke anyway.
Of course, not all Times staffers agreed with how the situation played out. Some Times staffers used Twitter to say that they simply didn’t understand.
Michael Barbaro, host of the popular podcast The Daily, said on Twitter that he didn’t get why some people (which includes Black reporters like Lowery) would suggest cancellations for Times’ subscriptions. Barbaro publicly wondered: All because of an op-ed that called for a show of force by the military against Black and brown protestors?
“Disagree! Debate! But cancel? This growing inclination to cancel things because people don’t like an opinion is an alarming development,” he said on Twitter. Barbaro later deleted the tweet.
Bari Weiss, an opinion columnist who once tweeted that Olympic skater Mirai Nagasu was an immigrant, seemingly because Nagasu is ethnically Japanese (Nagasu is from L.A. County), had her own thoughts about why the outbursts were inappropriate. Opinion columnists have a different set of social media guidelines than reporters and are allowed to comment as they want to. Weiss said that the disagreement in the Times was a “civil war,” referring to her colleagues as “the (mostly young) wokes,” at once erasing the disagreement from older Black reporters or their allies. Notably, Weiss’ thread never once used the word Black.
Both staffers treated Cotton’s op-ed as a piece of writing, detached from their identity, rather than acknowledging that a piece implicitly calling for violence against protestors, journalists, and bystanders. Neither publicly apologized or suggested they would do a better job listening to their Black colleagues.
Put differently: “Racism often manifests as subtext and implication,” Lowery wrote in some of the tweets he was sanctioned for last year. “Black & brown ears can hear the racism clearly while our white colleagues engage in fruitless, if earnest, pedantic games.”
On Sunday, there was a conclusion to the week’s events at The Times. James Bennet, head of The Times’ editorial page, resigned. A.G. Sulzberger, the publisher of the Times, said in a memo to staff: “As an institution we are opposed to racism in every corner of society. We are opposed to injustice. We believe deeply in principles of fairness, equality, and human rights.”
But like Baron’s, those words mean nothing without public commitments. If legacy newsrooms don’t change, as journalism’s prospects become more financially dire, the evolution of the American newsroom will likely continue without the blessing of its current arbiters (though that doesn’t absolve them of their currently damaging policies, nor does it mean they will not continue to hold America’s attention).
The choice to do that at this point, is still of course, up to the editors and owners of major legacy newspapers. But at the very least, the truth at the current iteration of the Post and Times is clear. They simply don’t care.
As a Black journalist, my stake in the conversation is personal. This discussion is not rooted in hypotheticals or just a matter of opinion, as some white journalists suggested on Twitter this week. Silencing Black reporters leads to newsrooms that look nothing like America. Cotton’s op-ed isn’t just a string of text, but advocacy for policy that could lead to the killing of people on the street, including myself, my parents, or my friends.
At a prior job, I was asked to delete my own tweet about racism. An editor called me and said it would be best. But the reason I got into journalism wasn’t just to write, but to hold journalism institutions accountable. While speaking out is a choice, the conversation is not. And it is long past due.
Ironically, Pierre-Louis gave the Times’ a recipe for change in the very tweet thread she was sanctioned for.
“I’m really not trying to call out any one publication, but I’m kind of tired of journalists regurgitating these platitudes without deep thinking through who those statements are in service to,” she wrote in her tweet thread last year. “The ideas that are too often ignored is the role of journalism to hold truth to power, to push up and not down, and to help give people the best information to make choices in their lives.”
In talking about her experience on Twitter, Pierre-Louis indicated it’s been more rejuvenating than exhausting. She finally can use her platform, outside of The Times, to say something meaningful about journalism’s failures.
“It is like I’ve been reborn,” Pierre-Louis tweeted last Wednesday. “I wish it was during less fraught times though.”
Gabe Schneider is a member of The Objective. Photos courtesy of Benjamin Balázs, CSPAN, Open Road, Stéphan Valentin, Beto Barata/PR.
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