When she logged in to work on an average Friday morning in July, Imani Bashir was still a travel writer at Lifehacker. Or, at least, she thought she was.
As soon as she started work, she discovered she was fired. No severance, exit agreement, or recognition. Bashir was locked out from accessing any of her work accounts, all within the course of an hour.
“I posted in Slack that I had been fired, and 10 minutes later, the IT for G/O shut down my MacBook, so I couldn’t access anything,” Bashir said, adding that her editor-in-chief was not notified of her termination until she posted about it on Slack.
Bashir, a Black, Muslim, queer woman, was residing in Mexico at the time with her husband and taking care of her 3-year-old son.
This is not the first unceremonious dismissal from a media company, but it is a rarity for media workers like Bashir to both speak out about it and receive attention. She immediately took to Twitter, and within days had talked to other news outlets about her treatment.
According to Business Insider, G/O Media, the operators of Lifehacker, alleged that Bashir’s primary residency outside of the United States was not allowed, even for a travel writer. “[G/O Media] cannot accommodate her Mexico-based employment and has invited her to resume her position in the U.S.,” they told Business Insider in July.
But not only had Bashir shared that she was an expatriate not staying in the U.S. during her four months of employment, they paid her to constantly write about her experiences from life abroad. In fact, Bashir had penned an article in The New York Times less than two months before her termination, entitled “Living Abroad Is My Way of Prolonging My Black Son’s Life.”
“Prior to COVID hitting the US hard, I flew into NYC to meet with them,” Bashir said, “and they were in awe of my travels and experience as an expat. So, I would’ve never thought I’d have too many issues with being able to do my job and provide the content the audience would need.”
The job listing that she applied to was found cached online, specifically seeking employees who could be “remote.”
Somehow, G/O Media still said it was unaware.
Starting in late May of this year — in what’s been framed as a media “reckoning” — several Black people and people of color overwhelmingly revealed their experiences with systemic racism (and other -isms) in media or media-adjacent communities. Since then, journalists of all backgrounds and identities have spoken up about what they’ve witnessed or endured.
But whether they were speaking on first-person accounts or supporting colleagues and peers who discussed their accounts, it was mostly Black women on the frontlines, revealing the harm of existing in the industry, even in the face of harming their own careers or reputations.
In most cases, current or former employees of some of the most forefront brands in journalism took to social media (some individually, some anonymously, some in organized group or union efforts) to reveal what they constantly navigated at work.
While there was surely something brewing across the industry before George Floyd’s murder on May 25 sparked outrage, the ‘last straw’ for several employees in media was The New York Times Opinion section publishing “Send In the Military,” an op-ed by U.S. Senator Tom Cotton, on June 3. Sen. Cotton, a Republican serving the state of Arkansas, argued in the editorial that President Trump must deploy military forces to stop protests across the country.
This caused several Times employees, who are prohibited by company policy from doing “anything that undercuts The Times’s journalistic reputation” on social media, to openly respond, with most repeating the phrase that the op-ed “puts Black @NYTimes staff in danger.”
After hundreds of employees signed a petition over the editorial, with some promising not to produce content until it was addressed, editorial page editor James Bennet admitted that he had not read the opinion before publication. He resigned on June 7. The assistant editor that published the article, Adam Rubenstein, also left the publication on December 10. The Times has since said in a statement that “a rushed editorial process” led to the publication of Sen. Cotton’s words, and his op-ed “did not meet our standards,” although it remains available beyond their paywall.
The public — yet subtle — rebuke of editorial decisions at what’s considered one of the country’s most prestigious institutions, by its own employees, set the stage for further interrogation of practices in institutions around the country. As a result, people began publicly recollecting or revealing their experiences at several organizations which they felt were discriminatory or biased in nature. All of a sudden, the month of June saw publications such as the Los Angeles Times, Vogue, Refinery29, OkayPlayer, Philadelphia Inquirer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Man Repeller, Who What Wear, Bon Appetít, and several more face public scrutiny into their practices and work environment.
Media entities were more than happy to report on their competitor’s internalized strife, such as Insider Inc., the operator of Business Insider, had done with G/O Media and Condé Nast; and other companies like SoulCycle. Some of the same ones on the other side of such accusations were front and center; for example, The New York Times has pounced on the opportunity to dish on the discriminatory environments or “race issues” endured at prestigious conglomerates or institutions — such as Bon Appetít, Conde Nast, ESPN, Hearst, The Ringer, Vogue, The Wall Street Journal, The Metropolitan Museum, and others — while barely addressing its own “issues” that set off such a chain of events.
“Publishers were talking about, ‘We support Black voices and Black lives,’ and I was like, ‘But do you tho?’ So I pushed for the conversation to move forward,” said author L.L. McKinney, one of the creators of the #PublishingPaidMe hashtag, in August.
In addition to her other creation #WhatWOCWritersHear, #PublishingPaidMe provided an opportunity to contrast journalism with publishing, which had a similar moment that was framed as a “reckoning” as well.
“Like pretty much every part of the entertainment industry, publishing is rather racist,” McKinney said. “You don’t know this coming in, or rather you do, but the ways it shows up are particular and sometimes subtle. It’s run by nice white ladies, so it’s the kind of racism where you’re not sure what just happened, [and] you end up wondering if you read or heard that right and doubting yourself.”
McKinney described the environment of publishing as “always uncomfortable,” and said that like journalism, it’s not going to change overnight. “There are some safe spaces,” she said. “Some safe people. But you have to remember the people they work for often aren’t safe.”
The abuses and inequality sowed within every fiber of journalism are confidential, yet common knowledge. They are all too rampant in huge, corporate industry staples such as the Times and The Washington Post; they are prevalent in compiled, ever-shifting media groups such as Pride Media or Vox Media; they are constant in smaller or public outlets, too, such as at Film Daze or WNYC. Yet, no matter what corner of the industry they come from, these issues were rarely addressed out in the open.
I experienced how precarious doing so was for myself, when I was among several freelancers that demanded accountability from VICE Media publication i-D, which as far as we saw, copied ideas from freelance talent and refused to pay them. I was warned several times at the time that challenging the publication and others could lead to repercussions, including in my professional ambitions.
Over a year later, I faced those same warnings when inquiring about the experiences of staffers in other newsrooms.
While I was able to speak with numerous people who deal with difficult newsrooms, not many were willing to speak on the record or publicly comment. Most, even those that eventually did comment, cited a fear of retribution: that their career trajectory would be harmed or irreparably tarnished if they were to continue challenging the public reputation of publications, some being known as or owned by the largest employers in the field. Multiple people requested that they speak completely anonymously, or only confirm information.
One Black woman I spoke to refused to comment openly because “there’s so few of us” standing within the industry’s already-shrinking newsrooms. Because a gender or racial monolith still exists in most major news organizations, some even asked that their race or gender not be revealed along with their comments, fearing that they could be identified.
Although the dust is settling, the list of places from which people were revealing their horror stories is still never-ending, and the exodus has continued beyond the initial explosion last summer.
“You’re told not to rock the boat for fear of consequences,” McKinney said. “I think some things have occurred that wouldn’t have [had I not spoken up], and folks definitely want me to sit down and shut up, but naw. What God has for me is for me. I won’t stop.”
The same atmosphere we are often expected to report on in corporate America or government bureaus across the globe — that of fear, despair, insecurity — is and continues to silently fester in our own spaces.
“I don’t want journalists of color to have to be warriors in order to be able to work as journalists,” Futuro Media president/founder and Latino USA host Maria Hinojosa said on a July episode of NPR’s It’s Been a Minute with Sam Sanders.
Unfortunately, the journalists at the Los Angeles Times have had to be warriors.
This was evident when I spoke with journalists currently or formerly employed there, where issues with the treatment of employees of color boiled over into several internal discussions-gone-bad. In June, an open letter was sent from the Black Caucus of the LA Times Guild to publisher and owner Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong. The letter, written collaboratively and signed by the Caucus’s 19 members, was also co-signed by over 200 Caucus non-members in the Guild.
While including a list of demands, the staff states that “most of us who do work here are often ignored, marginalized, under-valued and left to drift along career paths that leave little opportunity for advancement” in the workplace. The open letter and the issues it addresses spread quickly across social media, particularly under the hashtag #BlackAtLAT on Twitter.
One journalist that worked at the L.A. Times told me that they understood the poor treatment described in the letter “almost immediately” upon gaining employment there. “In our first week [after a hiring wave], I was super thrown off when I learned we wouldn’t be receiving laptops even though we were full time employees … I worked other jobs before coming to the Times, and the idea of not being provided one of the most essential tools to do a writing job almost felt comical.”
Angel Jennings, the only Black reporter who was employed in the Times’ largest department, the Metro section, told NPR: “Some days, I would cry and ask the editors: ‘Why am I being treated this way?’ It felt like what was happening to me was personal, but it was just institutional” (Jennings settled a lawsuit with the Times that also included its previous owner, Tribune Publishing, in November).
The L.A. Times has since addressed its internal “painful reckoning over race,” self-reporting that its own Executive Editor Norman Pearlstine acknowledged that the organization had failed to better diversify its newsroom. In a June 25 article, reporters at the L.A. Times described in detail how the newspaper “relied heavily on…Latino, Asian and Black reporters” to support a majority of the work published in the last decade, including that of white and veteran staff that were considered higher tier.
Once Dr. Soon-Shiong and Michele Chan purchased the financially-struggling publication in 2018, most of those employees were passed on for promotion, not retained, or had to wait nearly two years to successfully negotiate an adjusted salary after carrying the institution through uncertain financial periods and receiving low pay.
People I talked to at the Times echoed similar pain and frustration, and despite these problems now being out in the open, they are not sure that things will improve.
When asked what it has been like in the aftermath of #BlackatLAT, one reporter currently employed there told me that their day-to-day life has remained “constant,” in terms of responsibilities and relationships with co-workers.
“I feel like I’m still in a wait and see mode,” they said. “I’ve been encouraged that management has reached out to us and that we received a response, but I’m still waiting to see what tangible changes take place. Will the company keep its word on hiring more Black journalists? Will there be major changes to address the culture of the newsroom for Black journalists? I really don’t know yet.”
Still, they are “definitely worried about repercussions … although the company seems to be listening and supportive, I’m still wary.”
Through a spokesperson, the L.A. Times told The Objective on November 2 that “The Los Angeles Times is proud of its diversity, and has committed to recruiting, retention and advancement practices to maintain and increase representation and equity within its newsroom.”
Less than two weeks later, L.A. Times management sent a two page memo to one of their own restaurant critics, Patricia Escárcega, who filed a pay discrimination claim against the paper. Despite their paper’s earlier acknowledgement of “rel[ying] heavily on … Latino, Asian and Black reporters,” Dr. Soon-Shiong’s management told Escárcega, a Latinx woman, that even though she was hired at the same time as her white male colleague, for the same job, she should make less than him. (The white male colleague, Bill Addison, has explicitly stated “We are co-critics, we perform the same job, we should be paid equally.”)
L.A. Times management blames Escárcega for not challenging her pay over a year ago when the latest work agreement was ratified by the L.A. Times Guild and management in October 2019 — one year and one month before they publicly settled the same pay disparity lawsuit that Jennings and 240 other non-white journalists had bought against them, and long before she learned she was paid less.
“This week, many people at the L.A. Times put their heads together and wrote me a letter that said: Your work is not worth the same as a white man’s,” Escárcega tweeted on November 15. “This is a cruel fiction.”
I asked Bashir how she personally felt the environment, albeit virtual, was at Lifehacker.
“At first, it was a big adjustment getting acclimated to a 9-to-5 writing gig and the demands of producing 2 articles a day,” she said. Bashir started during a period when rampant COVID-19 restrictions suddenly prevented her from returning to China, where she resided at the time, and put her on the other side of the globe from her husband and son.
“I was in Europe and working out of a hotel because we had nowhere to go. I was separated from my husband and son for nearly three weeks, so emotionally I was depleted,” she said.
“However, as the only Black person on the whole staff, I felt like I couldn’t afford to slack off.”
Bashir’s treatment echoed that of a different staff member of color, Victor Jeffreys II, had endured under G/O Media. Jeffreys’ treatment prompted him to stage a “takeover” of his office, wearing a sweater that read “I AM HARASSED AT WORK” to push back against what he believed was targeted abuse before he was fired.
The desire (really, the internalized necessity) to overcompensate in work production under less-than-optimal work conditions seems like a requirement almost for anyone with a marginalized identity in the workplace, especially in a role that could secure them financially and/or professionally.
“I really don’t know what constitutes a ‘safe space’ in a predominantly white work environment — even virtual,” Bashir said. “I just knew that financially the position helped, but the labor of work was extremely taxing.”
Yet, three months in, G/O Media’s management — the same executives responsible for the end of the original run of the sports-and-more website Deadspin — suddenly started searching for any legal ways to remove her from Lifehacker, as if she had broken in and started working on the website without permission.
“At the time, the union and the HR [staff] and G/O Media attorneys were still in conversation for G/O Media to prove that without a doubt, I could not work from Mexico. They provided us with nothing, and HR kept gaslighting me, saying that they wanted to keep me,” Bashir said.
Not only was the union going back and forth with the company, but Bashir’s own supervisor, editor-in-chief Alice Bradley, found her to be a valuable member of her staff. It was, in the end, no matter for the higher-ups, as they didn’t appear to bother informing Bradley of their decision. (G/O Media implicitly “disagrees” with this version of events, but did not clarify how they disagree with Bradley.)
Bradley’s since-deleted tweet says it all: “Imani is a valued part of Lifehacker. This decision is outrageous.”
The GMG Union, which represents the staff under G/O Media’s management, issued a strongly worded statement condemning the decision, but in the end, nothing was done to rectify what Bashir was subjected to.
The company told The Objective that “while [Ms. Bashir] was living abroad during these initial conversations, it was mutually understood through her offer letter and her federal employment documents that she was offered and accepted a position based in the United States.” They emphasize she was not an “international hire,” which they say people have assumed because no such designation exists under federal law. It’s not clear who was under such an impression.
“Ms. Bashir returned to the U.S. in early April and assumed her role working for Lifehacker from a location in Florida,” they continue, “… had Ms. Bashir represented herself as living abroad full-time on her federal paperwork, any confusion on her part would have been caught much earlier in the timeline.”
When I requested comment from G/O Media, I was told that “initial reports” published by Business Insider “were fact checked and are demonstrably untrue.”
“Lifehacker’s management only became aware of Ms. Bashir’s move through … Twitter,” their statement reads, “…when the Company learned that Ms. Bashir had relocated to Mexico, it consulted with multiple employment lawyers who advised that continuing to employ Ms. Bashir in Mexico put the company in legal jeopardy.” From there, they said, Bashir was “advised” that G/O Media would not continue to employ her.
They conclude by declaring that they were in constant communication with both Bashir and “Lifehacker’s management,” without explicitly naming Alice Bradley, and that Bashir “was invited to return to the US to continue her US based position and all associated benefits.” Bashir cites this as evidence of the company’s “gaslighting” — claiming they wanted to keep her, but taking every step to prevent her from continuing her work or having the opportunity to rectify the situation.
The company did not mention, or clarify, how much time they gave to Bashir to consider these issues, rectify them, or allow her to return to the U.S. for either continued employment or severance.
“At that point, I didn’t give a shit how they felt, they deserved to be aired out. They treated me like I had stolen confidential info and sold it on the dark web,” she said. “They knew I was [taking care of] a 3-year-old and that my husband couldn’t work due to the pandemic. Yet they gave me no grace whatsoever.”
Just in the four months since I began reporting this story out, I have faced two instances of my own exploitation in media. In an instance of more blatant discrimination, I applied to a writing position at the non-profit Invisible People and was “accidentally” on the receiving end of the company’s founder’s response, where he whittled down my application to being “African American and LGBT,” when neither of which was explicitly stated in, or relevant to, my application. Despite admitting he had no writing experience or knowledge of how editorial leadership works, he still claimed his response was justified in considering my six years of professional writing experience.
In an instance of more covert, and commonplace, exploitation, the publication Popdust specifically sought out applications from “BIPOC writers” in the month of August. Upon applying, I was asked to pitch them ideas, and then to write an article on one of them. After writing and submitting the article, they began to edit it — then stopped communicating further, and ultimately did not pay me for my ideas, work, or time.
In talking with those that have forced institutions into an acknowledgment of their harm or publicly shamed them, it seems that the true reckoning has still not arrived. While calling out inequality doesn’t happen nearly enough, compelling those in power to rectify that inequality exists happens even less.
Thankfully, Bashir is able to move forward and sustain herself, and her family, after speaking out against a former employer. A 10-year veteran journalist, author, and reporter (with a 30-year attorney for a father, she adds) who had to hold her own on NFL sidelines and outside of the ‘comforts’ of America, she can reach nearly 25,000 people a month on her own through social media alone.
“I’m not worried about any type of repercussions because I haven’t done anything wrong. They deserve to be outed for what they have done, not only to me, but a queer employee, and the many women that filed lawsuits against the CEO,” she said.
Speaking one’s truth is only the beginning, and while it’s necessary to even begin to rectify some of the harm anyone has faced in any place, the question is, or remains… what then?
Looking toward the future, McKinney plans to “just keep doing what I do, and demanding better for myself and my people out here.” Making very clear that more attention is due to Tochi Onyebuchi, the other co-creator of the viral #PublishingPaidMe moment, McKinney told me that they have “people crunching numbers” so that they can provide data on diversity in publishing.” McKinney also said that she hopes the better will come the easy way, not the hard way.
“I hope I’m paid what I’m worth so I don’t have to take in multiple projects at a time just to keep the lights on. I work fast, I work hard. But I want to be able to still live and enjoy life and doing what I love. I love writing… the truth can only help us.”
G/O Media, for their part, concludes in their statement that they “remain saddened that [Ms. Bashir] has decided to turn down the position and wish her only the best,” but they are “fully confident” they will be able to resolve the “small number of lawsuits” their company and their CEO, Jim Spanfeller, are faced with.
The company also notes that “Our employee population represents a 63% diverse workforce” in response to Bashir’s revelation that she was the only Black employee at Lifehacker, and any allegations that they racially discriminated against her.
In the end, “I didn’t get any results dealing with the union and I don’t have any expectations moving forward,” Bashir, who is now the Deputy Editor at Travel Noire, said. “I have moved on and will continue to speak truth to power and shame racism and white supremacy at every level — openly.”
Juwan Holmes is a writer and multipotentialite from Brooklyn, New York. He will soon be the Associate Editor of LGBTQ Nation and is currently the Editorial Revolutionary-in-Charge of The Renaissance Project. He also created the #FightToWrite Initiative for writers and other media workers navigating the journalism industry. This piece was edited by Gabe Schneider and Janelle Salanga. Copy editing by Holly Piepenburg.