After Charges of Insensitivity and Racism, Many Newsrooms Face Serious Questions

Newsrooms in crisis NYTimes Bon Appetite
Rapoport: Lexie Moreland/WWD/Shutterstock; Bennet: Larry Neumeister/AP/Shutterstock; Barberich: Michael Buckner/Variety/Shutterstock

The cultural upheaval caused by the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police made its way to a number of high-profile print and digital publications in recent weeks, resulting in disruption at The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Variety and several other organizations. Now, moves at those outlets have left many questioning what the changes mean for an industry in dire need of significant diversification.

The most notable departure occurred at The New York Times when editorial page editor James Bennet stepped down after the paper published an incendiary op-ed from Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton in early June. In the piece, the Republican politician called for the deployment of military troops to subdue protesters, whom he called “lawbreakers.” At the Philadelphia Inquirer, Stan Wischnowski resigned as the vice president and executive editor June 6 (a day before Bennet), after the paper ran the headline “Buildings Matter, Too” in response to the destruction of property during Floyd protests. Prior to Wischnowki’s departure, staffers staged a sickout, and rancor over inclusion and pay inequity came to the fore.

“Some of these people, like Bennet, have been publicly asked to step down for years. But my main hesitation is that we don’t know who is going to take over for the people who are out,” says Doris Truong, the director of training and diversity at the Poynter Institute.

“Let’s say that they put someone in there who is more dedicated to inclusiveness, such as Michael Days, the Inquirer’s vice president of diversity. Even if Days works to be inclusive, will he be given the leeway to make the necessary changes?”

Christene Barberich, the editor-in-chief and co-founder of Refinery29, stepped down June 8 after complaints of racial discrimination at the website. The same day, Bon Appétit EIC Adam Rapoport resigned when a Halloween photo of him in brownface surfaced, dredging up workplace resentments regarding disparities in pay based on race. And Howard Mittman vacated his job as the CEO of Bleacher Report June 23 in the wake of the digital sports company’s most notable on-air talent bringing attention to the lack of diversity at the site’s C-suite level.

But not everyone has given up top-ranking posts. Los Angeles Times executive editor Norman Pearlstine has launched a defensive to address claims of white bias when covering police brutality protests in Los Angeles, pay inequities and a newsroom that fails to reflect the city’s diverse racial makeup. The week of June 8, Pearlstine changed the paper’s style so that Black people are described with a capital “B” and sent an internal memo in which he vowed to hire a senior editor to oversee diversity and fill metro desk vacancies with Black journalists.

At Variety, editor-in-chief Claudia Eller took a voluntary leave to allow her to “take a serious moment of reflection,” as she wrote in a June 4 email to staff. Eller temporarily stepped aside after a terse social media exchange with freelance reporter Piya Sinha-Roy on newsroom diversity put an unflattering spotlight on Variety’s mostly white newsroom.

Truong says the key question for Eller during this period is “What is she doing to become more mindfully inclusive?” She also stressed the importance of making sure that Eller’s leave is not a symbolic “slap on the wrist.”

A representative for Variety says Eller, who has headed editorial operations for the publication since 2013, is “working with a diversity specialist on racial sensitivity” while on leave.

Such moves are cosmetic until noticeable changes can be tracked, says Meredith Clark, an assistant professor in the University of Virginia’s Department of Media Studies and a longtime member of the National Assn. of Black Journalists.

“The actions that are happening now are the beginning and not the end, because all of these offenders are in a position to get another similar, top-tier position somewhere else,” Clark points out. “Resignations are very limited in their utility. What kind of structural changes are going to take place once this person is gone? A similar example is #OscarsSoWhite. We saw improvements for a couple of years, and then the Academy reverted back to the status quo. Real change is change that sticks, and as history has shown us, that takes time.”