Still making sense of what happened at The New York Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer

Your Tuesday Poynter Report

June 9, 2020
Category: Newsletters

The Poynter Report is our daily media newsletter. To have it delivered to your inbox Monday-Friday, click here.

The media world is still buzzing from the events over the weekend when two big-time editors resigned from their jobs — New York Times editorial editor James Bennet and Philadelphia Inquirer executive editor Stan Wischnowski.

Another 24 hours later and we’re left to ask: Were they run off by their own staff?

Bennet is out after Times employees pushed back over the editorial board’s decision to run an op-ed by Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton that called for military force to deal with protests. Wischnowski is out after employees staged a “sick and tired” walkout following the headline of “Buildings Matter, Too” — a tone-deaf and insensitive play on “Black Lives Matter.”

There’s no question that both incidents raised serious questions about the leadership of both men. The Cotton op-ed should have never run and the Inquirer headline was awful. In both cases, outside objections were swift and loud, as well.

But there’s also no question that the internal pressure from staff helped lead to their resignations. At the Times, there were reports that many staffers said they would refuse to work with Bennet in the future. Inquirer journalists pointed fingers at Wischnowski for a culture that led to the bad headline.

There’s no way of knowing for sure how much prior events led to both Bennet and Wischnowski being pushed out. As bad as these incidents were, it does seem as if there was more to it. Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger indicated there were other times when the editing process in the editorial department broke down. And, well before last week, Inquirer journalists raised questions and concerns about diversity issues in the newsroom. Maybe these recent incidents were simply the final straws.

And, as Joe Pompeo pointed out in an excellent piece for Vanity Fair, emotions are high at the moment. The journalism stakes are high, as well. The country is going through a difficult reckoning when it comes to race during a divisive election year in the middle of a once-in-a-hundred years pandemic. Throw in social media and you have to perfect storm to take down two respected journalists who had two of the best journalism jobs in the country

That does not excuse what happened last week. That, also, does not mean the opinions of the staffers at both the Times and Inquirer are wrong. But, in both cases, the editors lost the support of their newsrooms. When that happens, they can’t stay on, no matter how talented they are.

Protesting in Pittsburgh

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story continues to get more troubling. If you missed it, Alexis Johnson, an African American journalist at the Post-Gazette, was pulled off the paper’s protest coverage after she tweeted photos of garbage strewn all over — not from a protest, but an old Kenny Chesney concert.

It was clearly a joke, yet the P-G seems to think she is now too biased to cover the story. Despite objections from the paper’s union, other staffers, the National Association of Black Journalists and even Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, Johnson still is off protest coverage.

Now, NPR’s David Folkenflik reports, “NPR has learned that a white reporter at the paper who had tweeted a vulgar disparagement of a man accused of looting also received a warning on the same day as his black colleague. But the white reporter kept covering issues related to the protest. He was banned from covering protests two days later, only after the newspaper’s union raised the issue of disparate treatment.”

What’s odd is trying to understand what about Johnson’s tweet would indicate she shouldn’t be on the protest coverage. Johnson even asked her editors for clarification.

She told NPR, “They kept doubling down, saying I gave my opinion through the tweet and that my opinion came through in the tweet. And I don’t think that’s the case at all. I think people made their own opinions of what I was trying to say. I thought it was kind of clever.”

As of Monday evening, Post-Gazette executive editor Keith Burris still has not responded to several days of requests for comment from many media outlets covering this story.

Another editor out

Another big controversy involving an editor. This one at Bon Appétit. Adam Rapoport, the editor-in-chief, resigned after allegations that Bon Appétit pays white editors — but not people of color — for video appearances. These claims come after a photo of Rapoport in brownface was posted on social media.

The allegations about paying only white editors for videos came from Sohla El-Waylly. She’s a chef and restaurateur who worked as an assistant editor at Bon Appétit and has appeared in the BA Test Kitchen video series. In an Instagram Story, El-Waylly claims she was hired for $50,000 to assist white editors who had much less experience.

She wrote, “I’ve been pushed in front of video as a display of diversity. In reality, currently only white editors are paid for their video appearances. None of the people of color have been compensated for their appearances.”

This came after a 2004 photo that was posted to Instagram in October 2013 with Rapoport appearing in brownface at what looks to be a Halloween party. You can find additional details in Todd Spangler’s story for Variety.

In an Instagram post Monday evening, Rapoport said, “I am stepping down as editor in chief of Bon Appétit to reflect on the work that I need to do as a human being and to allow Bon Appétit to get to a better place. From an extremely ill conceived Halloween costume 16 years ago to my blind spots as an editor, I’ve not championed an inclusive vision. And ultimately, it’s been at the expense of Bon Appétit and its staff, as well as our readers. They all deserve better. The staff has been working hard to evolve the brand in a positive, more diverse direction.”

An unusual call

Protestors near the White House last week. (Patsy Lynch/MediaPunch /IPX)

A major news outlet has told its journalists that it’s OK to join protests and that it will even pay for their bail money if they get arrested. Axios — a news outlet that covers politics, tech, finance and sports through popular newsletters, as well as a weekly HBO show — has told reporters they can protest even though most media outlets don’t allow it because it might lead to accusations of bias.

New York Times reporters Edmund Lee and Ben Smith reported that Jim VandeHei, the chief executive and co-founder of Axios, sent an email that told employees, “First, let me say we proudly support and encourage you to exercise your rights to free speech, press, and protest. If you’re arrested or meet harm while exercising these rights, Axios will stand behind you and use the Family Fund to cover your bail or assist with medical bills.”

VandeHei’s answer came after an employee asked about the company’s stance on protesting. Again, this is unusual for news outlets, which typically forbid marching in protests, donating to political candidates’ campaigns or supporting candidates with bumper stickers or yard signs.

For example, Lee and Smith point out that The New York Times policy is that journalists “may not march or rally in support of public causes or movements” or publicly take positions on public issues. It adds, “doing so might reasonably raise doubts about their ability or The Times’s ability to function as neutral observers in covering the news.”

That’s how most outlets are, and for good reason. To publicly support a cause while covering it absolutely brings a news outlet’s objectivity and fairness into question. While this particular cause — standing up for racial equality — seems like something everyone can agree upon, what happens if journalists want to join other protests that are far more divisive or controversial, such as protests regarding abortion or gun control?

In a statement to the Times, VandeHei said, “We trust our colleagues to do the right thing, and stand firmly behind them should they decide to exercise their constitutional right to free speech.”

Controversy at Arizona State

Arizona State University has retracted a job offer to the newly hired journalism school dean after former students raised allegations of racism and mistreatment.

Sonya Forte Duhé was supposed to take over next month as dean of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications, as well as CEO of Arizona PBS, but that will not happen. More than 20 of her former students at Loyola University in New Orleans told ASU’s student newspaper about behavior they felt was racist and discriminatory against students of color and LGBTQ students.

Wyatt Myskow and Piper Hansen — staff writers at The State, the school’s newspaper — spoke with 23 Loyola students who studied under Duhé from 2013 to 2019. Among their claims: Duhé told Black students that their appearance, specifically their hair, was not appropriate for TV, and she criticized the voices of gay students.

One student, Andrew Ketcham, said, “I’ll never forget her advice to me that my voice was too theatrical and that I should stick with print.” Another student, Edward Wroten, said Duhé would “blatantly compare black and white students” and tell students of color to change their looks and voices.

Meantime, ASU faculty also reached out to the school in a letter to complain about Duhé’s reported behavior during a virtual meeting earlier this month when she “berated staff.” The letter also described Duhé’s behavior as “erratic” and said she made “denigrating comments.” The letter added, “Based on the meeting and recent news reports, several high-performing faculty members said they could not stay at Cronkite if Dr. Duhé takes over as dean.”

Another controversy involving race

Christene Barberich, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Refinery29 — a media brand focused on young women — announced she is stepping down because of criticism over the company’s lack of racial diversity and allegations of racial discrimination. Refinery29 is a part of Vice Media Group.

In an Instagram post, Barberich wrote that she is stepping down after taking into account the “raw and personal accounts of Black women and women of color regarding their experiences inside our company at Refinery29.”

Among those accounts? Staffer Ashley C. Ford tweeted, “I worked at Refinery29 for less than nine months due to a toxic company culture where white women’s egos ruled the near non-existent editorial processes. One of the founders consistently confused myself and one of our full-time front desk associates & pay disparity was atrocious.”

Barberich said it’s time for a new chapter: “A chapter that demands a new voice — both for our team and our audience — one that can shape and guide the critical stories that have the real power to shift and disrupt our culture, helping to eliminate institutional barriers that separate us and hold our society back.”

Search is underway for a new head of Refinery29. Variety’s Todd Spangler reported that in a memo to all staff Monday, Vice Media Group CEO Nancy Dubuc wrote, “We commit to you unequivocally that this search will be an inclusive hiring process with a diverse slate of candidates.”

Cutting out the print

The California Sunday Magazine, which produces some of the best-written and most interesting journalism in the business, announced it will discontinue its print edition. It will remain online.

Co-founder and editor-in-chief Douglas McGray wrote, “It’s time for our format to evolve.”

The magazine has won awards for design and photography. The print product cut is because of finances. McGray wrote, “We’re facing the most difficult economic conditions of our lifetimes, especially for a small company that depends on live events and sponsorship. A big-circulation print magazine won’t be viable for us this year or next year, so it seems like the right time to evolve. We’ll miss the print magazine. But we’re looking forward to showing you what comes next.”

George Floyd funeral coverage

(Courtesy: CBS News)

All three major networks — ABC, CBS and NBC — will air George Floyd’s funeral in Houston today. In addition, all three of the evening news anchors — ABC’s David Muir, CBS’s Norah O’Donnell and NBC’s Lester Holt — will anchor their newscasts from Houston. The funeral is scheduled for 11 a.m Houston time — or noon Eastern time.

On ABC, Byron Pitts will host a special edition of “Nightline.” At CBS, Gayle King will host a primetime special called “Justice For All.” That will include a Norah O’Donnell interview with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, as well as interviews with U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). The special is scheduled for 10 p.m. Eastern.

Hot type

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

More resources for journalists

Want to get this briefing in your inbox? Sign up here.

Follow us on Twitter and on Facebook.

Clarification: This article was updated to note that the photo of Adam Rapoport was taken in 2004, not 2013, and uploaded to Instagram in 2013.