A collage of the homepage of The Washington Post and a cover of The New Yorker

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Pressing Issues

Radu Bercan, Anna Gawlik/Shutterstock

Legacy Media Doesn’t Do Accountability


The Washington Post and The New Yorker may preach about democracy dying in darkness. But they have found new ways to turn out its lights: Fire the women whistleblowers.



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America’s elite dude-bro media personalities can show off their peens during video calls, retweet sexist jokes, embellish their work, plagiarize their colleagues, and screw up fact-checks so badly their own newsrooms have to walk their work back, and face only mild rebukes. But if one woman correctly points out that the city desk looks like a Dukes of Hazzard reboot, America’s elite publications call in the workplace equivalent of tactical nukes.

In the past month alone, the Washington Post and The New Yorker have found new ways to turn off the lights while prating about democracy dying in darkness. For such unpardonable sins as wanting equal pay for their work or openly desiring more editors of color on staff, female whistleblowers have been severely and publicly disciplined.

The New Yorker magazine unceremoniously fired Erin Overbey, the archives editor, who helmed one of its top-performing newsletters after she argued publicly for more Black editors at the magazine.

Contrast her case with that of Jeffrey Toobin, The New Yorker’s legal correspondent and a regular on CNN’s political news shows. To get the same treatment as Overbey, Toobin had to literally expose himself in a video meeting; even then, his firing took weeks, and CNN eventually put him right back on the airwaves.

Adding insult to injury, Overbey was doing genuinely unique and interesting work at the Archives desk, while Toobin’s political and legal analysis usually boiled down to saying something like “wowzers” while a B-roll of Congress played in the background.

The Toobin controversy overshadowed an even more egregious one at the Washington Post, where political reporter Dave Weigel was suspended for retweeting an ugly sexist joke, and colleague Felicia Somnez was fired for … criticizing him over it

Somnez had herself been previously disciplined by the Post, barred from covering sexual assault after disclosing her own past trauma, and retaliated against for openly questioning the treatment of women and minorities at the paper, obviously a much more severe sin in the eyes of her bosses.

Corporate news already bends over backwards to avoid the appearance of bias by expecting all its journalists to privilege a “neutral” view that is just that of white men. Expecting reporters to spend more time reporting stories than opining on Twitter is one thing; it’s another to assume that merely expressing an opinion is disqualifying.

And when newsrooms then want to lean on the marginalized identities of reporters to provide credibility, sending women to cover feminist rallies or Black reporters to protests of police brutality because the editors assume that’s all those reporters CAN cover, it’s hypocritical as well as reductive. No one assumes white men are talented only at covering Jimmy Buffett concerts and sales at Tommy Bahama.

While editorial “festivals” and roundtables platform ten-a-penny fascists like Kellyanne Conway and Kimberly Guilfoyle, truth-tellers who saw the rise of white nationalism coming remain blacklisted by our nation’s editorial pages.

Those who downplayed the Covid epidemic by accusing those taking precautions of hysterics still have a spot on cable news saved for them, while the hundreds of thousands who died doing “essential” work or living in maskless, unvaccinated communities have all but disappeared from the national discourse.

This leads to the kind of anemic, “Well who can really say what the truth is anyway” analysis that is already alienating the public, which rightly doesn’t trust a corporate press allergic to any sense of urgency. If no one is really affected by anything, and it’s all just a game of numbers, why bother engaging with media at all?

It’s no wonder courageous reporters have started to push back on their own news organizations. After all, newsrooms hire those who can see problems that need solving and can identify hypocrisy more readily than the average person. Those skills are sought after, nurtured, prized. And when they’re turned on government entities or distant systems of power, media bosses love them.

But when those same skills, those same tendencies to ask pointed questions and not take no for an answer and demand attention for injustices, are turned back on the media bosses themselves and the way corporations run media outlets, suddenly those skills are anathema. And a business that prides itself on the protection of whistleblowers—that depends upon the existence of those willing to speak up about hidden wrongs—begins to subject its own truth-tellers to the kind of treatment about which its editorial pages should be outraged.

News organizations should welcome calls from within to improve and reform, even if—especially if—those calls are made publicly, in industry channels and on social media. If newsroom leaders want the applause that comes with amplifying unheard voices and afflicting the comfortable, they need to do that in the lowest-stakes environment possible: their own.

 

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