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The Only Solution is to Burn it All Down

The media industry's racism will only be fixed when the entire system is torn apart.

Memories may fade, but screenshots and trauma last forever. 

A few nights ago, I was going through some screenshots, and videos and texts, not because I wanted to remember the incident they had memorialized, but because I couldn’t. It was an incident so difficult, my brain had smoothed away its details. And after piecing back together the arguments and the meetings, I felt so much pain all over again.

In recent days, innumerable Black journalists and journalists of color have recounted how their white editors treated them like shit. In comparison to the tens of stories I’ve read about, part of me feels like I barely experienced anything at all.

But I still agonized and cried myself into a panic attack over the incident, which, in its broadest details, had to do with the internal handling of race and staffing at a publication I worked for. I went to HR and had my meeting cut short by the very person who I was reporting. I tried to complain and my complaint was ignored.

The incident shifted something into focus for me, something I think I always understood, but never wanted to confront — that the person paying me to write about racism and my experiences with racism was profiting off my labor with zero understanding of it. Or worse, that he understood racism and decided to employ fuckwit attacks anyway. That I was selling my work to a bastard who saw race coverage as something that might get him rich.

As my rage bubbles, the understandable, long-withheld rage of hundreds of journalists in newsrooms nationwide is bursting forth. Black journalists at the New York Times broke with their paper’s social media policy by openly tweeting against the op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton which called for protesters against police violence to be met with military force, fairly assessing that running the piece put their lives in danger. (NYT op-ed editor James Bennet was forced to resign soon after.) Former writers and editors of color at Refinery29 have come forward with accounts of discrimination and pay disparity by their white editors. (Refinery29 editor Christene Barberich was also forced to resign.) Black staffers and staffers of color at Bon Appétit have come forward with accounts of the newsroom’s racist culture after a photo of editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport in brownface resurfaced. (Rapoport was also forced to resign, though he has not stopped being a complete dickhead.) The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette told a Black journalist, Alexis Johnson, that she couldn’t cover the protests because she criticized racist coverage of looting. And those are just a handful of the newsrooms experiencing a reckoning—one that is directly connected to the broader uprising that has emerged in the wake of the racist killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, KY, and Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, GA.

The reckoning has been a long time coming. White newsroom leaders have underpaid and overworked Black journalists and journalists of color. They have told them to be grateful for their opportunities, and made racist comments that were ignored by other white peers. They’ve told them to stay in their lane and discouraged them from asking for more work or money.

They have told them to leave their humanity at the door when reporting out stories that pertain to their humanity, or the right for people who look like them to live. Johnson’s bosses in Pittsburgh told her that her race disqualifies her from reporting on protests against police violence.

They have done all of this even while expecting journalists of color to carry the heaviest kinds of weight on their shoulders. Black journalists, for instance, have been open about the level of trauma they are forced to contend with while reporting on police violence in the past few weeks. But they are still at the mercy of a system which repeatedly treats them as second-class citizens, and which still treats their basic existence as a debating point.

This isn’t just happening at the newsrooms where people have spoken up. It’s happening everywhere. Legacy newsrooms, newer publications operated by legacy corporations, and even startup newsrooms uphold white supremacy through their discrimination against Black and other journalists of color. Racism isn’t a bug of majority-white and white institution-led newsrooms — it’s a feature.

It manifests itself in the experiences of journalists of color, and in the codes of conduct that these publications expect their journalists to adhere to, and in the ways stories are framed, written and edited. An institution that upholds white supremacy also perpetuates white supremacy.

If a newsroom like the Post-Gazette actively invalidates Black perspectives, they’re signaling that white perspectives are supreme and virtuous and correct. The op-ed by Tom Cotton which the Times so hastily and recklessly published is also indicative of that. Newsrooms that preach “objectivity” and being “unbiased” are indicative of that, specifically because their understanding of objectivity is based upon decades of work by white people who do not experience racism, and have validated the argument for racism as part of this search for truth and balance.

News is, and has always been, a product of choices — what writers and editors choose to put into stories, and what they choose to leave out. Focusing upon the criminal history of a Black person who was extrajudicially killed by the state is a choice. Focusing on looters in order to delegitimize a protest’s power, or even separating rioters and looters from protesters as a way to withhold humanity from the former, is a choice. Framing protesters throwing stones and water bottles as engaging in behavior that reasonably provokes state violence, or is somehow equal to state violence, is a choice.

Being a stenographer for police and using their euphemisms for state violence like “rubber bullets,” “bean bag rounds,” or “less lethal” weapons, instead of calling them plastic and metal coated in rubber or packets of lead pellets, shot out of a shotgun at several hundred feet per second, is a fucking choice.

All of these choices uphold and perpetuate white supremacy, and it is rich that news institutions demand this false moral objectivity and transparency and righteousness when they don’t practice it themselves. Meanwhile, Black journalists and journalists of color are left handwringing over every journalistic choice they make, rubbing their skin raw in fear of retribution for appearing too empathetic to people killed mercilessly by the state who look like them, while attempting to merely do their communities justice. Objectivity is a figment of the white imagination, because objectivity is simply a validation of the world as they see it.

What will come from this reckoning? So many Black journalist and journalists of color have shared their truths, and others are standing with them, even withholding their labor in solidarity. But I fear this will become an opportunity missed. Firing the white people at the top who’ve gotten themselves into trouble and are easy to blame is but a kiss on a festering wound. Singular leadership replacement, or recommitments to diversity, or diversity working groups comprised of mostly staffers of color, or progressive style guides that let newsrooms pat themselves on the back, aren’t enough. What good does a newsroom’s diversity initiative do if it doesn’t raze the systems perpetuating white supremacy, not just remove one of the people involved?

The actual beginning of the end of white supremacy in newsrooms will come with the end of the prioritization of white perspectives. That will only come with an entire systemic upheaval, from the people financing news institutions and controlling the business side of operations, to the people writing and editing news stories. A commitment to ending white supremacy in newsrooms requires white executives and editors and writers to give equal power to executives and editors and writers of color — in other words, to give up some of the vast power that white people have hoarded for so long.

This, of course, comes into direct conflict with the agendas and power of white newsroom leaders. Who would want to give up power and change the system when it’s easier to fire a few people and leave new Black leadership isolated and resourceless in their place?

I don’t want this opportunity to be wasted, and so I want to contribute to its weight by listening to the demands of Black journalists; by participating in protests that withhold my labor as part of a demand for justice; by calling upon my former white coworkers to do more than share their salary figures, and instead direct their attention to how their publication perpetuates white supremacy and makes racist demands of the few employees of color they have; and by telling younger journalists that objectivity is a lie and that HR is only there to tell you that it’s all in your head. It’s a start, at any rate.

I’d like to think that we’re doing something special here at Discourse Blog, by being an experimental refuge after Splinter’s demise, an attempt to break from a traditional journalism business model and prioritize quality over quantity. But we don’t have any Black staff members, and Aleks Chan and I are the only people of color, and I’m not going to be silent about that fact. We’re not making any money right now (though we’ll be announcing further details about that soon), but when we do, I want us to help support a better system — one that fights the poison of objectivity and allows Black journalists and other journalists of color to do the kind of work they’ve always deserved to do.

Photo via Alex Barth/Flickr