Breaking: Unremarkable White Woman Quits Job, Cites Too Much Diversity

This week, former CBC journalist Tara Henley went viral for a resignation post that claims the broadcaster is "too woke."

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Stacy Lee Kong

Jan 07 2022

12 mins read

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Image: Shutterstock

When I was an editorial assistant at Chatelaine in 2009, one of my responsibilities was directing potential writers toward our pitching guidelines. The document spelled out lots of important details, including the publication’s fact-checking policy, how far in advance you should submit a story idea (at least four months before you expected it to run, because magazine time is not real time!!!) and explicit directions about who sources should be. Readers lived across the country, so it was important to interview both experts and ‘real’ women from all regions of Canada. It took me approximately three seconds to realize that the same logic could apply to other identifying information, so I suggested adding a line asking writers to also keep the country’s ethnic and cultural diversity in mind when choosing their sources. I don’t remember receiving any questions or having to convince anyone why this was necessary; it was a totally uncontroversial change.

I’m mentioning this because 13 years later, the same basic idea is being held up as proof that Canada’s national broadcaster is broken and should be defunded.

I’m talking, of course, about journalist Tara Henley’s viral post on her brand-new Substack newsletter, where she claimed she resigned from her job at CBC because it had devolved from a “trusted news source [into a] parody of the student press” that published clickbait intended to serve some hypothetical woke horde instead of covering stories that matter to Canadians. This wasn’t a decision she made lightly, of course. After all, she’d been getting complaints for months about CBC’s 'hyper-focus' on identity. “People want to know why, for example, non-binary Filipinos concerned about a lack of LGBT terms in Tagalog is an editorial priority for the CBC, when local issues of broad concern go unreported,” she wrote. “Or why our pop culture radio show’s coverage of the Dave Chappelle Netflix special failed to include any of the legions of fans, or comics, that did not find it offensive. Or why, exactly, taxpayers should be funding articles that scold Canadians for using words such as ‘brainstorm’ and ‘lame.’”

Image: tarahenley.substack.com

It's pretty easy to dunk on this post—and I’ll be doing that momentarily, I promise—but it’s worth noting that these stories, which are real but misrepresented, aren’t actually her problem with the CBC. It’s that someone, at some point asked her to take literally the smallest step to ensure her work reflected all Canadians by keeping track of who she chose as sources. (And, if we’re going to use our brains, we can assume that policy didn't just cover race but likely also extended to gender and region.) Though, of course, that’s not how she put it. “To work at the CBC now is to accept the idea that race is the most significant thing about a person, and that some races are more relevant to the public conversation than others,” she wrote. “It is, in my newsroom, to fill out racial profile forms for every guest you book; to actively book more people of some races and less of others.”

Henley’s newsletter is just one big bad faith argument

First of all, there's no way there's a 'racial profile form.' At most, there's probably a Google doc that notes which sources belong to which marginalized groups, which is not a bad thing. It's also interesting that "book[ing] more people of some races and less of others" is a problem now, but I guess wasn't when CBC was mostly interviewing white people?

Even the premise of her post doesn't quite make sense. Henley says she—and I quote—“resigned from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.” There’s just one small problem: she… did not. As writer Sarah Hagi reported in her (hilarious) take on the situation for Gawker, Henley was not a permanent employee of CBC. According to the broadcaster’s chief of staff, Chuck Thompson, she “was a temporary employee who worked in Vancouver and then Toronto as an associate producer for some of our local and regional radio shows. She also wrote a books column for the Ontario syndication service.”

The stories she cherry-picked as examples of liberal hysteria were, in reality, pretty inoffensive. The article on Tagalog pronouns was part of a series about Filipinos in B.C. (the province is home to the second-largest community of Filipinos in Canada). I think the pop culture radio show she’s talking about is Pop Chat, and the Chappelle episode was thoughtful and nuanced. And the “scolding” article about language was actually a gentle explainer about commonly-used words and phrases that people may not realize have racist or ableist roots.

She claims CBC endlessly focuses on microaggressions instead of evictions (7,410), wages (27,000), working conditions (89,000) or drug overdoses (12,900). (The number in the parentheses indicate how many articles on CBC’s website mention those terms, according to Google.) What's more, it doesn’t seem like Henley was doing that type of journalism anyway. “A cursory look at her previous work shows that she fought hard to combat this kind of cultural Marxism propaganda with pieces such as ‘5 zen things to do in Vancouver, Canada's epicentre of chill’ and ‘The most breathtaking bike routes Vancouver has to offer’ and ‘Six surprising lessons we can all learn from early retirement gurus,” Hagi pointed out. “I can only imagine she narrowly avoided being silenced at every turn.”

I’m not drawing your attention to these discrepancies to belittle her work; lifestyle journalism is just as valid and useful as any other type of journalism. But if these bylines are representative of the type of stories she was telling, it’s just not likely that her conservative perspective was being suppressed. (I don’t think anyone gets deplatformed over regional zen activity roundups; they seem pretty bipartisan to me.) I also don’t want to downplay the value of freelancers or other temporary workers, because I know what it’s like to be a permalancer who’s valuable to an outlet…  but not valuable enough to, you know, hire. But come on—leaving what’s essentially a freelance gig is not the same thing as deciding to quit a full-time, unionized job over your principles, and the only reason you’d try to conflate the two is if you’re trying to craft a narrative.

Let’s be honest about what this is: a business move

Which is exactly what Henley’s doing. As many other people have pointed out, she is clearly trying to tread the same path as firebrand conservatives like Bari Weiss, Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi, all of whom have left what they characterized as too-progressive legacy publications to build their audiences on Substack, where they’re making a lot of money by telling people that liberals are hyper-sensitive snowflakes who have lost the plot. It’s a grift, and she’s carrying it out in a very familiar way: a combination of self-aggrandizing ‘truth-telling’ and not-so-thinly-veiled racism and transphobia. (And with that in mind, I guess it’s not surprising that Henley recently interviewed Weiss for a Globe and Mail article about Substack’s potential for revolutionizing journalism/making its stars a lot of money… while glossing over the criticism it has received for platforming transphobes.)

Her entire post is a racist dog whistle that implies ‘real’ Canadians aren’t interested in stories about identity, an opinion that’s carefully calculated to attract a passionate audience of people who believe they’re being displaced—and will happily pay $5 a month for someone to tell them they’re right. That’s why she’s characterizing media’s long overdue, and frankly still insufficient, shift toward better representation as an irresponsible hyper-focus on bullshit topics that don’t really matter. I mean, just look at her flippant disregard for that series of stories about B.C.’s Filipino community. By asking why “the lack of LGBT terms in Tagalog is an editorial priority for CBC,” she’s clearly conveying that she doesn’t think Filipino Canadians ‘count’ even though almost half a million Canadians consider Tagalog their mother tongue and it’s the most-commonly spoken immigrant language (that is, a language that is neither French nor English) in the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. She’s also, somewhat embarrassingly, telling us that she doesn’t think white people care to read about non-white people.

The thing is, there is a problem at CBC

Ironically, Henley isn’t totally wrong. There is a race problem at CBC. In fact, there’s a race problem throughout Canadian media. It’s just not the one she’s whining about. Last year, the Canadian Association of Journalists released the results of the first report on newsroom demographics in about a decade, and unsurprisingly, they were pretty dire. According to the press release, “the survey found that white journalists tend to hold more senior and stable jobs. White journalists hold 81.9% of supervisor roles and 79.6% of top three leadership positions. Approximately 90% of outlets that participated have no Latin, Middle Eastern or mixed-race journalists on staff. About 80% have no Black or Indigenous journalists.” (This survey does have some notable flaws; while it did look at gender, it didn’t capture trans journalists. It also did not capture disabled journalists.)

There are plenty of reasons why our largely homogenous media landscape is a problem: mostly white, cisgender, urban, upper-middle-class editorial teams miss stories that journalists from other backgrounds wouldn’t. They are more likely to write, edit, package and frame stories about communities they don’t belong to in ways that uphold existing (inequitable) power structures. They tend to give white supremacists and transphobes platforms in the interest of performing objectivity, even though presenting two differing viewpoints and calling it balance is actually deeply irresponsible. (It’s really bothsidesism.) And, they push racialized and otherwise marginalized journalists out of their newsrooms.

Just ask Ahmar Khan, who CBC tried to fire when he went public about systemic racism at the broadcaster. Or Pacinthe Mattar, a friend of mine who explained how white newsroom leaders treat racialized journalists in an award-winning feature for The Walrus.

“There is the lack of trust toward the Black, Indigenous, and other racialized people whose stories we are supposed to cover as a reflection of the world we live in. Then there is the mistrust of the Black, Indigenous, and other racialized journalists who try to report on those stories,” she wrote in 2020, amid the so-called racial reckoning spurred by George Floyd’s murder. “Our professionalism is questioned when we report on the communities we’re from, and the spectre of advocacy follows us in a way that it does not follow many of our white colleagues.” 

Or read what I’ve said about being a woman of colour in Canadian media.

And it’s not just happening here

Of course, none of this is exclusive to Canada. This week, NPR host Audie Cornish announced she was leaving All Things Considered, the daily newsmagazine she’s hosted since 2012, making her the latest in a literal exodus of racialized journalists from the broadcaster. It’s gotten so bad that radio host Celeste Headlee actually created an exit survey to dig into why so many people of colour were leaving the industry. She has collected responses from 50 former public radio employees so far. “A third of respondents said they chose to leave because of abuse and harassment,” she wrote in December. “More than 85% of those respondents reported the abuse to management; all said leaders did not handle their report well… Half of respondents said their organizations were not inclusive or equitable. More than 80% said employees were treated unfairly. One person said their executive producer was ‘horrifically abusive towards people of color’ and they were ‘retaliated against for reporting it.’”

Meanwhile, former reporter Carla Murphy recently conducted a survey of 101 former journalists of colour that found American ‘Leavers’ tend to be Black women who left the industry mid-career and because they decided to, not because they were forced to by lack of work, downsizing, restructuring or retirement. Instead, they no longer wanted to navigate what Murphy refers to as landmines: “newsrooms practicing ‘tokenism’ and selling it as ‘diversity;’ separating newsroom leaders’ myth and lore of journalism from the poor employment practices they use to sustain it; expectations that JOCs [journalists of colour] also assume the Human Resources duty of recruiting like-others; newsroom leaders approaching ‘Blackness’ as a commodity to be traded or displayed; the ‘brokering’ relationship between individual JOCs, newsrooms and the population they’re presumed to represent; and more.”

Plenty of people have argued that Henley is relatively inconsequential and her motives are transparent, so it’s not really worth engaging with her little ‘resignation’ post. And, despite writing so many words about her, I get that perspective. But her post is useful, particularly when juxtaposed with these other examples of journalists leaving the industry. For decades, we've been told that our stories aren't important or newsworthy enough to write about, or if they are, that we don't have the journalistic integrity to do them justice. Now, we're finally starting to get the opportunities we've always deserved and it's genuinely upsetting people—both in media and our audiences—who feel entitled to being centred.

Henley's post wasn't an act of bravery; it was an example of an unremarkable white woman grasping at an opportunity to advance her own career by demonizing less-privileged journalists. And doesn't that perfectly illustrate how little has actually changed?



And Did You Hear About…

Bloomberg’s excellent feature on the rise, almost-fall and revival of Jessica Simpson’s fashion empire.

The reports of misogyny and racism at digital food media company Feedfeed.

This thought-provoking piece on TLC, the Duggars and the sea change that appears to be happening in reality TV.

Wordle, the online word game that has been taking over my Twitter feed. (It also has a pretty great backstory.)

This saga about Whole Foods, lettuce and an escape artist tree frog.

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