The Myth of the Progressive Media Brand

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Stacy Lee Kong

Jan 06 2021

10 mins read

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So, lots of media news this week, huh?

A quick refresher: On Monday, Christene Barberich, Refinery29’s co-founder and editor-in-chief, stepped down after former employees took to social media to speak out about the toxic and racist treatment they experienced at the brand.

The same day, Adam Rapoport, the editor-in-chief of Bon Appétit, resigned after writer Tammie Teclemariam re-posted a 2013 Instagram post of Rapoport and his wife dressed as “boricuas” (that is, Puerto Ricans living in the U.S.).

Food writer Korsha Wilson had called BA out the previous week, and there have been stories about the test kitchen’s problems with race in the past, but Teclemariam’s tweet was the one that went viral, kicking off larger conversations around wage disparities and other problematic behaviour. (The following day, Business Insider published an article that had previously been in the works, which detailed many of the same allegations.)

On Wednesday evening, Man Repeller founder Leandra Medine Cohen posted on her Instagram saying she’d also be stepping back from the blog. Her decision stemmed from a June 1 post on the site where she detailed its commitment to diversity and standing against anti-Black racism. Commenters went off, calling out “Man Repeller’s exclusivity and lack of diversity after laying off of a popular black employee” according to Yahoo! Entertainment.

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Honestly, this is great. Media is overwhelmingly run by privileged white people who perpetuate systemic racism (not to mention sexism, classism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia) and I for one love to see some of them facing consequences for their actions, even if it did take worldwide protests and two weeks of almost non-stop conversation about anti-Blackness for resignation to even become an option.

But it’s also important to think about the disconnect between a brand’s perceived politics and the reality of working there. Over the past seven or so years, media companies have embraced progressive language, even if they’re not overtly political. Think back to women’s mags talking about Lean In, or the increased coverage of racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia in pop culture. I mean, Man Repeller’s tagline is “where an interest in fashion never minimizes one’s intellect,” which is a contemporary feminist idea. And even as BA has been criticized for the lack of diversity in its test kitchen (and the fact that many of its recipes are watered-down versions of “ethnic” dishes that have been removed from their cultural context and presented as shiny new discoveries), its coverage of COVID-19 has included the virus’s impact on undocumented workers, something that would not have happened even 10 years ago. But what gets published, or posted on Insta, often has very little to do with what’s happening behind the scenes, even when a brand makes feminism or inclusivity a cornerstone of its values. The people making the decisions, getting promoted and having their ideas considered valuable are almost always white, while we’re the ones experiencing microaggressions or straight up racism—and that’s if we can even get into the room.

And I say we because this definitely happens here in Canada. It’s difficult to know just how many racialized people work in Canadian journalism because the industry does not keep track of newsroom demographics (yes, really), but various studies dating back to 1991 have found we are severely underrepresented. A 2012 Ryerson University study of GTA media outlets used columnists as a proxy for print media representation; of 282 columnists who published in a single week, only 10 were visible minorities. In TV, researchers counted 26 visible minority hosts and reporters out of 109.

Even when we do manage to get jobs in journalism, they’re often junior roles or permalance positions. (That is, long-term contract or freelance positions, which means we get regular work, but not the stability or benefits of being on staff. This is technically illegal, and yet it happens all the time.) And we rarely get to run shit: “Of the 289 leaders examined [in the 2012 Ryerson study], there were only 14, or 4.8% visible minorities. In total, of 66 board members, only four (6.1%) were visible minorities. Only five of 138 senior managers (3.6%) were visible minorities. Only five of 85 newsroom decision makers (5.9%), were visible minorities.”

This dearth of diversity doesn’t just impact BIPOC journalists in the newsroom; it also means BIPOC people don’t get covered fairly. Some within the industry are trying to change things—the Canadian Association of Black Journalists and Canadian Journalists of Colour teamed up earlier this year to release seven Calls to Action for Canadian media, and BIPOC students and alumni of the journalism programs at Carleton and Ryerson have recently started petitions asking their schools to better educate new journalists about reporting on Black and racialized communities.

But these are recent initiatives and in the meantime, white journalists have not yet been forced to unlearn their racism. Case in point: Wendy Mesley was just removed from her hosting duties at CBC after “using a word that should never be used” during an editorial meeting. That’s for sure the n-word, and it can’t be the first time she’s said it.

But I don’t need a news story or stats to understand what’s going on in Canadian newsrooms, because I’ve lived it. There’s the white editor-in-chief who told me that “Black people just don’t sell magazine covers,” literally shrugging her shoulders as if this was something beyond her control. The time I was offered a salary $10K lower than the white woman who had previously done that job. The job where I was repeatedly told I was stepping on leaderships’ toes, though no one could tell me exactly what I was doing wrong, or how I could do better. The fact that, despite my literally requiring it in my assignment letters, most writers handed in stories with only white sources. (A not-so-gentle reminder: THERE ARE POC EXPERTS IN EVERY FIELD. And while we’re here, sources from a variety of genders, sexualities, abilities and classes also exist.)

And then there’s my career path… and how it compares to my peers’.

I’ve spent most of my 13 years in journalism working at lifestyle magazines where my colleagues and I—almost all young women, some of us racialized—would often make snarky comments about the advice we printed in our pages that we didn’t follow. We joked about work-life balance during super-late nights at the office because we were in production and trying to get the magazine to the printer. One of us was basically obligated to roll our eyes every time we talked about leaning in, or asking for a raise—in this economy? In media? Please. None of us were making good money, none of us had amazing titles, none of us had real power. And at the time, that made it feel like we were all in it together.

But the longer I stay in this industry, the more I see white women with a comparable resume to mine, or in some cases, significantly less experience, earning opportunities, promotions and paycheques that I don’t get, and neither do other similarly qualified women of colour. (This is to say nothing of the career leaps I saw white men make. There seemed to be a common understanding that some people would always have jobs, while the rest of us were laid off.)

If we don’t know each other in person, you might not know why I started Friday Things. It’s because I finally, finally realized, after 13 years in the magazine industry, that if I wanted to lead something, I’d have to build it myself. I’ve worked at some of the biggest lifestyle brands in Canada, and written for dozens of publications, including some of the most prestigious in the country. My writing and editing have been nominated for awards. And I’m not trying to brag, but I am very, very good at my job—and when I forget that, I have the DMs, texts and emails from colleagues, bosses and writers to prove it. I have been asked at multiple magazines to take on very senior responsibilities, including running editorial meetings, mentoring more junior staff, handling coverage for major events and taking the lead on long-term editorial planning, despite not having the title or paycheque that go with those roles.

But when I applied for several different executive-level jobs last year, despite making it to the final two candidates every single time, I never got the job. Do you know who did? White women. To be clear, the problem is not with those women. It’s with a system where my skills, talent, experience and the fact that I was sometimes already doing the job didn’t matter, because hiring managers didn’t see me in that role.

I like to think of myself as a confident person, but those experiences—and, in a way, my entire career—taught me to doubt myself. I genuinely wondered whether I was good at this, and whether I belonged in this industry. I’ve always been an overachiever, and I kept thinking back to all the times I had gone above and beyond. The long hours, working on vacation (sometimes as a freelancer, which means I wasn’t getting paid at all), taking on extra tasks, no matter how much was already on my plate. And none of it mattered.

Words are my thing, and yet I can’t explain what it felt like to ask myself:

Why is it so hard for hiring managers to see me running a brand?

How can you ask me to be a leader without actually rewarding me with a title, salary and real decision-making responsibility?

Why does this happen to every single ambitious BIPOC woman that I know?

And that’s an important point. Because as hard as it has been for me to build a career as an ethnically ambiguous woman of colour—and as much as the career I have looks nothing like the one I planned—it has been much, much worse for Black and Indigenous people. In my staff jobs, I’ve rarely had the opportunity to work with Black people who were on staff or even on a regular contract. I have never worked on a team that included Indigenous people. I’ve never been managed by a Black or Indigenous person and rarely by a non-Black POC. And as a freelance writer, I’ve had one Black editor and a handful of non-Black POC editors. That’s it.

Think about what these brands are missing out on, right now as they scramble to cover anti-Blackness and police brutality, and in the long run. Think about the perspectives they’re missing out on, the journalism they’re not doing, the stories they’re mishandling.

It’s super scary to say these things, and I know I’m opening myself up to criticism that I just wasn’t good enough to get those jobs, especially in a contracting industry like journalism. (For the record: I am.) But as a friend reminded me earlier this week, when we stay quiet to save our careers, we either end up protecting problematic employers or lying—and I can’t do that anymore.

And Did You Hear About…

Jessica Mulroney trying to pull an Amy Cooper on influencer Sasha Exeter.

J.K. Rowling’s week of transphobic statements—and Daniel Radcliffe’s truly awesome response.

This excellent profile of Noah “40” Shebib.

The guy with the tortoises.

Jezebel’s extremely correct opinion about Dawson’s Creek.

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