Wendy Mesley Is Not the Problem, Says Wendy Mesley

The veteran journalist’s recent Globe & Mail op-ed shows how little has actually changed in Canadian media

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Stacy Lee Kong

Jul 09 2021

13 mins read

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Forgive the vaguely astrological intro here, but you know how sometimes things just… align? Like, all the disparate news stories you’ve been thinking about are actually parts of a big web, even if they don’t appear that way at first? That’s how I’ve been feeling this week about racism in Canadian media. (Um, apologies if you thought that set-up was going to be about a nicer topic 😬)

 

Just over a year ago, I mentioned Canadian journalism veteran Wendy Mesley in probably the scariest thing I’ve ever written: an honest account of what I've experienced as a woman of colour in Canadian media. That edition of the newsletter was pegged to the then editors-in-chief of Refinery29, Bon Appétit and Man Repeller stepping down after allegations of racism and was focused more on lifestyle publications, since that’s where I’ve worked for most of my time as an editor and writer. But I also made a brief reference to the CBC’s decision to suspend Mesley from hosting The Weekly after she “used a word that should never be used” during an editorial meeting. (This was clearly the n-word, though she didn't come out and say that until recently.) I was using those then-timely examples, and my own experiences, to make a larger point about who actually holds power in media, and how the industry’s unfair dynamics don’t just make it harder for racialized people to achieve our personal career goals, they also help explain why mainstream outlets are largely ill-equipped to cover stories about race and ethnicity.

 

Now, Mesley is in the news again and I've been thinking about the ways her behaviour mirrors the dynamic between ESPN’s Rachel Nichols and Maria Taylor—and whether anything has really changed in Canadian media since 2020’s ‘racial reckoning.’ (Spoiler: not so much.)

 

Breaking down the Wendy Mesley news cycle

Mesley announced her retirement earlier this week, then followed it with a Globe & Mail op-ed that spelled out exactly why she was leaving the CBC: “After a scandal last year… the split with the CBC is official, and I have retired. The company gets a rebrand, and I go away,” she wrote, before going on to paint herself as the victim of an untrustworthy institution too focused on self-preservation and brand management to care about its employees.


The ‘scandal’ she’s referring to, ICYMI, is the fact that she used the n-word at work on two separate occasions. But according to Mesley, the real problem isn't her actions. It's that the CBC indicated it would “look after the story—and [her],” then failed to do so. Her ‘punishment,’ which amounted to a suspension, mandated sensitivity training and the offer of a new position that she rejected because she found it “unreasonable,” was also disproportionate because other CBC staffers had used the n-word and didn’t get punished at all! Oh, and why not throw a maxim in there, too? “Journalism should just be a search for the truth – all truths,” she writes. All in all, Mesley makes it crystal clear that she believes her reputation as a journalist shouldn’t be tarnished by what she characterizes as small moments in her decades-long career.

I disagree (obviously). I don’t have any studies to back this up, but based on my, um, entire life, a person who says the n-word in public is generally also a person who commits racist microaggressions on the regular. So no, I don’t buy Mesley’s characterization of herself as a bastion against injustice who simply misspoke once or twice. (And whisper networks seem to indicate that conclusion is justified.) But even if these two incidents were isolated, I'd still resent her attempt to diminish the impact of her actions, and her implication that the people who have called for a senior staffer to take accountability for using racist language are somehow lacking objectivity.

 

The entire point of Mesley’s op-ed was to downplay her behaviour

 

Because Mesley didn’t just say a bad word; she knowingly used a racial slur that has been used to dehumanize and oppress Black people for centuries while in a meeting with a Black woman. And no, it doesn't matter that she was repeating what someone else had said, or that she wasn't using it in relation to a specific person. I’m not Black, so I can’t understand what that exact situation feels like, but having been on the receiving end of racist slurs myself, I know it's still painful to hear, regardless of context. And I can imagine exactly how it felt to be in that situation—my stomach would have clenched and heat would have rushed to my face. Maybe I’d be stunned into silence, but I would also be internally scrambling to calculate the costs and benefits of saying something, especially since we all know speaking up generally leads to little, if any, change on their part and the potential of major career consequences for us. (Just ask Ahmar Khan, who CBC fired for criticizing Don Cherry’s ongoing, egregious xenophobia.)

 

Navigating the day-to-day microaggressions that fester in mainstream, white-run outlets can cause deep trauma, and that’s without being subjected to literal slurs at work. Yet, beyond the insipid assertion that she’s “angry at herself for hurting people,” Mesley’s op-ed doesn’t actually communicate to me that she has thought much about, or frankly even cares to consider, the people who are most affected by her actions: Black and otherwise racialized employees who were in the room when she used the n-word, plus those elsewhere in the organization and in the industry at large, who would soon hear all about it.

But I also feel pretty angry about Mesley’s decision to raise the spectre of objectivity in her op-ed. Racialized and otherwise marginalized journalists are forever being told we can’t accurately or fairly cover issues that impact our communities because we’re biased, as if we’re lying or have an agenda when we acknowledge that we are human beings who are treated unfairly by the systems that govern our lives. Somehow, no one ever wonders if white people lack credibility when they cover stories that affect themselves or their loved ones, though, which Mesley herself acknowledges in the same confusing section where she implies holding her accountable for her racism is inherently biased. (Apparently, it’s okay if you have cancer and pitch stories about how “‘big pharma’ and cancer agencies [aren’t] doing enough to stop the spread of the disease,” which is of course very different from being racialized and pitching stories about how various systems in Canada aren’t doing enough to dismantle discriminatory policies and practices.)

 

There’s definitely a common thread between Mesley and ESPN’s Rachel Nichols

But here's where that feeling of alignment comes in, because this is not just about Wendy Mesley, or the CBC or even Canadian media. In fact, I immediately saw a connection between this op-ed and another high-profile case of anti-Blackness. On Sunday, the New York Times reported that ESPN reporter Rachel Nichols had accidentally recorded herself telling a source that her colleague, Maria Taylor, was awarded a plum gig hosting NBA Countdown because of her race. (Taylor is Black.) “I wish Maria Taylor all the success in the world—she covers football, she covers basketball,” Nichols can be heard saying in a conversation that took place in July 2020. “If you need to give her more things to do because you are feeling pressure about your crappy long-time record on diversity—which, by the way, I know personally from the female side of it—like, go for it. Just find it somewhere else. You are not going to find it from me or taking my thing away.”

These aren’t exactly analogous situations, of course. But it’s hard for me not to consider the common threads between Nichol’s assumption that Taylor was given opportunities because of her race, not her skills, talent or hard work, and Mesley’s assumption that decades of professional accolades should outweigh her use of a racial slur, both for her employer and for the public at large. Both women clearly see themselves as trailblazers who have built their careers through grit and hard work, and as such they feel they’ve earned care, support, opportunities, success and leniency. But that entitlement is a function of their status as white, cisgender women, not reality. I'm not trying to devalue either woman's accomplishments, but at the same time, I keep thinking about Nichols’ assertion that ESPN is ‘not going to take her thing away,’ as if she’d earned opportunities in a way Taylor hadn’t. For the record, Nichols is married to Max Nichols, the son of the late director and producer Mike Nichols and the stepson of Diane Sawyer. Yes, that Diane Sawyer.

 

Forever reminder: there is literally no reason for a non-Black person to say the n-word

 

The fact that two different white, female journalists felt comfortable expressing entitlement to opportunities and support that they obviously don’t believe Black women also deserve is, at the most basic level, a sign that things are still pretty broken in media. I'd say another sign is the stark difference in how white and racialized people reacted to Mesley’s retirement announcement and op-ed.  

 

It’s not just that Mesley did some things she regrets. It’s also that, in all the months since, throughout endless conversations about race, power and privilege, including actual sensitivity training, she hasn’t absorbed any truths about racism, white supremacy or the ways they impact every area of racialized people’s lives. And neither have her (mostly white) supporters, if they still want to extend her the benefit of the doubt, or downplay the impact of her actions by characterizing them as a blip, an error, a simple recitation of someone else’s racism. I take her point that the CBC probably mishandled this situation, but it's infuriating to see her try to use its imperfect response to position herself as an agent for change and argue that disciplining her—again, for using a racial slur at work, twice—could "have been a more productive process, in which the CBC used the moment to help foster greater dialogue about a difficult topic. Instead, it was all about blame, shame and regret." I mean... yes? There are professional consequences for using racist language that, let's be honest, is not that hard to avoid.

 

Last year, when I wrote about journalism’s overwhelming whiteness, I asked readers to “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.” Since then, there have been small victories and steps forward, it's true. But as Mesley's op-ed—and more tellingly, the reaction it—makes clear, despite all the listening and learning we've heard was happening, not much has really changed. 

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And Did You Hear About…

 

The latest “Cat Person” discourse, inspired by a new Slate essay from a woman who unknowingly served as inspiration for author Kristen Roupenian’s viral short story.

 

The Black TikTok creators who are refusing to choreograph dances to popular songs to protest the way (mostly) white creators appropriate their work. (Ryan Ken, who might be my favourite TikToker ever, also posted a brilliant explanation of what Black TikTok creators face on the app this week.)

 

This random but fascinating Twitter thread about internet folklore and bees.

 

Actor Ken Leung’s evocative, somber essay about his brother’s death by drowning in Thailand.

 

The latest episode of The Cutting Room Floor featuring Man Repeller founder Leandra Medine Cohen, in which she reveals that she thought she was poor because she couldn’t afford the things her ultra-wealthy classmates could afford (!), only “connected the dots” on how privileged she was last summer (!!!),  and doesn’t believe she’s actually racist, just an “equal-opportunity asshole” (!!!!!).

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