From CJR | Diversity Work
For two decades, from its genesis in the mid-nineties, Vice Media branded itself in the image of the dispossessed. The earliest issues of its magazine, originally called the Voice of Montreal, were supported by a Canadian welfare grant and copublished by a Haitian nonprofit. But by the summer of 2017, two of its founders—Suroosh Alvi and Shane Smith—had traded government funding for private investment and dropped their titular claim to communal representation with the jettison of a single vowel: the Voice became Vice. The company received multimillion-dollar investments from Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Wall Street Journal and Fox News, but still self-described as “countercultural.” And although its reach was global, with channels streaming throughout Asia, Europe, and Africa, it claimed a cult status. The predicament felt quintessentially Gen X: How many contemporary entrepreneurs, newly flush with the despotic capacities of freshly minted cash, try to align themselves with the 99 percent?
Outwardly, Vice aimed to preserve its brand by cultivating an ethos of unconventionality and titillation. Internally, however, the culture was troubled—a problem not only of self-presentation, but also of management. Upon their hire, employees were asked to sign a “non-traditional workplace agreement” that contractually obliged them to feel at ease. “Although it is possible that some of the text, images and information I will be exposed to in the course of my employment with VICE may be considered by some to be offensive, indecent, violent or disturbing,” read the agreement, “I do not find such text, images or information or the workplace environment at VICE to be offensive, indecent, violent or disturbing.”
In the fall of 2017, as the #MeToo movement crescendoed, what had been an internal crisis became a public nightmare. Accounts of violent sexual advances, retaliation, and coercive settlements circulated first among Vice workers, then in news reports, and, finally, around the world. In November, the Daily Beast published an exposé in which more than a dozen current and former employees described a “toxic” culture of sexual harassment. (Gavin McInnes, a cofounder who was no longer at the company but remained associated with it, had recently founded the Proud Boys, a neofascist and misogynist organization.) By winter, Alvi and Smith had to admit that the “truth is inescapable.” In a company-wide email sent on the cusp of another investigative report, this one published in the New York Times, the founders admitted defeat. As an antiestablishment enterprise, Vice had failed its “egalitarian values.” It was “part of the problem.” As repentance, Alvi and Smith pledged to instill within the company “a truly modern work culture.”
The company’s president resigned, and two other managers were fired. The nontraditional workplace agreement was scrapped. A Diversity and Inclusion Board was assembled to “implement changes.” Its members were high profile, including a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama’s chief of staff, and Kamala Harris’s sister. Gloria Steinem, the celebrity darling of the second wave, became the board’s figurehead. In the spring, it was announced that she would be holding office hours for employees to discuss their grievances. The initiative comprised a single hour-long session, which was, according to Sara David, the publication’s astrology editor, “useless”—the women in attendance asked Steinem questions about sexism in the newsroom, but she had no meaningful response. In a statement to Jezebel, her assistant said that Steinem was “accessible and reachable,” but the company hadn’t given her an email address, and employees had no means of getting in touch. Management had sent the workforce a clear message: the revolution might not be televised, but it would be star-studded all the way to its dead end.
Meanwhile, in mid-2018, the Vice Union, which had won recognition two years earlier, geared up to negotiate its second contract. The first had yielded concessions that were primarily economic. Employees had been guaranteed severance pay, compensatory time off, and payroll increases of 5 percent. But this time, as the bargaining committee surveyed its members, a less remunerative concern began to emerge. “Overwhelmingly, diversity was the number two thing that everyone wanted to see change at Vice,” said David, who at the time was the sole nonwhite member of the union’s bargaining committee. The new contract, ratified in January 2019, introduced a series of clauses devoted to sexual harassment, nondiscrimination, and representation. As a union, David told me, they had rejected management’s “aesthetic actions.” Corporate inclusion policies had done more to rehabilitate the outlet’s public image than to win back the trust of its workers, and the union wanted the company’s good intent committed to paper.
If Vice initially presented itself as the underdog of corporate media, it has subsequently become an exponent of the corporate style. Over the past five years, as digital-media CEOs have shown their willingness to genuflect at the altar of private interests, with profit margins contingent on advertising revenue and readership at the mercy of mercurial algorithms, the industry’s workers have begun to organize. Among demands for increased minimum salaries, cost-of-living raises, and extended benefits, media unions are presenting management with a new kind of proposal: a set of clauses under the banner of “diversity” or “diversity and inclusion.” These efforts are designed to correct the homogeneity of the industry, which has historically and systematically exercised hostility toward workers who are not white, male, and wealthy—which is to say, workers who represent the vast majority of the world.
This summer, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, professionals spun calls for police abolition into stimuli for workplace redress. Some CEOs offered public apologies; others were forced to resign. Workers, meanwhile, strategized about how to seize the moment. Their bosses, compelled to do moral good but calculating the economic losses of a global pandemic, were caught in a crisis of indecision. Where do we go from here? media companies asked, often word for word. Most are still scrambling, even as the paths toward newsroom diversity are whittled down to two options: the corporate policy or the union contract.
At the apex of the civil rights era, the media industry, like all American enterprises that claimed for themselves the capacity for redemption, began to develop a racial consciousness. In 1967, during the Summer of Love, more than a hundred thousand young hippies, most of them white, converged upon San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district to claim a new, communal way of life. The media, for the most part, covered the occupation with intrigue, if also a dash of skepticism, as if building an ethnography of a band of long-lost cousins. “The fresh influx of curiosity-seekers has proved a great boon to the legion of psychedelic beggars,” wrote Hunter S. Thompson, in the New York Times Magazine. “They’ll share what they collect anyway, so it seems entirely reasonable that strangers should share with them.”
In America’s other cities, an alternate form of collectivism materialized. In Boston, Buffalo, Newark, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and elsewhere, Black people of all ages assembled to protest policing, unemployment, and quotidian forms of racism. Their tactics were direct. Stores were looted and precincts burned. In Detroit, the riots were deemed an insurrection in order to justify the deployment of armed federal forces. After twelve thousand guardsmen and paratroopers descended upon the city, assisting local police in making more than seven thousand arrests and killing dozens of Black people, including Tanya Blanding, a four-year-old seeking shelter in her living room, the New York Times declared the unrest officially over: “Detroit’s Battles Have Died Out, But Not Negro Youths’ Hostility.”
Early in 1968, after the Haight-Ashbury hippies formally disbanded their occupation with a mock funeral and rioters mourned the deaths of their friends and families at real ones, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced the results of the Kerner Commission, a report investigating the cause of the uprisings. Among its findings was the observation that the country had been split into two societies, “one black, one white—separate and unequal,” with the media partly to blame. “The press has too long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and white perspective,” the report read. Newsrooms had “failed to analyze and report adequately on racial problems in the United States, and, as a related matter, to meet the Negro’s legitimate expectations in journalism.” To right its wrongs, suggested the commission, the industry would need to diversify.
Over the next two decades, advocacy groups assembled to protect the interests of nonwhite journalists. The National Association of Black Journalists and the National Association for Hispanic Journalists held annual conventions, empaneled special task forces, and distributed thousands of dollars in scholarships to further the professional advancement of their constituents. The American Society of Newspaper Editors (now the American Society of News Editors, or asne), a membership organization founded in 1922 with the charge of promoting “principled journalism,” took up the mantle of rehabilitation. The society’s Minorities Committee, convened in 1978, adopted a set of resolutions, chief among them a modest pledge for parity: by 2000, the racial makeup of newsrooms would match that of the general population. By 1998, though, it was clear that the industry would fall significantly short of those aspirations, and the target year was pushed back to 2025.
In some newsrooms, sympathetic managers tried to do their part but were thwarted by the allied bad faith of their colleagues, who clung to the milky-white composition of the workplace as if its renown depended upon it. Max Frankel, who served as the executive editor of the New York Times from 1986 to 1994, developed a one-for-one hiring policy, which required that each new white reporter be matched by a new Black reporter, so that each was hired at the same pace. The editors under him, however, protested the initiative by refusing to fill vacant positions, even as their staff size dwindled. The policy was deemed a failure and eventually revoked. Meanwhile, across the country, the Los Angeles Times launched the Minority Editorial Training Program, a crash course in reporting, copyediting, and photography designed to increase the number of nonwhite journalists in the newsroom. Fellows were provided two years of training and guaranteed a single year of employment. But according to a 2018 report compiled by the LA Times Guild, graduates of the program who subsequently joined the Times as full-time staffers reported “depressed wages” as well as a sneaking suspicion that they were being treated like “second-class journalists.” The fellowship continues to run but has been reformulated to include participants of “diverse backgrounds or life experiences”—white journalists, in other words, are welcome to apply.
For all the reports, committees, and statements of benevolent intent, newsrooms have remained overwhelmingly white, even as the inclusion economy has flourished. According to asne, only 40 percent of participating newsrooms increased racial diversity between 2001 and 2018, despite the fact that the corporate diversity industry has swelled to a value of more than $8 billion. Consultants like Robin DiAngelo, whose book White Fragility sold nearly five hundred thousand copies in the month following Floyd’s death, charge upwards of $15,000 per training session, a price that companies paradoxically budget as a cost-cutting measure: consciousness raising, fueled by AI anti-bias technologies and “blind spot” trainings, will always be cheaper than litigating a discrimination suit.
As a moral imperative, diversity has nebulous returns, but as a branding principle it’s demonstrably lucrative. According to Thomson Reuters, whose Diversity and Inclusion Index measures and ranks the performance of the top hundred publicly traded companies with the “most diverse” workplaces, inclusion is a “growth engine.” So where are all the workers?
At the dawn of digital media, corporate diversity was starting to resemble a pyramid scheme—its promises increasingly virtuous, its deliverables suspiciously out of sight. This was the scene in which workers began to organize. In 2015, Gawker, typically regarded as an eccentric pioneer in the short history of digital-media unionization, published a post announcing that its staff had met with the Writers Guild of America, East, a labor union that typically represented entertainment writers but had just won jurisdiction over digital media. One month later, union elections, usually held behind closed doors, were announced via public post; members declared their votes in the comments. The organizing process had been unconventional—or as Kevin Draper, then a writer for Deadspin, put it, “fucked up.” Nevertheless, a contract was ratified less than a year later. Among clauses stipulating grievance procedures, editorial independence, and intellectual property rights was a single line devoted to diversity: “The Company will participate in meetings with an editorial diversity committee formed by the union on a regular basis to discuss diversity in hiring and ongoing concerns at the Company.”
The provisions in Vice’s 2019 contract were similarly vague. Management committed to making “strong and sustained efforts” to recruit candidates from “traditionally under-represented backgrounds” and to interviewing “diverse candidates” in “good faith.” In a statement, a Vice Media Group spokesperson said, “VICE is fully committed in our comprehensive approach to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Over 40 percent of our team members identify as bipoc, and our goal is to reach 50/50 racial/ethnic representation across US managers and leadership by 2024. 52 percent of our new hires identify as bipoc.” But without binding contract language, these commitments are legally unenforceable. Even laudable goals can be scrapped on a whim or with a change of leadership. In the year after the contract was signed, the proportion of nonwhite employees at Vice grew by only 3 percent. “We’ve definitely had cases of management acting in good faith,” David told me. “But it’s just not permanent.”
Newsrooms that have organized more recently, including The New Yorker, The Intercept, Pitchfork, and BuzzFeed News, have honed the language of their diversity provisions, in part to negate the need to rely on the sympathy of individual managers. Typically, though not always, the union will form a diversity and inclusion subcommittee, whose chairs assess the grievances of employees and then devise a set of proposals to be passed along to the union’s bargaining committee. Once negotiations are complete, and both management and the union have agreed to contract language, proposals are ratified into a tentative agreement, or TA. If the union is successful, the TA will commit management’s good intent to specific actions, making budgetary asks and measuring diversity efforts in terms of concrete goals. “Even the attempts of the best, most well-meaning, most thoughtful individuals end up coming up against the limitations of a structure that doesn’t recognize why these things are important,” Susan DeCarava, the president of the New York chapter of the NewsGuild, the oldest union for journalists in the country, said. “The role of the union is to create structures that have accountability and transparency.”
Nearly every union organizer I spoke with expressed some variation on the belief that their managers genuinely wanted to possess diversity. At the bargaining table, most bosses even tout it as a common cause. But when presented with language that would bind the company to concrete obligations, these same managers fall back on noncommittal rhetoric or vacate the conversation altogether. In 2019, Jonah Peretti, the founder and CEO of BuzzFeed, issued the company’s annual “Update on Diversity,” affirming that inclusion was a “top priority.” But when the BuzzFeed News Union delivered a diversity proposal to management this past February, the company neglected to issue a counterproposal. It wasn’t until mid-June, amid nationwide uprisings against racist violence, that management responded. As a fig leaf, they agreed to the union’s request to form a joint diversity committee, though not necessarily to implement the committee’s recommendations. “They’ve agreed to the idea of a committee,” Stephanie M. Lee, the union’s diversity and inclusion cochair, told me. “Our concern is that we don’t want to just discuss issues. If we brainstorm ideas and come up with recommendations, we want them to be carried out.”
At The New Yorker, where bargaining has been ongoing since November 2018, management has taken an obstructionist approach. This past summer, they refused to negotiate on the union’s proposals, including its language on diversity and inclusion, until the union handed over its demands for wages, which are typically discussed during the culminating stages of the bargaining process. The magazine’s tactic, Natalie Meade, the union’s unit chair, told me, had effectively turned diversity into a “bargaining chip.” (A spokesperson for The New Yorker contested this characterization, writing, “We felt negotiations would be most productive with all proposals on the table, as opposed to negotiating piecemeal.”) Condé Nast, which owns The New Yorker and recently hired the notorious union-busting law firm Proskauer Rose, maintains that its dedication to diversity is evident by virtue of its massive reach. “As a global company, we are inherently multicultural,” reads a “Diversity and Inclusion” statement on its website. Its origin story, almost quaint, appears on a separate vertical: “From the very start, Condé Nast has been unafraid to take risks.” Alongside that declaration is a British Vogue spread from 2015, which positions a snow-white model against a backdrop of masked Bhutanese monks.
Across shops, perhaps no fight has been as pitched as that which routinely erupts around quotas. Contract-based diversification strategies are typically various, including language that accounts for career advancement, mentorship, and professional training, but because a significant roadblock to a diverse workforce is the workforce that already exists, hiring has become a natural point of intervention. In an effort to reform an insular industry whose growth patterns are often nepotistic, many unions attempt to stipulate that a minimum number of interviewees be from underrepresented backgrounds. Most shops favor percentages, with 50 percent emerging as something of a magic—if modest—number. (Of the union members and organizers I interviewed, none were able to tell me where this figure had come from.) Managers, for their part, have tended to declare even arbitrary goals too lofty: although nearly every manager professes a desire to hire “diversely,” almost none has been willing to quantify those efforts according to a joint arithmetic.
At BuzzFeed, whose newly minted Inequality Desk was initially overseen by two white men, management has agreed to a numeric goal for interviewing, but has counterproposed language that would obscure its obligation. Rather than commit to a minimum quota of 50 percent, management initially suggested that the stipulation simply be that “multiple” interviewees come from underrepresented backgrounds; in a recent counterproposal, management removed the word “multiple” and left the requirement blank. Repeatedly, management has struck language detailing what would happen if they fail to meet the agreed-upon goal. (When asked about this approach, a representative from BuzzFeed said that the company “is negotiating with the union in good faith—but at the bargaining table, not in the press.”) At Pitchfork—which, like The New Yorker, is owned by Condé Nast—quotas were initially stonewalled. According to the union, management rejected percentage goals outright, telling workers that “it’s hard to find qualified applicants from underrepresented backgrounds” and “not every job is created equal,” an excuse whose play on the founding principle of the Declaration of Independence is so direct as to appear like a refutation. Management at The New Yorker has taken a similar tack; its initial counterproposal suggested that the percentage goal be replaced with the Rooney Rule, a recruitment policy in the NFL that requires teams to interview at least one nonwhite candidate for top vacancies, but at The New Yorker was modified to stipulate that “at least one person from an underrepresented group” make it to the interview phase of hiring. “I think that Condé Nast, as a company, to their core, believes that white men are the most qualified,” Vrinda Jagota, the cochair of the Pitchfork Union’s diversity and inclusion committee, told me. “They’re okay with one newsroom being led by one politically aware editor in chief deciding ‘I’m going to meet this’ or ‘I’m going to hire people from underrepresented groups,’ but they don’t want it to be the standard.”
Of the shops that have begun to introduce quotas, only a few, such as The Intercept, the Daily Beast, and Vox Media, have managed to ratify their proposed language into enforceable contracts. But even the most captivating success stories have subplots of resistance, with management making concessions only when faced with public or internal pressure. At Time, the union’s original diversity and inclusion proposals were adopted in full in July—stipulating that 50 percent of the interview pool for open staff jobs, and 60 percent for senior positions, come from underrepresented communities—but management didn’t want to commit to contract language “until the urgency of the current moment” showed them “how important it was,” Cady Lang, the unit’s cochair, said. At Vox, whose union contract, ratified in June of last year, has some of the most liberal stipulations in the industry—awarding a joint diversity committee an annual budget of $50,000—management was opposed to the suggestion of interviewing quotas until more than a dozen union members presented personal testimonials, union members told me. (Vox Media declined to provide an on-record statement.) When I asked Mariya Abdulkaf, the chair of the Vox Union’s Diversity and Equity Committee, whether she considered the Vox contract a beacon in the push toward newsroom diversity, she told me that the question was moot. “It doesn’t really matter who’s leading,” she said, “because everybody is failing.”
Should the labor movement seem like an obvious vehicle for challenging racism, it is only because organizers have recently made it so. Like all member-led tactics, collective bargaining is subject to the proclivities of those who engage in it. At its best, it can return the means of production to those who toil; at its worst, it can reinforce prevailing notions of who is considered the collective’s natural subject. Historically, the designation “worker” has been flexible, serving as a stand-in for a matrix of power relations that govern the lives of those who produce capital. If the labor movement initially emerged as the worker’s obvious advocate, so too has it arbitrated which working people it deigns to represent.
Upon its founding, in 1886, the American Federation of Labor, the country’s largest coalition of trade unions, vowed to initiate “great and accompanying improvements in the condition of the working people.” The AFL’s inaugural president, Samuel Gompers, who served a dictator’s term until his death, in 1924, dedicated much of his appointment to legislating who, exactly, would reap the rewards of the organization’s original promise. He denounced Chinese people for their “vice and sexual immorality” and in 1914 recommended that “all races native to Asia” be permanently barred from entry to the United States. And despite considering the “slaves of the South” to be “kind and faithful,” Gompers codified the exclusion of Black workers into AFL policy. In cases where it appeared “advisable and to the best interests of the trade union,” Black workers were organized into separate locals, colloquially referred to as “Jim Crow unions.” The AFL, Gompers wrote, “does not necessarily proclaim that the social barriers which exist between the whites and the black could be or should be obliterated.”
In an article published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1913, “The Negro and the Labor Unions,” Booker T. Washington conducted an informal survey. To the heads of labor unions throughout the country, he posed a question: “Do Negroes, as a rule, make good union men?” The responses were almost uniformly sinister. “I must say that the Negro lathers in Cleveland have failed absolutely in meeting the general requirements of union men,” read one reply. “They do not seem to grasp the significant feature of the trade-union [movement],” read another. A third didn’t mince words: “They are the most difficult to organize of any class of people.” Washington himself deployed the gag of predisposition: “The Negro,” he wrote, “is naturally not inclined toward labor unions.” The naturalism line was a strange one to peddle, given that unions had attempted to maintain artificial labor shortages by classifying certain jobs as “white man’s work,” effectively shutting Black workers out of some unionized industries. Even in integrated unions, organizers often negotiated contracts that stipulated separate paths toward promotion for white and Black workers, barring the latter from senior and supervisory positions.
In some industries, the only jobs available to Black workers were as strikebreakers. In the summer of 1917, when workers at the Aluminum Ore Company in East St. Louis went on strike, the company hired a small group of Black people from the South to continue operations. The striking workers, stoked by the race-baiting rhetoric of their leaders in the AFL, launched one of the most devastating and comprehensive assaults of the twentieth century. Unionized workers set fire to entire Black neighborhoods in East St. Louis, murdering as many as two hundred Black people and leaving up to ten thousand others homeless. If the violence was said to be an act of retaliation, designed to stunt the emergence of a “race of strikebreakers,” it was a fantastical revenge plot of the labor movement’s own making. “If the colored man continues to lend himself to the work of tearing down what the white man has built up,” Gompers warned, “a race hatred worse than any ever known will result. Caucasian civilization will serve notice that its uplifting process is not to be interfered with in any way.” Gompers failed to recognize that white workers had been hired to serve as strikebreakers, too.
Gompers, like all tyrants, eventually died, but his opinions, like those of any good union leader, didn’t belong to him alone. Under his soft-spoken successor, William Green, who encouraged the public to recognize the organization as a “melting pot,” the AFL continued to enforce legislation that sidestepped Black workers. In 1949, a federal Fair Employment Practices bill proposing the “elimination of discrimination in industry and labor unions based upon race, color, religion, national origin, or ancestry” was passed only when the phrase “and labor unions” was removed from the motion. Just two years later, Green declared that the labor movement had “done more than any other organization or group to advance the cause of interracial justice.” When the AFL merged with the Congress of Industrial Organizations to form the AFL-CIO—which counts both the NewsGuild and Writers Guild as affiliates—it adopted a constitutional provision stating that “all workers without regard to race, creed, color, national origin or ancestry shall share equally in the full benefits of union organization.” Tens of thousands of Black workers joined the movement, but local unions could still exclude them by special bylaw.
Meanwhile, cross-racial coalitions began to advocate against discriminatory employment practices, adopting policies that prohibited separate lines of promotion and eliminating segregated locals. By the time the AFL-CIO endorsed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the labor movement was seen as a crucial component in the fight for equal opportunity. In part due to their exclusion from the structures that governed collective bargaining, workers who faced prismatic oppressions—occurring along the axes of race, class, immigration status, gender, sexuality, and disability—stood to benefit the most from its promises.
As the movement embraced its position as the rightful inheritor of antidiscrimination activism, so too did it attempt to address its lily-white history. The AFL-CIO, like the CEOs it took to task, adopted a set of resolutions in 1995 aimed at promoting “diverse and inclusive leadership” within the organization, creating “greater opportunities” for women and minority workers, and demanding “diversity through concrete improvements in diversity of all labor council committees.” Nevertheless, twenty years later, the federation remains a home for white nationalism. Since its founding, the International Union of Police Associations has been an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, which also houses law enforcement in unions such as the American Federation of Government Employees and the Communications Workers of America. The federation has routinely rejected resolutions to disaffiliate from the IUPA, even as it publicly denounces the inevitably lethal effects of policing. In 2014, after the death of Michael Brown, a Black teenager whose mother and killer were both members of AFL-CIO-affiliated unions, Richard Trumka, the federation’s president, delivered a speech in which he chalked up Brown’s demise to fratricide: “Our brother killed our sister’s son,” he lamented. And this summer, after the Washington, DC, offices of the AFL-CIO were burned during protests, Trumka called the property destruction “senseless” and “disgraceful,” even as he characterized the federation as “united unequivocally” against “forces of hate.” Spray-painted across the union building’s entrance was a newer movement’s enduring slogan: black lives matter.
If corporate inclusion initiatives resulted in empty air, and trade union inclusion efforts, designed to hold those same corporations accountable, protected racist government institutions, what could diversity achieve? A number of the organizers I spoke with indicated that it was just a word. As a catchall term, it could easily be replaced by any number of anodyne compounds: Diversity and Inclusion; Equity and Inclusion; Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion—the list went on. “It can be used as a description or affirmation of anything,” Sara Ahmed, a feminist scholar, writes in On Being Included, her 2012 study of institutional diversity. According to Ahmed, the word originated as a “replacement term” for the more critical language of anti-racism and equality. Arsenia Reilly-Collins, the director of contract campaigns for the Writers Guild of America, East, described the word as “more palatable” than its alternatives. (“Diversity,” writes Ahmed, “evokes the pleasures of consumption.”) As a tactical expression, diversity initiates a “yes” politics, encouraging those in power to reaffirm their tolerant values, rather than a “no” politics, which would suggest they relinquish that power altogether. “Diversity is regularly referred to as a ‘good’ word precisely because it can be used in diverse ways,” Ahmed writes. The sociologist and philosopher Himani Bannerji is more indicting; in The Dark Side of the Nation, she identifies the apparition of diversity language as a “coping mechanism for dealing with actually conflicting heterogeneity.”
Most of the union members I spoke with, though, told me that terminology was beside the point. “The main thing is not so much the words we use, but the results,” DeCarava, of the NewsGuild, said. But language is causing problems—or, at the very least, creating discrepancies. Quotas designed to fix a lack of internal representation all depend upon a shared understanding of who is “underrepresented,” but parity is a difficult quality to measure, especially when there exists no referent to judge it against. At Vice, where management has committed to interviewing “diverse candidates” from “traditionally underrepresented backgrounds,” neither “diversity” nor “traditionally underrepresented backgrounds” has been defined. At the Daily Beast, diversity is defined in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, age, disability, sexuality, and gender, with no specification that cis white women should not be counted in diversity statistics. At The New Yorker, an early hiring counterproposal from management added the phrase “including women” to the union’s stipulation that a percentage of interviewees be from “underrepresented backgrounds,” which would ensure that management could meet its obligation by interviewing cis white women. The union subsequently struck the addition and revised the language to “traditionally underrepresented backgrounds,” which remains formally undefined. The Pitchfork Union has put forth proposals that measure newsroom representation against the population of New York City, which would leave cis white women out of hiring statistics. The BuzzFeed News Union has employed the same New York City–based metric for the purposes of hiring, but the non-hiring-related clauses of its diversity and inclusion proposal are more capacious, including women of all races.
Unlike affirmative action plans, which target discrimination, this new wave of hiring initiatives is meant to correct an imbalance. Almost all of the organizers I spoke with conceded that it was only a first step. “This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Reilly-Collins told me. Quotas are designed to make good on the industry’s foundational claim to representation, but won’t necessarily counteract its racism. When used as a placeholder for redistributive justice, the politics of parity will always be winking, holding as its consolation prize the possibility that white people, if they are one day eclipsed by their nonwhite colleagues, will also be able to reap the rewards of “underrepresentation.” And although it remains an open secret that the easiest way to change the makeup of a workforce is for white people to quit, swift wars are not the union’s to wage. It was a freelancer, Tammie Teclemariam, who in June tweeted a photo of Adam Rapoport, the editor in chief of Bon Appétit, in brownface, leading to his resignation. That same month, when the New York Times published an opinion piece by Sen. Tom Cotton calling upon the military to violently suppress Black protesters—a decision that Bill Baker, the New York Times Union unit chair, called “the straw that broke the camel’s back”—it was the collective speech of Black employees, who took to social media in coordinated action, that forced the resignation of James Bennet, the opinion editor. “Collective bargaining is more harm reduction than solving for the revolution,” Reilly-Collins told me.
Historically speaking, it’s not unfair to argue that the professional diversity movement has no specific or singular aim. As a tactic for facilitating representation, it can be deployed to advance the interests of anyone who claims for themselves the feeling of being in the minority. And without a governing politics to determine whose representation is redistributive, and whose is simply revenge, it carries the danger of advancing nothing at all. “The fact that diversity is not a scary word is part of the problem,” Ahmed writes. “If it is detached from scary issues, such as power and inequality, it is harder for diversity to do anything in its travels.”
Union organizers know this already. The media industry is more precarious than it has been in years. Everywhere you look, someone is losing their job or their health insurance. According to Business Insider, seventy-eight hundred media workers were laid off in 2019 alone; this past April, the New York Times reported that an estimated thirty-six thousand news employees had been furloughed, laid off, or had their pay reduced since the beginning of the pandemic. But everyone is someone’s colleague, and peers are natural advocates. This past spring, the BuzzFeed News and Los Angeles Times unions brokered work-share agreements with management that prevented the majority of proposed layoffs. And across the industry, at-will employees are demanding that management adopt a policy of just cause, a provision that requires an employer to have reason for taking disciplinary action against an employee. (The New Yorker finally granted the provision in October, after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Elizabeth Warren pulled out of the magazine’s festival in solidarity with the union.) Unions are beginning to introduce managers to the scary language of justice, even if that language is ultimately blunted. Upon bargaining their new contract, which will be ratified later this year, employees at HuffPost proposed trainings devoted to “anti-oppression, anti-discrimination, and unconscious bias.” After negotiations with the company, which has deemed diversity “critical” to its mission, the proposal emerged with sanded edges. The final agreement commits management to conducting “a climate assessment” and “relevant privilege awareness trainings.”
Corporate diversity rhetoric, in other words, continues to overhype its deliverables. After six employees of Bon Appétit resigned in August, alleging homophobia, pay inequity, and a workplace culture that treated nonwhite employees, who weren’t compensated for their video appearances, as a “second class,” Roger Lynch, the CEO of Condé Nast, issued a public statement reiterating the company’s commitment to “retaining and nurturing a diverse and inclusive workforce.” In the meantime, Lynch turned to his union-busting law firm to undertake an investigation, which found “no evidence that race played a factor in setting compensation” for the video team and that “everyone was compensated fairly.” New committees were assembled, and a “Diversity and Inclusion report” was accelerated. When the report was shared with the public, in late September, the vast majority of the initiatives it introduced, touted as totems of the company’s “excellence,” had been cribbed from the proposals of its unions, which management had repeatedly rejected—including the 50 percent interviewing quota. “It’s much easier to change your mission statement than it is to actually apply that mission within the company,” DeCarava told me. Corporate policies are so favored precisely because they’re flawed: unlike union contracts, “commitments” have an escape hatch—they can always be revoked. When asked whether The New Yorker planned to cement Condé Nast’s percentage goal into binding contract language, a spokesperson said, “We are pleased that Condé Nast has announced this standard across the company, and we plan to pick up this conversation at the bargaining table and, we hope, reach an agreement very soon.” According to the union, however, by the time this article went to press, these conversations had yet to come to fruition, and management has been unresponsive to the union’s attempts to continue negotiations.
Any historically bereft movement will relinquish its potential to the fleeting interests of the present. In the context of corporate media, those interests will always be in service of profit. BuzzFeed, The New Yorker, and the New York Times have all established new councils, committees, and task forces but continue to obstruct or ignore proposals made by their unions. Diversity continues to sell. But if it has a future, it will depend upon the efforts of workers to hitch it to the struggles of years past. Empty words will never be emancipatory. Aimed accurately, they can at least begin to accrue meaning.
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