A More Specific Letter on Justice and Open Debate
CURRENT AFFAIRS, 20 Jul 2020
10 Jul 2020 – On Tuesday [7 Jul], 153 of the most prominent journalists, authors, and writers, including J. K. Rowling, Malcolm Gladwell, and David Brooks, published an open call for civility in Harper’s Magazine. They write, in the pages of a prominent magazine that’s infamous for being anti-union, not paying its interns, and firing editors over editorial disagreements with the publisher: “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.”
The signatories, many of them white, wealthy, and endowed with massive platforms, argue that they are afraid of being silenced, that so-called cancel culture is out of control, and that they fear for their jobs and free exchange of ideas, even as they speak from one of the most prestigious magazines in the country.
The letter was spearheaded by Thomas Chatterton Williams, a Black writer who believes “that racism at once persists and is also capable of being transcended—especially at the interpersonal level.” Since the letter was published, some commentators have used Williams’s presence and the presence of other non-white writers to argue that the letter presents a selection of diverse voices. But they miss the point: the irony of the piece is that nowhere in it do the signatories mention how marginalized voices have been silenced for generations in journalism, academia, and publishing.
Some of the problems they bring up are real and concerning — for example, they seem to be referencing a researcher being fired for sharing a study on Twitter. But they are not trends — at least not in the way that the signatories suggest. In reality, their argument alludes to but does not clearly lay out specific examples, and undermines the very cause they have appointed themselves to uphold. In truth, Black, brown, and LGBTQ+ people — particularly Black and trans people — can now critique elites publicly and hold them accountable socially; this seems to be the letter’s greatest concern. What’s perhaps even more grating to many of the signatories is that a critique of their long held views is persuasive.
The content of the letter also does not deal with the problem of power: who has it and who does not. Harper’s is a prestigious institution, backed by money and influence. Harper’s has decided to bestow its platform not to marginalized people but to people who already have large followings and plenty of opportunities to make their views heard. Ironically, these influential people then use that platform to complain that they’re being silenced. Many of the signatories have coworkers in their own newsrooms who are deeply concerned with the letter, some who feel comfortable speaking out and others who do not.
The letter reads as a caustic reaction to a diversifying industry — one that’s starting to challenge institutional norms that have protected bigotry. The writers of the letter use seductive but nebulous concepts and coded language to obscure the actual meaning behind their words, in what seems like an attempt to control and derail the ongoing debate about who gets to have a platform. They are afforded the type of cultural capital from social media that institutions like Harper’s have traditionally conferred to mostly white, cisgender people. Their words reflect a stubbornness to let go of the elitism that still pervades the media industry, an unwillingness to dismantle systems that keep people like them in and the rest of us out.
The Harper’s letter cites six nonspecific examples to justify their argument. It’s possible to guess what incidents the signatories might be referring to, and it’s likely that if they listed specific examples, most wouldn’t hold water. But the instances they reference are not part of a new trend at all, as we explain below.
1. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces?
When the signatories claim that “editors are fired for running controversial pieces,” they seem to be arguing it’s a problem that James Bennet, the former Opinion editor of the New York Times, was fired. In reality, Bennet resigned because Black staffers risked their jobs to publicly point out that Bennet had signed off on an opinion piece that called for the use of the nation’s military against its own citizenry for exercising their First Amendment rights. Bennet first defended the piece, then admitted to not reading it before publication. The Times itself admitted that the piece was not up to its own editorial standards and its publisher said in a letter to staff that the piece was emblematic of a “significant breakdown” in the editing process. The signatories of the letter seem to be suggesting that all viewpoints should be published in opinion pages, with no limits on what those viewpoints might be. They never tell us why opinion pages, like the ones in the New York Times, shouldn’t publish opinion pieces by flat-earthers or explicit calls for violence. The answer is simple: Newspapers have editorial judgment and set the tone for what is published in their opinion pages. The Times chose to solicit and amplify a perspective from a senator, and backlash ensued, which is similar to what’s happening in the Harper’s letter — prominent people with huge platforms complaining they don’t have enough latitude to share their views. A large number of Black, brown, and trans editors don’t wield the same kind of power as white editors, because most newsrooms are already led by a primarily white and male workforce.
2. Books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity?
The signatories claim that “books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity.” This could be a reference to American Dirt, a book by Jeanine Cummins — a non-Mexican white woman who recently began identifying as Puerto Rican — about a Mexican bookseller, which was roundly criticized by Latinx writers and authors like Myriam Gurba and Los Angeles Times writer Esmeralda Bermudez. That book was featured as a part of Oprah’s Book Club, despite the fact that Latinx journalists like Bermudez said the story was a far cry from real-life immigrant experiences. It could also be a reference to Apropos of Nothing, Woody Allen’s book that was dropped by Hachette, a major publisher, after employees protested Allen’s history of sexual assault allegations. The book was later picked up by a different publisher.
Manuscripts for books written by nonwhite authors are not given such leniency. A recent Twitter hashtag highlighted that even when Black and brown authors do have book deals, they are not compensated at anywhere close to the same rates as their white colleagues. Additionally, the top ten banned young adult books in 2019 are ones that feature trans main characters, as journalist Katelyn Burns has pointed out. Rainbow Rowell, who wrote a book widely decried by Asian American book critics for its inaccurate portrayal of Korean culture, is now having that book adapted into a movie — with a Japanese director.
3. Journalists are barred from writing on certain topics?
The signatories claim that “journalists are barred from writing on certain topics.”Here, they could be talking about how just last month, at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a Black journalist was told she could not cover protests because she was biased because of one tweet on protests. But if this is the example they are referencing, then they misunderstand the situation entirely. Alexis Johnson’s situation is not unique, nor is it a new phenomenon for a Black writer to be silenced by her editors. Black and brown journalists have been barred from writing on certain topics because of our perceived lack of “objectivity” for decades.
4. Professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class?
The signatories claim that “professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class.” This could be a reference to Laurie Sheck, a New School Professor, who said the N-word when referencing a James Baldwin piece in class. Yet, she is still employed and has classes listed for spring 2021. A similar incident occurred with Princeton professor Lawrence Rosen, whom Princeton defended. He ended up canceling the class, but he was backed by his institution. Black, brown, and trans professors have been harassed by conservative websites, threatened, and had careers ruined for speaking about our own experiences or confronting systemic racism.
5. A researcher fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study?
The signatories claim that a researcher was “fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study.” This is likely about David Shor, who tweeted a summary of an academic paper by Professor Omar Wasow and was then fired from his job at Civis Analytics, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research firm. It could very well be true that Shor was fired for posting the study. The facts of the situation are unclear and the company has said it will not comment on personnel matters. If Shor was fired simply for posting an academic article, that is indefensible, and anomalous.
6. The heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes?
The signatories claim that “the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes.” This is so vague that it seems hard to pick out a specific example, although in New York Times coverage of the Harper’s letter, Willliams cites resignations at the National Books Critics Circle and the Poetry Foundation. The Poetry Foundation’s president and board chair resigned after prominent Black poets criticized its recent four-sentence Black Lives Matter statement, writing that the organization had failed to tangibly support marginalized communities. The board of the National Book Critics Circle was not removed, but resigned after a former president made the racist suggestion that he had seen “far more of white people helping black writers than of black people helping white writers.”
It could also be about Bon Appétit editor in chief Adam Rapoport, who was pushed to step down after a writer shared a photo of Rapoport in brownface — in a racist Halloween costume as a Puerto Rican — and accusations of creating a toxic work culture by underpaying BIPOC staff. It could also be a reference to the resignation of the CEO of CrossFit or to several CEOs of fashion and lifestyle companies who stepped down after reckonings with racism in their workplaces. The vagueness of the letter confers protection from criticism most especially in this section. You can read a specific list of examples here. None of the CEOs who stepped down made “clumsy mistakes”; many of them were deeply involved in creating racist and exploitative work environments that are just now being unveiled after years in which they collected paychecks and acclaim.
What the signatories are describing are things that have happened to journalists, academics, and authors marginalized by their respective industries for years — just not in the ways the signatories want to highlight. The problem they are describing is for the most part a rare one for privileged writers, but it is constant for the voices that have been most often shut out of the room. When Black and brown writers are hired by prominent media institutes, NDAs and social media policies are used to prevent them from talking about toxic workplace experiences.
The letter talks about none of this.
While the Harper’s letter is couched in the events of the last few weeks, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is actively informed by the actions of its writers, many of whom have championed the free market of ideas, but actively ensured that it is free only for them. It’s ironic that the letter gives highly sought-out space to some of the most well-paid and visible people in media, academia, and publishing. These are the same people who possess the money and prestige to have their ideas shared in just about any elite publication, outlet, or journal. There will always be a place for them to have their voices heard. Some even started yet another publication last week. Most writers and journalists from backgrounds historically left out of the industry are not in the same position.
We recognize a few of the signatories of the Harper’s letter have been advocates of the issues that concern us here, which is, in part, the root of our hurt and dismay. Yet, everyone who signed the letter has reinforced the actions and beliefs of its most prominent signatories, some of whom have gone out of their way to harass trans writers or pedantically criticize Black writers.
In fact, a number of the signatories have made a point of punishing people who have spoken out against them, including Bari Weiss (who made a name for herself as a Columbia University undergrad by harassing and infringing upon the speech of professors she considered to be anti-Israel, and later attempted to shame multiple media outlets into firing freelance journalist Erin Biba for her tweets), Katha Pollitt (whose transphobic rhetoric has extended to trying to deny trans journalists access to professional networking tools), Emily Yoffe (who has spoken out against sexual-assault survivors expressing their free speech rights), Anne-Marie Slaughter (who terminated her Google-funded organization’s partnership with a Google critic), and Cary Nelson (whose support of free speech, apparently, does not extend to everyone) — just to name a few. What gives them the right to use their platforms to harass others into silence, especially writers with smaller platforms and less institutional support, while preaching that silencing writers is a problem?
Rowling, one of the signers, has spouted transphobic and transmisogynist rhetoric, mocking the idea that trans men could exist, and likening transition-related medical care such as hormone replacement therapy to conversion therapy. She directly interacts with fans on Twitter, publishes letters littered with transphobic rhetoric, and gets away with platforming violent anti-trans speakers to her 14 million followers.
Jesse Singal, another signer, is a cis man infamous for advancing his career by writing derogatorily about trans issues. In 2018, Singal had a cover story in The Atlantic expressing skepticism about the benefits of gender-affirming care for trans youth. No trans writer has been afforded the same space. Singal often faces and dismisses criticism from trans people, but he has a much larger platform than any trans journalist. In fact, a 2018 Jezebel report found that Singal was part of a closed Google listserv of more than 400 left-leaning media elites who praised his work, with not a single out trans person in the group. He also has an antagonistic history with trans journalists, academics, and other writers, dedicating many Medium posts to attempting to refute or discredit their claims and reputations.
It’s also clear that the organizers of the letter did not communicate clearly and honestly with all the signatories. One invited professor, who did not sign the Harper’s letter, said that he was asked to sign a letter “arguing for bolder, more meaningful efforts at racial and gender inclusion in journalism, academia, and the arts.” The letter in its final form fails to make this argument at all. Another of the signers, author and professor Jennifer Finney Boylan, who is also a trans woman, said on Twitter that she did not know who else had signed it until it was published. Another signatory, Lucia Martinez Valdivia, said in a Medium post: “When I asked to know who the other signatories were, the names I was shown were those of people of color from all over the political spectrum, and not those of people who have taken gender-critical or trans-exclusionary positions.”
Under the guise of free speech and free exchange of ideas, the letter appears to be asking for unrestricted freedom to espouse their points of view free from consequence or criticism. There are only so many outlets, and while these individuals have the ability to write in them, they have no intention of sharing that space or acknowledging their role in perpetuating a culture of fear and silence among writers who, for the most part, do not look like the majority of the signatories. When they demand debates, it is on their terms, on their turf.
The signatories call for a refusal of “any false choice between justice and freedom.” It seems at best obtuse and inappropriate, and at worst actively racist, to mention the ongoing protests calling for policing reform and abolition and then proceed to argue that it is the signatories who are “paying the price in greater risk aversion.” It’s particularly insulting that they’ve chosen now, a time marked by, as they describe, “powerful protests for racial and social justice,” to detract from the public conversation about who gets to have a platform.
It is impossible to see how these signatories are contributing to “the most vital causes of our time” during this moment of widespread reckoning with oppressive social systems. Their letter seeks to uphold a “stifling atmosphere” and prioritizes signal-blasting their discomfort in the face of valid criticism. The intellectual freedom of cis white intellectuals has never been under threat en masse, especially when compared to how writers from marginalized groups have been treated for generations. In fact, they have never faced serious consequences — only momentary discomfort.
About this letter
This letter was a group effort, started by journalists of color with contributions from the larger journalism, academic, and publishing community. While a few of us organized the writing process, our role was to facilitate the group’s voice, not set the content or direction. Contributions were seen by all the collaborators and accepted through consensus. There is no particular order to this list of signatories, nor did any one person do the bulk of the work in writing the letter.
Many signatories on our list noted their institutional affiliation but not their name, fearful of professional retaliation. It is a sad fact, and in part why we wrote the letter.
- Unsigned/NDA, Journalism, NBC News
- Brooke Binkowski, Journalism
- Jonathan Dresner, Ph.D., Academia, Pittsburg State University, Kansas
- Aída Chávez, Journalism, The Intercept
- Joseph Hernandez, Journalism, Bon Appétit
- Ev Crunden, Journalism
- Stacia Ryder, Academia
- Holly Piepenburg, Journalism
- Shannon Clark, Academia, American University
- Unsigned/NDA, Journalism, NBC News
- Alan Henry, Journalism
- Michael Waters, Journalism, Freelance
- Dawn Rhodes, Journalism, Block Club Chicago
- Sydette Harry, Research/Freelance, USC
- Arionne Nettles, Academia, Northwestern University
- Andrea González-Ramírez, Journalism, GEN
- Solomon Gustavo, Journalism, MinnPost
- Tommy Christopher, Journalism, Mediaite
- Unsigned, Journalism
- Alex Zaragoza, Journalism, VICE Media
- Adriana Heldiz, Journalism, Voice of San Diego
- Wil Williams, Journalism, Podcast Problems LLC
- Rosalie Chan, Journalism
- Janelle Salanga, Journalism
- Gabe Schneider, Journalism, MinnPost
- Joseph Hankins, Academia, University of California, San Diego
- Unsigned/NDA, Journalism, Verizon Media
- Jasmine Snow, Journalism, Minnesota Daily
- Karen Attiah, Journalism
- Shoshana Wodinsky, Journalism, Gizmodo
- Joan Summers, Journalism, Jezebel
- Marina Fang, Journalism, HuffPost
- Tauhid Chappell, Journalism, Free Press
- Mel Plaut, Author
- Nicholas Trevino, Government Oversight
- Naoko Shibusawa, Academia, Brown University
- Jack Herrera, Journalism, Freelance Reporter
- Carlos Maza, Journalism, Freelance
- Azucena Rasilla, Journalism
- Malaika Jabali, Journalism
- Marzena Zukowska, Nonprofit, Radical Communicators Network / freelance writer
- Mutale Nkonde, Journalism
- Melissa Martin, Filmmaker/Academic, Freelance/Carnegie Mellon University
- Mahsa Alimardani, Academia
- Chia-Yi Hou, Journalism, The Hill
- Joshua Eaton, Journalism, Freelance Investigative Reporter
- Unsigned/NDA, Journalism, E.W. Scripps
- Sarah Weinman, Author
- Jessica Schulberg, Journalism, HuffPost
- Sarah J. Jackson, Academia, University of Pennsylvania
- Tim Barribeau, Journalism, Wirecutter
- Vasuki Nesiah, Academia, NYU
- Kimber Streams, Journalism
- Unsigned/NDA, Journalism, Public Radio
- Sarah Jones, Journalism, New York Magazine
- Alyza Enriquez, Journalism, VICE
- Unsigned, Journalism, The Hill
- Siobhán McGuirk, Journalism, Red Pepper magazine (UK)
- Elon Green, Journalism, Freelance
- Razzan Nakhlawi, Journalism
- Brandy N. Carie, Theatre & Film, Freelance Writer & Director
- Pravin Wilkins, Playwright, City Books Writer-in-Residence
- Unsigned/NDA, Journalism, Wirecutter
- Laura Wagner, Journalism, VICE
- Joseph Hefner, Writer/Filmmaker/Stage Director, Freelance
- Chelsea Cirruzzo, Journalism
- Janet Towle, Author
- Jaz Twersky, Podcaster
- Cassius Adair, Academia and Journalism, NYU Media Culture and Communication + Freelance
- Kimu Elolia, Publishing, Spotify
- Princess Ojiaku, Journalism / Civic Tech
- Unsigned/NDA, NPR
- Nick Guy, Journalism
- Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Academia, University of New Hampshire
- Unsigned/NDA, Journalism, New York Times
- Sasha Costanza-Chock, Academia, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- Wendy Lu, Journalism, HuffPost
- Unsigned, Academia, NYU
- Ryan Mac, Journalism
- Lucy Diavolo, Journalism, Teen Vogue
- Lyz Lenz, Author, The Cedar Rapids Gazette
- Unsigned/NDA, Colorado Public Radio News
- Lisa Nakamura, Academia
- Lizz Huerta, Author
- Smitha Khorana, Publishing
- Miho Watabe, Archivism
- Ben Schaefer, Academia, University of Illinois at Chicago
- Callie Wright, Journalism
- Tris Mamone, Journalism, Freelance Writer
- Dawn Ennis, Journalism, Outsports
- Akela Lacy, Journalism, The Intercept
- Alexander Lee, Publishing, W.W. Norton & Company
- Unsigned, Screenwriter
- Angela Misri, Journalism
- Minnah Zaheer, Journalism
- Cordelia Yu, Civic tech, Corgi & Bun
- Maya Srikrishnan, Journalism, Voice of San Diego
- Unsigned/NDA, Journalism, The New York Times
- Kameron Burns, Journalism, WIRED
- Adrienne Shih, Journalism
- Carrie Gillon, Alt-ac, Freelance
- Daniel Varghese, Journalism, GQ
- Adrienne Mahsa Varkiani, Journalism
- Shelby Weldon, Journalism, Outsports
- Sarah Ruiz-Grossman, Journalism, HuffPost
- Gaby Del Valle, Journalism, Freelance Writer
- Kristine White, Journalism, Freelance Writer
- Marlee Baldridge, Academia, University of Missouri
- Unsigned/NDA, Journalism, Slate Magazine
- Michael Izquierdo, Journalism, Freelancer
- Izz LaMagdeleine, Journalism, Freelance
- Ella Chen, Journalism , The Triton/UCSD
- Talia Lavin, Journalism, Freelancer
- Ethan Edward Coston, Journalism
- Unsigned/NDA, Journalism, POLITICO
- Kelsey D. Atherton, Journalism, Freelance writer
- Unsigned, Journalism, Public Media
- Amal Ahmed, Journalism, Texas Observer
- Siri Chilukuri, Journalism, Block Club Chicago
- Dylan Miettinen, Journalism, The Minnesota Daily
- Unsigned/NDA, Journalism, The New York Times
- Ashley Feinberg, Journalism
- Julia Llinas Goodman, Journalism
- Jacob Sutherland, Journalism, Catalyst.cm
- Lilly Irani, Academia, UC San Diego
- NDA, Journalism, The Hill
- Unsigned/NDA, Journalism, McClatchy
- Paula Chakravartty, Academia, NYU
- Robert Mejia, Academia, North Dakota State University
- Unassigned/NDA, Journalism, Wirecutter
- Thom Dunn, Journalism, BoingBoing
- Anna Merlan, Journalism
- Hunter Boone, Journalism, Wirecutter/NYT
- Tanvi Misra, Journalism
- Zachary Clein, Entertainment (Theatre/Film/TV), Freelance writer
- Maxwell Strachan, Journalism
- Julie Owono, NGO
- Unsigned/NDA, Journalism, NPR
- Marie Cruz Soto, Academia, NYU
- Unsigned/NDA, Journalism, NPR
- Ariana Wilson, Journalism, Freelance
- Myra Washington, Academia, University of Utah
- Sameena Mustafa, Journalism, Hand Her the Mic LLC
- Edward Ongweso JR, Journalism Motherboard, VICE Media
- Nicole Cooke, Academia, University of South Carolina
- Kerri Greenidge, Academia
- Noah Berlatsky, Journalism, Freelance writer
- Peter Odell Campbell, Academia, University of Pittsburgh
- Thomas Wilburn, Journalism, NPR
- Minh-Ha T. Pham, Academia, Graduate Program in Media Studies, Pratt Institute
- Ritty Lukose, Academia, New York University
- Unsigned, Journalism, Condé Nast
- P. Claire Dodson, Journalism, Teen Vogue
- Khemani Gibson, Academia, New York University
- Bridget Read, Journalism, New York Magazine
- Shamira Ibrahim, Journalism, Freelance Writer
- Tiffany Bui, Journalism, The Minnesota Daily
- Aria Velasquez, Journalism
- Unsigned, Academia, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
- Naseem Jamnia, Academia/Freelance Writer, University of Nevada
- Anjali Vats, Academia, Boston College
- Jordan Coley, Journalism
- Joshua Lyon, Author
- Kerry Jo Green, Academia, Brandeis University
Tags: Activism, Celebrities, Democracy, Elites, Freedom, Freedom of information, Freedom of the press, Journalism, Justice, Mainstream Media MSM, Media, Public Opinion, Social media
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