ALEXIS JOHNSON, one of the few black journalists on the staff of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, was barred from covering the protests against racist policing on June 1st because editors claimed that she had displayed bias. Her offence? Firing off a sardonic tweet comparing the aftermath of looting to that of a tailgate gathering outside a country-music concert. Outrage mounted when colleagues who rallied to her side—including Michael Santiago, a Pulitzer prize-winning photojournalist—were deemed ineligible to cover the protests, too. Mr Santiago has since taken a severance payment and left. Ms Johnson is suing for a civil-rights violation. And the journalists’ union is demanding the resignation of the newspaper’s top two editors.
At other American papers, heads have already rolled. Adam Rapoport, the editor-in-chief of Bon Appétit magazine, resigned after an old Halloween photo of him dressed as a Puerto Rican man resurfaced and he was accused of paying less to non-white contributors. James Bennet, the editorial-page editor of the New York Times, had to go after publishing an offending op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton calling for military back-up in response to violent protests (the content of the article, hardly extreme among Republicans, seemed less damning than the admission that it had been published without Mr Bennet’s reading it). Outlets from Man Repeller, a fashion website, to the Philadelphia Inquirer, a respected daily, have lost their leaders.
Efforts to push out media bosses are not running out of steam. A top executive has been placed on leave at ABC News for alleged racist remarks. At Vogue Anna Wintour faces an attempt to dethrone her from the editorship for not featuring enough black staffers or subjects. Journalists at the Los Angeles Times are pointedly criticising editors for their coverage of the protests and the dearth of well-paid, non-white staffers.
As with the #MeToo movement, executives find themselves taken to task on two counts. One is what are deemed to be blatant examples of prejudice, like dubious Halloween costumes or unexplained inequities in minority pay. The other is insufficient minority representation, whether in organisations’ newsrooms or in their pages. On that score few media outlets (including this newspaper) measure up. Elite newsrooms are much whiter than the population. Damning statistics on the racial make-up of journalists and quoted sources will probably be tabulated and circulated.
Editors can quickly find themselves caught in a pincer movement, facing internal rebellion and mounting external pressure. The American left thinks corporate culture ought to become actively anti-racist—meaning not just the absence of discrimination but the hiring and promotion of sufficient shares of ethnic minorities.
Non-white bosses are just as rare in the boardrooms of America’s largest companies, which are experiencing rumbles but fewer signs of insurrection than media firms. The incidents there have been more isolated: the former head of diversity at Morgan Stanley is suing the bank over alleged racial bias. The difference might be that nearly 80% of American journalists identify themselves as liberal (and they may be especially moved by the zeitgeist, given their focus on current affairs). Their resemblance to university students—left-leaning, outraged by racial injustices, willing to blame the institutions’ leaders for inadequate minority hiring and representation—looks striking. The cultural battles that roiled college campuses a few years ago may now disturb workplaces, starting with those most sympathetic to the cause. The tech titans, with their somewhat rumbustious Bay Area staffers, look quite vulnerable. Facebook recently announced plans to make increase its non-white leadership by 30%.
In another way, too, the debates upending newsrooms resemble those that have shaken universities. Both places are critical to the free exchange of ideas, and, consequently, to the normal functioning of democracy. Ideas that staff deem too dangerous for publication—like Mr Cotton’s op-ed—will go un-presented to mainstream readers, while the divide between the liberal and conservative factions of America’s media will widen.
The educational pipeline produces fewer minority candidates for sought-after journalism jobs. Until that is fixed, more affirmative-action schemes, which are common at universities, may be needed to achieve the levels of diversity demanded by staff at media firms. That would be controversial, too. All of which suggests that the tumult is unlikely to subside soon.