News business in George Floyd upheaval

Editors sacked, reporters sidelined as standards change

THE NEWS BUSINESS is going through its own George Floyd reckoning, as traditional ways of operating are being challenged and overturned in swift fashion.

A week ago, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a story by the paper’s architectural critic talking about the damage done to historic buildings during Floyd protests. The headline on the story, “Buildings Matter, Too,” triggered internal protests, an employee sickout, and an apology from top officials. The officials said all of the paper’s editing procedures had been followed, but nevertheless a “deeply offensive” headline suggesting an equivalence between black lives and buildings had made it into print. By Saturday, the paper’s executive editor, Stan Wischnowski, had resigned.

The Boston Globe yanked its weekly magazine out of Sunday print newspapers because an illustration on the cover, which was designed prior to Floyd’s death, bore a resemblance to the way he was killed in Minneapolis. “We have deemed it insensitive in this moment and not up to our editorial standards,” the paper said in a front-page note to readers in the electronic version of the paper, which came with a different cover on the Sunday magazine.

A black reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sent out a tweet on May 31 suggesting the looting by George Floyd protesters was no worse than the mess created during a Kenny Chesney concert. She said the tweet was clever, but editors at the paper felt it crossed a line and betrayed bias. They refused to assign her to cover Floyd protest stories, causing an uproar in the newsroom. The union representing news staff at the paper likened the situation to Vietnam, accusing the newspaper’s managers of wrongly concluding “they need to destroy the village in order to save it.”

At the news website Axios, Jim Vandehei, the co-founder and chief executive, took the opposite approach. He said in a memo to staff that the company would support employees who participate in public protests. “If you’re arrested or meet harm while exercising these rights, Axios will stand behind you and use the Family Fund to cover your bail or assist with medical bills,” he said.

The New York Times published an op-ed last Wednesday from Sen. Tom Cotton in which the Republican from Arkansas called for sending in troops to deal with local violent protests over Floyd’s killing. “One thing above all else will restore order to our streets: an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain, and ultimately deter lawbreakers,” Cotton wrote.

The op-ed caused an uproar in the Times newsroom, with black reporters complaining that the article contained inaccuracies and put them in physical danger as they covered the protests.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

James Bennet, the editorial page editor and someone seen as potentially the future top editor of the Times, defended running the op-ed. In a newsletter to readers on Thursday, he pointed out that he and the Times editorial page both oppose Cotton’s viewpoint. But he said the point of running opinion pieces was not to publish views that he and the editorial page agree with. “It would betray what I think of as our fundamental purpose – not to tell you what to think, but to help you think for yourself,” he said. But, he added, “it is impossible to feel righteous about any of this. I know that my own view may be wrong.”

On Sunday, Bennet resigned, setting off a flurry of commentary about the changing mores of the news business. His replacement as acting editor of editorial page, Katie Kingsbury, formerly of the Boston Globe editorial page, sent a note to the staff of the opinion pages urging anyone who sees “any piece of Opinion journalism – including headlines or social posts or photos or you name it – that gives you the slightest pause, please call or text me immediately.”