The Bon Appétit and Reply All saga shows how far behind we still

Editor-in-chief of well-known food publication resigns after scores of staff spoke out about an alleged toxic work culture where people of color are underpaid, underrepresented in positions of responsibility and are routinely faced with racism.

a close-up of a camera: Photograph: aleksandr Lychagin / Alamy

© Provided by The Guardian
Photograph: aleksandr Lychagin / Alamy

The team behind a hugely successful podcast decides to launch a new series investigating what happened. But halfway through the series, the producers themselves are accused of contributing to a toxic work culture where people of color are underpaid, under-represented in senior roles, and regularly face racism. Key personnel have suddenly resigned, the podcast is suspended, an apology is issued, and everyone following the story is stunned and confused.

a close-up of a device:

© Photograph: aleksandr Lychagin / Alamy
“What has transpired over the past few weeks and months is the culmination of an American media workplace account.”

Welcome to the Bon Appétit / Reply All saga.

Related: If Onscreen Diversity Matters, What Happens Offscreen Matters | Laura Murphy-Oates

What has transpired over the past few weeks and months is the culmination of a toll in U.S. media workplaces that has accelerated following last year’s Black Lives Matter protests. .

And it’s a calculation that shows how far behind we are here in Australia.

Bon Appétit, a monthly magazine published by media giant Condé Nast, has long been one of the most popular and influential food publications in the world. But it was in 2014, under the leadership of then-publisher Adam Rapoport, that the outlet boosted its online presence and became a digital media powerhouse by creating fun, engaging and engaging cooking shows. helpful on YouTube, making the staff stars who had largely remained behind. the scenes.

When the pandemic struck and Americans were confined to their homes, the magazine’s YouTube channel experienced its biggest month in history, drawing a mammoth 77 million views in March alone.

But a few months later, the magazine was rocked by a controversy from which it is still struggling to recover.

George Floyd’s assassination sparked global protests demanding racial justice, and the media were among the institutions highlighted. In an Instagram post, Bon Appétit aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement but staff were quick to accuse the post of hypocrisy, alleging they were prone to racism in the workplace.

Sohla El-Waylly, one of the magazine’s most popular presenters on the magazine’s YouTube channel, accused the company of only paying its white staff to appear in videos online. Condé Nast has denied the allegations, but a number of senior executives have said they will stop appearing on YouTube until pay equity issues are resolved.

Like the United States, Australia also has a deep history of structural racism embedded in our institutions.

Then an image of the brown-faced Rapoport resurfaced, leading to his resignation. Shortly after, three other presenters, all of color, resigned. The magazine was in turmoil.

A broader account in the US media followed.

It was a strange thing to observe from Australia. Like the United States, Australia also has a deep history of structural racism embedded in our institutions. But there was no benchmarking in our media organizations.

As the drama Bon Appétit was set in the United States, the ABC’s flagship news program featured an all-white panel discussing Black Lives Matter, the Melbourne Press Club elected an all-white board of 20 journalists, the The country’s most widely read columnist attributed the spread of Covid-19 to “multiculturalism,” The Age newspaper ran an op-ed claiming Australia had no history of slavery, and the list goes on.

While there have been some minor reforms in some of these areas, nothing quite like the wave of resignations and apologies that we have seen in the United States.

Which leads us to answer all. The podcast was founded by PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman in 2014 and describes itself simply as “an internet show”.

In February, the show shifted gears and announced it would air a new series called The Test Kitchen examining what happened at Bon Appétit, through exclusive interviews with former staff members. The series was presented by Sruthi Pinnamaneni, a senior producer on Reply All.

The first episode of the series was deeply cathartic. Pinnamaneni allowed those who had been marginalized, undervalued and abused to talk about their experiences on their terms. The series was accessible without being patronizing. People of color who had similar experiences in the workplace could relate to and white audiences could relate.

The “original sin,” as Pinnamaneni put it, was Rapoport’s decision to hire only whites in managerial positions. According to her, this decision is the source of the other problems – racialized pay inequality, the daily racism that staff face – arose.

It occurred to me that on this metric of an all-white management team, just about every news outlet in Australia deserved their own exposure to racism.

And that’s exactly what we noticed in panel discussions across the country, full of journalists who worked in these organizations. I’ve lost count of how many people have messaged me saying that this exact story, the story told on The Test Kitchen, could be made about their own media workplace. Many described it as a trigger, and some said they didn’t even want to listen to avoid being traumatized again by their own experiences.

After the broadcast of the second episode of The Test Kitchen, it’s Reply All’s turn to face the music.

Eric Eddings, a former staff member at Gimlet, the company that produced Reply All, has publicly accused Pinnamaneni and Vogt, one of the show’s co-hosts, of contributing to the same kind of toxic work culture they were doing. state.

In particular, Eddings said Pinnamaneni and Vogt actively opposed efforts to form a union at the company, an organizing campaign focused on pay inequalities and the abuse of non-white staff.

Pinnamaneni and Vogt apologized and announced that they were stepping away from the podcast.

Last week it was announced that the show had been put on hold and that no further episodes of The Test Kitchen would be shown. The show’s remaining original co-host Goldman said the decision to make the series was a “systemic editorial failure.”

It was an extraordinary and abrupt conclusion to a story about two of the most popular and influential media organizations of their time.

While some listeners applauded Goldman’s apology, others interpreted the decision to cancel the series as a loophole and pointed out that the former Bon Appétit staff who had courageously told their stories publicly deserved better than an unfinished production. subsumed by its own internal. chaos.

Related: Racism in opinion pieces will continue as media lacks diversity, report says

In its apologies, Goldman said Reply All should never have delved into this story. This is an interesting question. There were clear warning signs that Reply All may not have had the experience of self-awareness to undertake such a thorough examination of the breed.

In the first episode, Pinnamaneni admitted that it wasn’t until after the Black Lives Matter movement resumed last year that she first understood how racism manifests in the workplace.

“If you had asked [me] what does it mean to be an indian woman in the workplace i would have said that was pretty good, ”she said. “At the time, I didn’t really want to see my race as a disadvantage. As if I would rather focus on how it really helped me.

It was a reminder that being a person of color does not automatically give you the authority or the experience of exploring complex racial dynamics, especially when as an Indian migrant to the United States she is not submissive. to the same types of oppression as blacks. colleagues who criticized her.

Reply to all could covered this story, but they couldn’t do it without acknowledging their own complicity and lack of self-awareness.

As depressing as the elements of that saga have been, particularly the decision not to go ahead with finishing The Test Kitchen, it perhaps counterintuitively shows that progress is being made. Powerful people in charge of influential institutions have been forced to admit and apologize for their racism. Twice.

But looking from here to Australia, I’m still waiting for the day when our media organizations will have enough non-white staff to justify a racism scandal.

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