The XX Factor

SB Nation Shows Why It’s Not OK to Treat Women as “Gatekeepers of Sensitivity”

Daniel Holtzclaw’s 2009 NFL headshot at photo day in Detroit, Michigan. Holtzclaw was later convicted of raping multiple women while on duty as an Oklahoma City police officer.

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Remember when SB Nation published, and then retracted, a 12,000-word apologia for convicted rapist (and former college football star) Daniel Holtzclaw? Three months later, SB Nation’s parent company Vox Media has released a report explaining how such a boneheaded, poorly written, offensive article got published. I know, I know: You’ve moved on to other internet outrages, and besides, didn’t Deadspin report this out months ago? But if you care about broken workplace cultures and the tokenization of minorities and women, you’re going to want to read this postmortem. The most important lesson from the Vox report: There’s a fine line between valuing the perspective of women and minorities and burdening them with the work of keeping institutions sensitive and thoughtful.

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Vox Media’s review panel interviewed everyone involved in the publication of “Who Was Daniel Holtzclaw?,” including writer Jeff Arnold and editor Glenn Stout. Stout, who ran SB Nation’s Longform vertical mostly on his own, comes off particularly poorly. In addition to being blind to the story’s failures of tone and structure, he refused to countenance any criticism from senior editor Elena Bergeron, whom he allegedly described to Arnold as “a lower-level editor who is a climber.” A conference call in which Bergeron and managing editor Brian Floyd attempted to explain the story’s problems to Stout did not go well:

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Bergeron and Floyd both describe the call as unpleasant, condescending, and ultimately unproductive, with Stout unwilling to hear Bergeron’s concerns. Floyd describes Stout’s attitude as “forceful and disrespectful,” and says he seemed intent on pushing the story through with no changes. Bergeron recalls that as she went through the story beat by beat, “every point, Glenn had a rebuttal to, or he would just start talking over me, which made me angrier than it did anything else.”

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The ultimate problem—and the reason “Who Was Daniel Holtzclaw?” got published—wasn’t that Stout was a jerk, but that Bergeron and Floyd felt powerless to stop him. “In this case, I do feel like he held all power over both of us,” Floyd told the Vox Media investigators. SB Nation editorial director Spencer Hall—who normally worked on longform articles directly with Stout, without input from other editors—was on vacation in the days leading up to the article’s publication, and he hadn’t delegated power clearly while he was gone. None of the remaining editors, nor any of the other staffers who read the story before it was published, felt personally responsible for the story or entitled to tell Stout that it couldn’t be published.

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In addition to flagging specific chain-of-command problems, the report criticizes SB Nation for its lack of diversity—according to the report, SB Nation’s editorial staff is 89 percent male and 87 percent white. The report avoids making the facile argument that got passed around in the days following the story’s publication: If newsrooms were more diverse, stories like this wouldn’t get published. This isn’t a simple case of oblivious white men with blind spots around race and gender pushing through an offensive story without realizing it was offensive. Indeed, many editors did realize it was offensive, and Bergeron, a black woman, voiced her concerns—she just wasn’t empowered to shut down the story. An increase in newsroom diversity wouldn’t have saved SB Nation from publishing “Who Was Daniel Holtzclaw?” unless more people had the authority to stop the digital presses.

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The report indicates that SB Nation relied on a pair of women—Bergeron and senior content producer Sarah Kogod—to read stories on sensitive topics, and to flag any potentially offensive content. “That it is left to the newsroom’s two senior-most women, one of whom is of color, to be the people asked to identify issue-related editorial missteps in stories about sexual assault or race or LGBTQ issues is inexplicable and unacceptable,” reads the report. “They should not be seen as the gatekeepers of sensitivity.”

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Vox Media’s report on SB Nation insists, powerfully, that it’s not OK for white men to shunt this category of work onto women and minorities. “It’s flatly unacceptable for any editor to assume that it’s not his or her job to care to the fullest extent about matters of ethics, integrity, and accuracy, which is essentially what caring about the construction and phrasing of sensitive stories boils down to,” write the report’s authors.

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News organizations shouldn’t hire more women, people of color, and LGBTQ staffers because they think they’ll save them from embarrassment. People who are white, straight, and/or male need to be held to a higher standard; we shouldn’t expect women and minorities to save them from themselves. When news organizations—and really, any organization—increase diversity in the workplace, they benefit from the skills, experiences, and stories that people of different backgrounds bring to the table. The ability to spot offensive behavior isn’t a skill that only minorities possess—it’s something everyone can, and should, do.

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