What Happened in the Tennessean’s Newsroom After That Anti-Muslim Ad

“I was feeling in myself, ‘Can I even come back to this place?’ ”

A man in a bandana holds an upside-down U.S. flag on which can be seen the words "Am I Next?" Other protesters walk on the street and hold signs behind him.
Protesters in Nashville, Tennessee, on June 4. Jason Kempin/Getty Images

Subscribers of the Tennessean opened their Sunday papers last weekend to discover a full-page ad that warned a “nuclear device” would detonate in Nashville on July 18,. The ad said it would be set off by “Islam”—not by Muslims, not by a terrorist group, just by “Islam.” The ad, created by a fringe post-apocalyptic Christian organization called the ministry of Future for America, set off an immediate furor as it traveled online. The Tennessean itself called it “utterly indefensible” and rushed to find out how it had made it into print. By Monday, a sales manager had been fired.

On Sunday, David Plazas, the opinion and engagement director at the Tennessean and the USA Today newsrooms in Tennessee, had started a furlough, like many of his colleagues, because of the coronavirus economic slowdown. He was immediately called back to address the crisis. We spoke on Tuesday about how the ad came to be, the paper’s firm response, and the impossible work of local journalism right now. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Aymann Ismail: When did you first see the ad?

David Plazas: I’m a print reader. I get the print newspaper to my home every day, and I was just as shocked an anybody, because I saw the ad at the same time that the majority of our leadership did. It was extremely upsetting. I was angry. I’ll be honest with you: I was feeling in myself, “Can I even come back to this place when I finish my furlough?” That was the initial raw emotion I had. But then I also said, I have the responsibility and the duty to do what I can to try to make this right. Because I have the capacity to do so.

Our regional editor [Michael Anastasi] was on furlough last week, and our executive editor [Maria De Varenne] and I, who report to Mike, started our furlough on Sunday. Essentially the furloughs have been going on for the last three months, and on average, any given week we are at 75 percent capacity. So we were supposed to be off for that week when all this broke loose. Mike recalled us both. It’s partly because of the work that we’ve done over many years to cultivate very deep relationships with members of the Muslim community.

Why were you in particular brought back on to manage the fallout?

I’ve cultivated relationships with the Muslim community for the almost six years that I’ve been here. On the onset, this started off because of a bad decision I made in early 2015—a decision that I thought was good at the time that I see now for exactly what it was. You may be aware of Carol Swain, who is a conservative African American commentator and former professor at Vanderbilt. Shortly after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in France, where 17 people, including several cartoonists, were slaughtered by extremists, Swain wrote an op-ed calling for the surveillance of the Muslim community. I had been on the job for less than a month when I received it. And in the spirit of providing a voice, I agreed to run it. But I also agreed to run it with the caveat that I was going to seek an alternative view. And I worked with the American Muslim Advisory Council to have a view that countered it. I was accused of bothsidesism and being tone-deaf. And in fact I was—because I was so new, I wasn’t fully aware of how the Muslim community lived in fear on a regular basis. A year before, a mosque in Murfreesboro, which is just south of Nashville, had been vandalized. There was a candidate not too long before that who was running for sheriff or a political office who had this ad with a gun pointing at people saying, “This is how you wink at a Muslim.” The more I learned about the history and what people had to endure, the more I realized I needed to make amends and make sure that started a conversation with Muslim leaders who came into the Tennessean. And ever since then, we’ve had at least an annual meeting, a friendship in which I’ve gone to the Islamic Center to pray and to eat. This relationship matters a lot to me because I feel that I have a platform and I have a power that can help bring dignity and voices of people who have been discriminated against.

I’m a Muslim person born and raised in America. I’ve gotten quite numb toward Islamophobia in media. When I saw the ad, I first thought to myself, “Well, this isn’t any worse than what I’ve heard from the president or Newt Gingrich.” What surprised me was how quickly the Tennessean responded, and how forcefully. Did you anticipate the national attention it got?

I’m not sure if I anticipated it. I’ve been doxed before on Twitter and in some cases I also get desensitized too. I’m a gay Latino man. And I say that because I live in this intrasectionality in the South, in a place where Confederate monuments abound. And I’ve been in a place where you’re constantly trying to chart your path in a very supremacist environment, even if not everybody’s like that. I think I was super sensitive to the ad because [the Tennessean] had just gone on weeks and weeks of what I thought was really meaningful and substantive coverage of Black Lives Matter protests. We had this package of all Black voices at the beginning of June that I was very proud of. And I had just written a column a few days before I went on furlough where I talked about the insult that state lawmakers made to a young Black woman denying her a memorial because of an allegation of a drug sale. Even internally we’ve done some great work with our employee resource groups to talk about these issues of racism and white supremacy and inclusion. And so this was a real shocker because, like you, I’ve seen all sorts of racism and you sometimes get numb to it. But at a certain point, especially in the last several weeks, I felt empowered to think we’re on the right path, and then this is a big one-two punch.

A newspaper’s ad staff is different than the editorial staff. But can you walk me through what you discovered about how this happened, and how it affected the paper? 

Yes, we never see the ads. We are a separate department, news and sales. There’s a very strict separation. So what normally happens is that it’ll go through a process where an ad company will connect the buyer with a publication like the Tennessean. And then it’ll go through a series of steps where ad representatives will take a look at it, they’ll work with a creative person who designs the ad, and it’ll be approved by the manager. Unfortunately, failures happen. The manager should have read that ad because just the first paragraph alone would have been a red flag to say this is unacceptable. [The Tennessean reported Monday that the manager failed to read the ad and was fired.]

It doesn’t represent our values. I take it personally because we have fought so hard. That’s why I was so upset Sunday morning. Just one ad could destroy all the progress that we’ve made over all this time. Even though it is the ad department, this reflects on all of us.

In my department, as the opinion editor, we publish an average of a hundred op-eds a month, and there have been some that have been controversial, like the one I mentioned to you a little bit ago. We try to create a space for free speech, but we also have been sensitive about really respecting the dignity of people. So when I started in journalism 20 years ago, we talked about objectivity, and we talked about the dispassionate, and we talked about being flies on the wall. I don’t think we can afford to do that anymore. We’re members of the community. And if we’re going to grow our readership, we need to be respectful of the groups that we have ignored historically. It’s partially a matter of morality, but it’s a matter of survival and a matter of living our values.

The executive director of the American Muslim Advisory Council said that because of the ad, “a huge target was placed on our community.” There are about 40,000 Muslims who live in the Nashville area. I know that you were planning, once it’s safe, going to visit the mosque. Is there anything that you are thinking about doing to help them that you haven’t mentioned so far?

We don’t want to assume that we know what the best steps are. So we don’t have it in mind quite yet, but in terms of just the bullet points of what’s happened, there was the termination of the manager, the change in processes in advertising, the returning of the money for the ad to the [Christian] group, donating the equivalent money to the American Muslim Advisory Council, granting house ads worth $50,000 to the American Muslim Advisory Council to help with the campaign for anti-racism. And general outreach. In a few days, I’ll also be interviewing on a podcast Sabina Mohyuddin, who’s the executive director of American Muslim Advisory Council. We actually had that interview scheduled several weeks before this happened, but obviously, we now have new things to talk about.

In the newsroom, I imagine everyone’s probably still working from home, or the people who can are still working from home. What’s the mood? What are you hearing from writers and reporters about how they feel about what they saw printed?

I’ve been working from home for the most part for the last three months. But I came in this week specifically because I wanted to be near our top editors so we can have discussions about the ad. Most of our staff is still working from home or on the field. They’re very angry and hurt and they feel ashamed. And many of them had posted those things on Facebook or on Twitter. We had one very helpful thread from one of our digital producers who used to be a copy editor—because we don’t have a copy desk anymore. We talked about this could have been prevented in the years that we still had a press on site and copy editors would go down to the press to take a look at the early proofs. But we publish in Knoxville, which is about three hours away from Nashville.

My boss, our executive editor, and I had a series of meetings that went from about 1:30 in the afternoon and all the way to 5 yesterday. They were many staff meetings where we invited people, anyone who wanted to come on, no more than a dozen people, and just listen and explain what we knew at the time, we knew more by the end of the day, and hear them out. And they’re mad. They’re asking a lot of questions about how could this happen. Why did this happen? And what are you going to do about it? And we received letters from the guilds and our sister papers denouncing the ad. The “good” thing today is that groups continued to denounce the ad, but they’re also expressing appreciation for how we have handled this and the fact that we’ve taken some significant steps and it’s not just the lip service but also demanding more, as they should. And also to build trust with our own staff. Because I heard a few people express what I expressed to you at the beginning of this call—they were feeling ashamed to work here.

Have you seen anything like this before?

No, this is different. I’ve never seen it like this. There have been times of low morale, obviously during the Great Recession. That was really tough during times of layoffs of employees. That was really tough. This is different because this sent out a message. We were used by this group and our processes broke down, and it sent a message that was antithetical to what our values are. I think people are enraged about that.

It’s been a tough moment for newsrooms, between the pandemic and now the protests over police violence, and that has to be very true for local news. How are things at the Tennessean?

It’s been hard. We had a staff meeting two Fridays ago and we just spent the first part of it asking everybody to share with us how they’re doing. And some did. They’re happy to be working because they care about what they do. And they’re really passionate about it. They miss the social connections that we have—we’re normally, pre-pandemic, extremely social. This isolation is not great. Compounding with that the ad situation, it hurts even more because you’re already in a vulnerable state. We miss handshakes. We miss hugs. I can remember, especially myself as a young journalist when I was in my early 20s, making those connections and having a beer, a glass of wine with other journalists and talking about the news of the day, talking about the stories that we’re chasing—that was really cathartic.

I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but last week when the [Tennessee] legislature adjourned, it passed a resolution condemning the media and fake news for its sensationalizing COVID coverage. It goes to show what we’re fighting too. Last year, in 2019, we had a reporter, Natalie Allison, who was picked on by the speaker of the [state] house. She had been relatively new in her beat, but she was relentless, and he is no longer in that position because she exposed his misdeeds. And so for me, we’re living our values of holding people accountable and fighting for people who feel unheard. We’re doing that.