Politics

What Condé Nast Doesn’t Understand About Teen Vogue

The controversy surrounding newly hired editor-in-chief Alexi McCammond shows that the company misunderstands its own brand.

Side-by-side images of Alexi McCammond and Anna Wintour.
Alexi McCammond and Anna Wintour. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images and Getty Images/Breast Cancer Research Foundation.

What is happening at Teen Vogue? The brand, which pivoted with Trump’s 2016 election toward providing more politics coverage alongside its fashion and lifestyle fare, is currently ensconced in drama following its hiring of a new editor in chief. On March 5, publisher Condé Nast announced that 27-year-old Axios reporter Alexi McCammond would succeed former EIC Lindsay Peoples Wagner, who New York magazine hired to run its vertical the Cut in January.* Condé Nast chief content officer and Vogue global editorial director Anna Wintour raved that McCammond “has the powerful curiosity and confidence that embodies the best of our next generation of leaders.”

Advertisement

McCammond, who is slated to take over the role on March 24, comes from political journalism, which may seem well-suited for Teen Vogue’s continued dedication to that area. But even back when the announcement was made, I worried over the fact that McCammond has spent her career working as a reporter, not an editor. She’s had no management experience to speak of, and yet she was now being dropped into the top job. She also doesn’t have much fashion-related reporting experience, which seems odd for an ostensible fashion brand. I worried about a young Black woman essentially being set up to fail inside Condé Nast, which has been the subject of plenty of exposés about hostile working environments, most recently at Bon Appétit.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

My concerns about McCammond’s readiness to serve as the head of a major publication turned out to be warranted. McCammond’s own social media history ended up raising the biggest red flag of all. After Teen Vogue’s announcement, Diana Tsui, the Infatuation’s editorial director of recommendations, resurfaced a number of tweets McCammond had published in 2011 in which she used anti-Asian and homophobic language. (“Now googling how not to wake up with swollen, Asian eyes,” reads one representative example, others use the words gay or homo as insults.) The offensive posts quickly went viral. Notable figures across media and entertainment weighed in to express dismay with the hire, including Korean American actor Daniel Dae Kim, who shared the Asian American Journalist Associations’ release lambasting McCammond’s comments. The giant cosmetic company Ulta Beauty paused its seven-figure advertising deal with Teen Vogue in response. Former Teen Vogue EIC Elaine Welteroth, who was credited for helping to spearhead the outlet’s move toward more politically aware coverage when she assumed the role in 2016, expressed disappointment with the hire on air during her panel show The Talk. It also came out that Peoples Wagner had reportedly voiced her own concerns about McCammond to Wintour, when Wintour was first considering appointing her as Peoples Wagner’s successor.

Advertisement

On March 8, Teen Vogue staffers released a public statement condemning McCammond’s offending tweets. “In a moment of historically high anti-Asian violence and amid the on-going struggles of the LGBTQ community, we as the staff of Teen Vogue fully reject those sentiments,” the statement says. It goes on to ask Condé Nast leadership to have an “internal conversation” about what led to this hire, as well as the importance of inclusivity and diversity within the company and the Teen Vogue brand specifically; the co-signed did not, however, call for McCammond’s resignation.

What followed from there felt par for the course: McCammond issued an apology internally to staff, reportedly writing, “You’ve seen some offensive, idiotic tweets from when I was a teenager that perpetuated harmful and racist stereotypes about Asian Americans. I apologized for them years ago, but I want to be clear today: I apologize deeply to all of you for the pain this has caused.” McCammond then released a public one co-signed by Condé Nast management, who stood by her and the company’s belief that she would, in fact, foster the inclusive environment that is apparently part of Conde Nast’s mission. (“We respect and value our diverse community of Teen Vogue readers, we’re continuing the coverage you know us for,” it reads.) Then McCammond locked her Twitter. Then she came back, as the discourse did not abate, to post yet another apology that read much like the other two: “I’ve apologized for my past racist and homophobic tweets and will reiterate that there’s no excuse for perpetuating those awful stereotypes in any way.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

What is happening at Teen Vogue is a reflection of what is happening at many media companies, including other Condé Nast brands: People of color have finally gotten enough of a foothold, in strong enough numbers, to start what has ultimately turned out to be an extremely long and painful process of addressing the industry’s racism. McCammond’s hiring at Teen Vogue has some unique details—McCammond herself is a young Black woman, which means a certain type of person might assume she’s going to be a step forward when it comes to issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion (not inherently true). That same type of person might also think that putting a person of color in charge is an adequate response to the diversity issues that plague Condé Nast. That’s also rarely true—instating new leadership is not a substitute for actual, radical change.

Advertisement

There are also some particularly infuriating details in this situation: For one thing, McCammond’s tweets first made news and prompted an apology from her back in November 2019. There was already public record of her social media history. Maybe because of this prior apology, Condé Nast leadership assumed that the issue was resolved, but they should have considered the current context and her elevation. McCammond has been placed at the head of an organization that promotes positive self-image and diversity of all kinds; tweets tracking in racist stereotypes and prejudiced language run counter to that mission. We’re also living through an uptick of disturbing violence and attacks on Asians and Asian Americans, making McCammond’s comments using Asian stereotypes especially unnerving. With the spectacular unraveling of Bon Appétit still on many media observers’ minds, Condé should have known this hire would receive extra scrutiny. And while I don’t think the fact that McCammond did something troubling as a college student should prohibit her from ever advancing in her career—although the path to atonement in media remains murky, one should exist—the recency of these tweets combined with her lack of management experience certainly does underscore my initial feeling that she might not be equipped to do this particular job. The recurring defense has been that “she was just a teenager” when she posted her tweets—but this doesn’t feel sufficient given that she’s now in charge of an outlet that argues for teenagers to be taken more seriously than they often are.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Where does this leave Teen Vogue, going forward? Much of its editorial staff is now in the uncomfortable position of standing behind a leader they publicly disavowed, should McCammond indeed remain in the role. Despite Teen Vogue boasting two (three including McCammond) of the handful of Black editors in chief in its publisher’s history, now Condé Nast has added to that lineage someone whose leadership ability is in question. Wintour and other hiring executives at Condé Nast appear to have publicly put a foot down in favor of the controversial new hire, putting out releases that wave away the legitimate concerns about how McCammond will affect Teen Vogue’s inclusive image. This leaves the comparably disempowered staff to work to maintain the brand’s reputation.

Advertisement

An extensive New York Times piece last October focused on Wintour’s attitude at Vogue and her particular role in maintaining a culture of racial imbalance at the publication and Condé Nast writ large. One Black staffer told the Times that “at Vogue, when we’d evaluate a shoot or a look, we’d say ‘That’s Vogue,’ or, ‘That’s not Vogue,’ and what that really meant was ‘thin, rich and white.’ How do you work in that environment?” In that same piece, Wintour received credit for more recently hiring women of color in major editorial positions—Welteroth, Peoples Wagner, Vanity Fair’s Radhika Jones. She’s since instated new Bon Appétit editor-in-chief Dawn Davis and, now, McCammond. But even as Wintour attempts to guide her titles forward, she’s in a unique situation with Teen Vogue. This publication is more than just an outlet generating lots of page views for provocative political content. It’s one of the first Condé titles to have actively pivoted its brand toward inclusion. From editor’s notes to events to Instagram, it has worked to project an image of institutional integrity that goes far beyond its coverage. It is not a place for people like Anna Wintour to simply posture inclusivity by installing a young Black woman and assuming she’s progressive enough.

Correction, March 16, 2021: This post originally misstated that Peoples Wagner left Teen Vogue in January. She was hired by the Cut in January.

Advertisement