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The Best Way For Jeffrey Goldberg To Help Diverse Journalists Would Be To Quit His Job

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On Thursday, Nieman Lab published a friendly discussion with The Atlantic’s editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg and the magazine’s recently promoted executive editor Adrienne LaFrance, in which they addressed the great progress The Atlantic has made in adding women to its staff. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective) for what should have been a relatively puffy piece about the 162-year-old institution realizing that it’s actually good for news organizations to hire women and people of color, discussion about the discussion was entirely derailed by Goldberg’s explanation of why so many cover stories for The Atlantic are written by white men.

The evaluation and reevaluation of what Goldberg said has resulted in two camps: Those who think he’s a sexist old white guy who was perpetuating the worst tendencies of old white guys in media, and those who think his comments were disingenuously and perhaps willfully misread and that Goldberg was simply and unobjectionably pointing out that white men have historically gotten more opportunities than women and people of color to do ambitious journalistic work. Neither is quite right, and both are eliding what he actually said.

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In the section of the article dedicated to addressing where The Atlantic has “fallen behind,” Goldberg said:

We continue to have a problem with the print magazine cover stories — with the gender and race issues when it comes to cover story writing. [Of the 15 print issues The Atlantic has published since January 2018, 11 had cover stories written by men. —Ed.] *

It’s really, really hard to write a 10,000-word cover story. There are not a lot of journalists in America who can do it. The journalists in America who do it are almost exclusively white males. What I have to do — and I haven’t done this enough yet — is again about experience versus potential. You can look at people and be like, well, your experience is writing 1,200-word pieces for the web and you’re great at it, so good going!

That’s one way to approach it, but the other way to approach it is, huh, you’re really good at this and you have a lot of potential and you’re 33 and you’re burning with ambition, and that’s great, so let us put you on a deliberate pathway toward writing 10,000-word cover stories. It might not work. It often doesn’t. But we have to be very deliberate and efficient about creating the space for more women to develop that particular journalistic muscle.

*[An Ed. note to the Ed. note: Three cover stories in this time frame were written by women (the January/February 2018 issue, the November 2018 issue, and the December 2018 issue), and there was one cover that featured a package of stories which included one written by a woman (the October 2018 issue). Nearly all the cover stories were written by white people.]

This answer—specifically Goldberg’s apparent implication that white men are writing long Atlantic cover stories because it’s too hard for other non-white male journalists to do so—prompted a lot of pointed criticism from people who work in media. Many people, me included, felt that it was hilariously retrograde for the editor-in-chief of one of the country’s most storied publications to say that women and people of color can’t write cover stories because they’re “really, really hard” to write. Goldberg responded to the backlash on Twitter, first claiming that he was misquoted (throwing the Nieman reporter, who is a woman, under the bus in the process), then walking back his denial when it became clear that the reporter had taped the discussion, and finally clarifying that what he meant was simply to observe that white men are the ones who most often get the opportunity to write long cover stories. Then today, he tried to do further damage control in an interview with the New York Times.

Right on cue, reinforcements from the Reasonable Journalist Brigade charged in to explain what Goldberg actually meant. Witness an old white-guy staff writer at The Atlantic, who thinks his old white-guy boss is doing a great job:

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A man who dismissed Goldberg’s critics as having poor reading comprehension:

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Jonathan Chait and Will Saletan, of course:

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And another powerful media man who seemed befuddled by the response to Goldberg’s quote:

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This last tweet is key. If you read Goldberg’s quote as him saying that people who aren’t white men are generally incapable of writing 10,000 word cover stories—and, note, Goldberg did use the word “can” in his answer—that’s bad. If you read the quote as Goldberg saying non-white men aren’t usually given chances to write these stories at The Atlantic, that’s just him stating facts.

Whether you read what he’s saying as the former or, more generously, as the latter, what Goldberg said next is far more insidious than the obviously wrong assertion that women and people of color aren’t able to write 10,000 word cover stories. He said:

What I have to do — and I haven’t done this enough yet — is again about experience versus potential. You can look at people and be like, well, your experience is writing 1,200-word pieces for the web and you’re great at it, so good going!

That’s one way to approach it, but the other way to approach it is, huh, you’re really good at this and you have a lot of potential and you’re 33 and you’re burning with ambition, and that’s great, so let us put you on a deliberate pathway toward writing 10,000-word cover stories. It might not work. It often doesn’t. But we have to be very deliberate and efficient about creating the space for more women to develop that particular journalistic muscle.

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When you consider that the 10,000-word cover stories under discussion here are the ones The Atlantic actually runs, it seems clear that to Goldberg, diversity isn’t about simply getting the many, many, many talented and qualified women and people of color in media to write cover stories for his magazine about subjects that interest them, but about training them to write the sorts of cover stories he happens to like—ones that at least gesture at being sharp and provocative and are aimed to spark discussion and that, ultimately, affirm his worldview. The whole point of having a diverse group of people with diverse thoughts and opinions and interests and areas of expertise, though, is that you don’t end up with a bunch of turgid, boring white-guy articles that gesture at being sharp and provocative and spark discussion in narrow and predictable ways. It’s one thing that Goldberg doesn’t even seem to recognize that there are lots of non-white male journalists out there right now who are not only capable of writing in-depth cover stories but are in fact doing so; the even more serious issue, though, is that this powerful magazine man seems to think the solution to the problem under discussion is to teach women and people of color to be like him (or how to do work that satisfies him) rather than to support them in being the best possible version of themselves, and adjust his views accordingly.

That “journalistic muscle” that he says he wants to help women and people of color develop is, after all, a very specific one, involving writing overly long thinkpieces about Society, often premised on the unprovable conceit that an abstract concept is dead or dying. In the last half-year the only cover story a woman has written for The Atlantic is “The Sex Recession,” a handwringy screed about how young women aren’t fucking enough. To Goldberg, the end-all be-all of journalistic success that women should be striving for appears to be having a cover story for The Atlantic called “The End Of Men” or “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” or “Marry Him!

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It takes a certain hubris to churn out a fatally boring, loosely researched 10,000-word take (incidentally, very few stories need to be 10,000 words long, but Goldberg wouldn’t be the first to confuse length and quality) meant to be slapped on the cover of a national magazine and “drive the conversation.” It also requires a certainty that criticism will attach to your ideas and not to you, personally. It’s a hubris, or confidence, white men in media seem to have aplenty, for what should be obvious reasons. Just take a look at staff writer David Frum’s recent cover story arguing that racist immigration policies are actually good; or the one by author and journalist Charles Duhigg about why “we’re” so angry; or the one by 60 Minutes correspondent John Dickerson about how being president is hard; or the sympathetic meditation on evangelicals and Trump written by George W. Bush’s former speechwriter Michael Gerson; or that disaster by transphobic lunatic Jesse Singal, who, by the way, also thinks Goldberg is doing great.

These fatally boring stories are usually written by well-known people with fancy platforms—people who are connected, and who use those connections, and who have reason to think that even if their provocations do spark backlash, it will be limited to discourse and debate, not very real threats to their personal well-being. The Atlantic has non-white guy writers on staff who could be writing better cover stories than John Dickerson or Michael Gerson or fucking Jesse Singal—and for that matter, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote the seminal magazine story of the decade for The Atlantic, though he’s since left—but, as Goldberg makes it sound anyhow, they’re just not there yet.

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Getting there evidently means being willing to write grossly engorged and fairly basic takes about the death of some abstract concept or aspect of society that reveals something about “us.” This dynamic becomes clearer when you consider who the “us” here is referring to. For The Atlantic, it seems to broadly be wealthy white people; more specifically, especially when it comes to 10,000-word cover stories, it seems to be people like Jeffrey Goldberg. Diversity is about more than training people who check off certain boxes to write like an old white man; it’s about being open to those people’s ideas and their experiences and letting them report on what interests them in ways that interest them, rather than, say, writing vague and expansive polemics about how democracy is dying or what have you because that is what a serious story is supposed to be. Goldberg, though, to all evidence, wants grossly engorged opinion pieces about how some aspect of society is dying and what it reveals about or means to an “us” that can be best described as wealthy, white, connected older men—an exclusive group characterized by, among other things, not having to think too hard about what diversity actually means beyond it giving one the ability to brag about newsroom gender percentages to a reporter.

If Jeffrey Goldberg simply thought that the problem of having so many white men writing Atlantic cover stories was a question of opportunity, he could have said that he wants to fix that by hiring any number of talented and capable non-white men to write them. (More than that he could have done so in the two-and-a-half years he’s been running the magazine.) That’s not what he said. Instead, he delivered a patronizing, fogey-ish monologue about “1,200-word web pieces” and “potential” and “creating the space for more women to develop,” in service of training people to think and write in a way that he deems acceptable.

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Sometimes people say exactly what they mean, and in doing so reveal problems and solutions they never intended to. The problem isn’t that not enough non-white male writers have proven themselves worthy of filling the pages of The Atlantic, but that Jeffrey Goldberg, in executing his specific vision for the magazine, has determined them not to be so. That’s a problem that comes with a simple solution.

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