Two fired journalists — and what happened next

By Caitlin Kelly

One of the many challenges of working in a smaller country — Canada has 38 million people (one-tenth of the U.S.) — is sustaining a long, thriving career when you’re going to keep bumping into the same people over and over and over.

So a recent drama over the firing of a 23-year-old journalist, Ahmar Khan, proved instructive — albeit as he was reinstated for the final four months of his contract working for the CBC in Winnipeg.

The way he was fired was messy — a coworker using a shared laptop found a tweet by Khan about Don Cherry, a legendarily loud-mouthed national hockey commentator (and one whose racist opinions annoyed Khan, and many others)and dropped a dime on him to management.

Nice!

Khan was fired, but an arbitrator (who I worked with at the Globe & Mail decades ago) decided the CBC had erred in firing him and even awarded him damages.

The CEO of CBC? Of course, a woman who shared my freshman year philosophy class at University of Toronto — cold as ice and imperious as hell even then. I kept running into her, when I moved to Montreal, when I moved to New York. UGH!

It’s one reason I’m so glad I fled Canada at 30 and never had to go back. The circles are just too small.

The second firing blew up big and fast — after The New York Times fired Lauren Wolfe, a part-time copy contract copy editor (known as a casual) for tweeting about her delight at Biden’s win. The Times’ social media rules are strict, and forbid anyone working for them, even freelancers, from expressing their political opinions online.

The drama landed up on the front page of an Italian newspaper. She had to keep asking her Twitter followers not to suddenly cancel their NYT subscriptions in protest and collected money via Venmo.

It blew up after a friend of hers, Josh Shahryar, outraged, tweeted a long thread about their friendship and her work — it got 50,000 likes, 7.5 quotes and 20,000 re-tweets.

Her firing, like Khan’s really hit several nerves at once:

— Both journalists really are completely disposable, no matter their skills or experience. Wolfe had done tremendous and difficult social justice reporting and Khan had only called out someone, Cherry, already very well known for his racist bullshit.

— I’ve worked with some real assholes. But having a coworker rat you out to management? Ugh. Khan, like Wolfe, was a journalist and also a human being expressing a widely shared opinion.

— It felt really hypocritical for major corporations to pillory two individuals when much worse internal behavior, by stars and staffers, has been tolerated for many years. And some of those people have not even been fired. If you’ve never heard about Jian Ghomeshi, for many years a celebrated CBC radio host, it says plenty about who exercises real power, with impunity, and who does not.

— It feels equally unfair to expect journalists (not copy editors, admittedly) to promote their work on social media but pretend to have no personal feelings about the work or that of their employer.

— Being freelance or on contract is very tough — the working definition of precarity. Nothing is guaranteed. You have no union protection, even as staffers committing appalling errors in ethics or judgment keep their jobs. Forget about even collecting unemployment. Wolfe, unlike many freelancers, lives alone and has no one to turn to for financial backup. (Although The Guild, the NYT’s union, says it is investigating.)

— The only way these two journalists — both without staff backing — got real help and redress was thanks to third parties (an arbitrator at CBC and the Guild at the Times.) Otherwise, see ya later!

— The way Wolfe was treated, given her passionate and proven commitment to social justice reporting, seemed especially shitty. This is a woman at midlife and mid-career who had made some harder and less lucrative choices.

This defense was written by fellow journalist Jill Filipovic:

Instead, conservatives (and a very few self-identified leftists) say Lauren’s tweets evince unconscionable institutional bias on behalf of the paper.

The Times, like most mainstream news outlets, tries to be fair-minded and balanced; that often manifests as criticism of a politician being ok, but praise being professionally inappropriate. The job of a journalist is to be adversarial to those in power: not supportive of any particular politician, and antagonistic to all of them. From that frame, you can see how these tweets would have raised some eyebrows internally at the Times. At worst, though, that makes Lauren’s tweets a misdemeanor worthy of a talking-to, not a firing offense.

It’s also worth taking a step back and asking whether the fundamental job of a journalist — being unrelentingly tough on and adversarial to those in positions of power — also requires being only a critic. Is there room for expressions of relief, humanity, and empathy within the constraints of fairness?

…This isn’t the first time the right has come for a journalist, and it won’t be the last. The highest-up folks at our most respected media outlets need to demonstrate the same kind of backbone they expect from their reporters. They need to refuse to give in to the outage mobs that derive their power from institutional cowardice.

Then there’s this — an excerpt here from a very rare cri de coeur from Jennifer Barnett, someone who played at the highest levels of American magazine journalism — and finally, at 44, just bailed, worn out:

I had the plum job. The top of the masthead of one of the most prestigious and respected publications with more than a 150-year-old history. I left because I blew the whistle on my boss for doing something unethical then abusing the staff and undermining the editorial process during which time I was assured he would be fired but instead he was promoted and after threatening me privately in his office, he marginalized me to the point of being completely invisible. In addition to being my boss at this prestigious publication, he was also the president of the principal organization in the United States for the editorial leaders of magazines and websites. Literally every editor of every publication was beholden to him.

My career was over. I was 44 years old.

Not long after I quit, he also left but he went on to be next in line to run the paper of record, and I was volunteering to write the newsletter for the parent organization at my kid’s school. He’s since been fired, or rather resigned, for another major public failing but just last week I was told he’s working with the new editor in chief of the publication I left to write for them. He’s going to land on his feet. At the top.

I rarely tell tales out of school about the shitty men in my industry. There are so so many of them!

And, of course, they hold tremendous power and win the top jobs and keep winning them while many of us just think….are you kidding me?!

Journalism and publishing are not industries for the faint of heart.

5 thoughts on “Two fired journalists — and what happened next

  1. I could feel your passion in this post. Well said, about the… “shitty men in my industry.” The double-edged sword of journalism/media is getting internally rusted up for our fourth estate!

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