On Queens, Kings, and Kingmakers
I found myself intrigued recently by the diversity controversy at the Philadelphia Inquirer. In a substantive Twitter thread published on August 28th, the prize-winning journalist and Philadelphia Magazine editor-at-large Ernest Owens noted that, with the exception of the sports desk, there are currently no Black male reporters at the Inquirer. Let’s think about this for a moment. To Owens’s point, this means there are no Black male reporters at the Inquirer covering politics, culture, the arts, education, and so on—in a city with a Black population of more than forty-three per cent. In fact, there is one less Black male reporter now on the Inquirer’s news desk (zero) than there was on the day that George Floyd died (one), in 2020, pre-American Spring. It’s an appalling oversight—if one can even deem it as such.
Owens noted that, although the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists, an organization he heads, formed a partnership with the Inquirer to address DEI issues, none of the shared goals and initiatives they had agreed upon over a year ago had subsequently been addressed. These include a new apprenticeship program, a new Community Advisory Council, and further constructive dialogue around diversity programs. Three days after Owens published his thread, a newly formed coalition, the Journalism Accountability Watchdog Network Coalition (J.A.W.N.)—consisting of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the P.A.B.J., the Asian American Journalists Association, and the Free Press—issued a joint statement condemning what they referred to as the “ongoing failure” of the Inquirer’s DEI initiatives.
A letter sent to employees on September 2nd from Inquirer publisher Lisa Hughes has only seemed to exacerbate the issue. In her letter, Hughes appears to claim that J.A.W.N. is issuing “demands” and seemed to frame the Inquirer as an organization being confronted with “threats” and “belittlement.” This framing misconstrues the necessary and essential work that organizations like the N.A.H.J., the P.A.B.J., the A.A.J.A., and the Free Press do to center and prioritize diversity in a media landscape where the voices—and the bylines—of journalists of color or marginalized backgrounds are sorely lacking. It’s also a framing that assumes that an imperial, top-down approach is the best way to address concerns about the diversity gap that the media industry continues to face. Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only does a less collaborative approach risk alienating your readership—it also risks alienating the very writers and journalists one would hope that an institution like the Inquirer is, at this very moment, looking to hire.
I have to say that I agree with the University of Maryland professor Christoph Mergerson that this is the kind of letter one sends when an organization’s leadership is flustered or put off balance. The tone here also conveys a marked lack of urgency around this matter—a quality that I’ve seen time and again in legacy media circles when it comes to addressing issues of diversity.
The legacy media world—which, at times, overlaps with the world of daily newspapers—operates very much like a monarchy. There are fiefdoms within this world, where publishers and editors-in-chief battle it out or generally ignore each other—preferring to focus on individual kingmaking or bestowing favors within their own specific territories. But the media world is also a sphere that very much continues to act as if it is immobilized in a kind of quicksand. The very nature of the legacy model is defined by its distinct lack of urgency. When it comes to foundational support for twenty-thousand word pieces or articles, this old-fashioned model works quite well. When it comes to honest reckonings with racial biases, the traditional legacy media model is all too often cumbersome and counterproductive.
But what does legacy media have to do with the situation at the Inquirer, you ask? Well, Lisa Hughes, the woman currently at the center of this controversy, is a former publisher at Condé Nast—a Queen, you might say, of the elite legacy media world (*see Editor’s Disclaimer)—and actually doubly pedigreed, both in lineage and as a well-honed product of the Condé machine. She’s an alum of the exclusive St. Paul’s private boarding school, in Concord, New Hampshire (where tuition costs $62,000), and she currently serves as one of the school’s trustees. St. Paul’s counts among its other esteemed alumni the tycoons John Jacob Astor and J. P. Morgan, as well as several New Yorker contributors, including Eliza Griswold, Benjamin Kunkel, and Rick Moody. (The publisher William Randolph Hearst, former Inquirer owner Moses Annenberg’s old mentor, is also an alum.) After her sojourn at St. Paul’s, Hughes later matriculated at Harvard University—not an uncommon pipeline for legacy media executives. Hughes then joined Condé Nast, where she served, at various times, as a publisher or senior executive at an array of titles—including Allure, Vanity Fair, House & Garden, and Condé Nast Traveler—before finally landing at The New Yorker, as publisher and chief business officer, a position she would hold from 2009 to the fall of 2017.
So yes, Hughes may be an outsider to newspaper publishing, but she is very much an insider to the world of legacy media—as well as to the world of the Ivies and that of the legacy system itself. In fact, you might say that the orb and scepter are rightfully hers by birth, given that her father, Horace F. Henriques, Jr., served as a former president of the alumni association for St. Paul’s, the private school she attended. As an aside, Henriques was also a member of the fabled Book and Snake, one of the oldest secret societies at Yale University. (New Yorker contributor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is a former member of the Book and Snake, as is the author and Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward.) As you might imagine, this has all gotten me quite interested in the history, and arcane trivia, of Ivy secret societies, and I would highly recommend a journey down that historical rabbit hole.
At The New Yorker, Hughes and her large team of sales and marketing people—including designated copywriters and a fully staffed art department—were located on the floor above the editorial offices. During her nearly nine-year run at The New Yorker, there was one Black senior salesperson on the New Yorker business team. There was also a Black woman in a junior position in the marketing department who later left the magazine. At The New Yorker, Hughes worked in tandem with David Remnick, the magazine’s editor-in-chief. Remnick, of course, is no stranger to the orb and scepter himself. If there’s an undisputed King at Condé Nast, it is the New Yorker editor (*see Editor’s Disclaimer). Remnick and Hughes got along quite well; they actually had one of the closer professional publisher-editor relationships within Condé Nast. Remnick has always styled himself as something of a kingmaker—a man perfectly at ease with either bestowing favor (or withholding approval) on those within his realm. In fact, the New Yorker editor offered up an extraordinarily munificent recommendation when Hughes took on her new position at the Inquirer, in 2020. Hughes, he claimed, had not only wanted her team to understand The New Yorker’s business and journalism model, but had even sought to make sure that they appreciated the import of selling the magazine “in a spiritual sense.” An almost holy benediction, as it were. This is the kind of knighting (or queenmaking) in the media world which surpasses even royal territory, practically slipping into the realm of the divine.
Hughes comes with a lot of well deserved business accolades—yet the newsroom ratios at the Inquirer, two years into her reign, are, to be frank, disappointing. And running a baroque Condé title is quite a different experience from that of helping to run a national newspaper. The legacy media world, like all empires, moves at a glacial pace. It rarely acknowledges the clamor of voices outside its ornate gates or walls. And therein, one might say, lies the rub. In fact, for years we’ve been hearing media leadership frame the lack of progress on DEI or representation in the workplace as a matter of not being able to find “the right hire,” or simply a need for people to be patient and allow more time to pass. This is the lulling comfort (for the privileged) of what I like to refer to as “diversity stasis.” But it is nearly always a kind of comfort that’s built on a lie—the lie that familiarity produces the best quality. Actually, as some writers and journalists have been warning for years, familiarity often simply breeds mediocrity—until all that you’re left with is a kind of Hapsburgian homogeneity, where the most bland types of reporting and analysis continue to fail upward. We see this even now as opinion pages and editorials across the country struggle to address crucial topics of public crises. Yet the media world (legacy or no) has never seemed to connect the fact that its lack of urgency on matters of diversity in its own backyard is deeply, intrinsically connected to the lack of urgency in its coverage of some of the most paramount issues of our day—the rise of anti-Democratic movements across the country, the crumbling infrastructures in local counties, the petty corruption of mafioso-style bureaucratic officials. The potential to comprehend when the old models aren’t working is integral to any institution’s ability to recognize and respond to plights outside of its palisades. Calls for change are rarely heard inside the palace walls—which is why it is so crucial to recognize one's own limited scope of vision and privilege, and to start allowing an influx of outside voices inside your gates. Current or former employees at your own newspaper (or magazine, for that matter) shouldn’t have to repeatedly offer royal petitions to a publisher, or an editor, to get them to acknowledge their longstanding concerns. If someone is telling you the water is wet—believe them. If someone is telling you the water is polluted or befouled—then you know that it’s past time to act.
The Inquirer is not a legacy media institution. It’s a local paper with a prestigious history of its own. (The reporter Wesley Lowery profiled the paper in an extensive report earlier this year.) It also boasts one of the few top Latino editors in the country—which is especially admirable given the homogeneous nature of the publishing world. Yet the Inquirer, like so many other magazines and newspapers across the country, clearly needs more reporters with actual skin in the game. Perhaps the era of journalism monarchs and media empires is on the wane. There’s a reason why Remnick’s blessing of Hughes’s new position as publisher of the Inquirer was deemed significant when he proffered it. The upper echelons of the media world still turn on favors bestowed and kingmaking by private school chums or the privileged few at the top of the media ladder. But what if this very quality is part of the rot that we’re all currently witnessing? As the world keeps turning and the voices outside the walls continue clamoring, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the diaphanous quality of detached privilege is actually a suffocating mantle—an imperial cloak which keeps media executive suites so pin-drop quiet that, even as the cacophony outside deepens and intensifies, those who rule still feel no urgency. So how does an industry nearly brined in layers of passivity when it comes to matters of diversity begin to transform itself? Perhaps the key lies in laying down the orb and scepter—and starting to listen.
Editor’s Disclaimer: The undisputed Queen of Condé Nast is clearly Anna Wintour, forever and always, and rightfully so. Any mention of majesty in reference to anyone else is merely a nice play on words. (I actually became acquainted with Ms. Wintour’s daughter years ago, when she was friends with one of my former interns. I found her to be bright and funny—and also one of the few people who, like myself, was an Obama voter long before it became fashionable, or even existed. So I may take the piss out of Ms. Wintour from time to time, but remain impressed with her professional - and parenting - skills. That is all…please bore someone else with your questions.)
Classics of the Week:
I stumbled across this fantastic tweet the other day about a duel that was fought in 1400 between a dog (yes, you read that right) and the man who had murdered the dog’s owner. It’s such a sly, marvelous account—please check it out. And this reminded me of Nabokov’s wonderful short story, “An Affair of Honor,” which can be found in the anthology, “Nabokov’s Quartet,” published in 1966. (The story was also published in The New Yorker—and, if you can somehow manage to navigate the magazine’s recalcitrant search engine, and then laboriously fling yourself over its subscription wall, I highly recommend you read the piece.) Set in the nineteen-twenties, it tells the tale of a businessman, who, upon discovering he was cuckolded by a friend, decides to challenge him to a duel. Anton Petrovich is a rather stuffy entrepreneur living in Berlin with his lovely wife, Tanya. Berg, the friend in question, is a bit of blowhard and not particularly likable. One summer evening, Petrovich returns home unexpectedly from a business trip:
“In the bedroom, Berg was standing before the wardrobe mirror, putting on his tie.
Anton Petrovich mechanically lowered his little suitcase to the floor, without taking his eyes off Berg, who tilted up his impassive face, flipped back a bright length of tie, and passed it through the knot. ‘Above all, don’t get excited,’ Berg said, carefully tightening the knot. ‘Please don’t get excited. Stay perfectly calm.’
Must do something, Anton Petrovich thought, but what? He felt the tremor in his legs, an absence of legs—only that cold, aching tremor…
He pulled off the glove with a final yank and threw it awkwardly at Berg. The glove slapped against the wall and dropped into the washstand pitcher.
‘Good shot,’ said Berg.”
Duels are a frequent subject in Russian literature, and Nabokov has written several short stories about the art of dueling and the consequences of both honor and vengeance. This tale has always struck me as rather cinematic in scope. Nabokov’s protagonist is suspended between two familiar states of being—action and inaction. Petrovich appears to be an exceptionally acquiescent hero, even as he puffs out his chest for his sympathetic male friends. There’s a bit of a resemblance to Poe here in Nabokov’s masterly access to the tremulous, protean psyche of his protagonist. Petrovich’s staccato indecision is eerie and unnerving to witness. But you don’t read this story for the duel—no, not at all. You read it for Nabokov’s subtle swoops of language and imagery—perhaps more artfully done in some of his other works, yet consequently all the more prized here when you happen to chance upon them. Thus, his soft description of a city cab hailed at dawn:
“At the corner of the street Anton Petrovich found a sleepy taxi, which whisked him with ghostly speed through the wastes of the blue-gray city and fell asleep again in front of his house.”
I could inhale this brief sentence for days. Reading Nabokov’s tale is like walking down a long, winding alleyway, while occasionally touching the stone walls rising alongside you just to make sure the landscape encircling you is still physically there.
If you’re at home, in residence, on a fine September evening, I’d recommend pairing this story with a snifter of brandy or a hint of Pappy Van Winkle. Maybe throw on an ascot or a monocle. Or simply read the story on its own—relishing its unexpected twists and turns, and enjoying the exquisite payoff at the end.
Poetry Lark of the Week:
Turning (via Maya C. Popa)
There comes a time in every fall
before the leaves begin to turn
when blackbirds group and flock and gather
choosing a tree, a branch, together
to click and call and chorus and clamor
announcing the season has come for travel.
Then comes a time when all those birds
without a sound or backward glance
pour from every branch and limb
into the air, as if on a whim
but it’s a dynamic, choreographed mass
a swoop, a swerve, a mystery, a dance
and now the tree stands breathless, amazed
at how it was chosen, how it was changed.
—Julie Cadwallader Staub
Track of the Week:
Leela James's "Rain"
Just feeling this one for some reason. Fall days in NYC…
Book of the Week:
Celeste Ng’s “Our Missing Hearts” (out October 4th)
Celeste’s work is always exquisite and I expect nothing less from this novel, which I’m already hearing raves about. Please go ahead and pre-order it from your local independent bookstore!
Flick of the Week:
Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000)
One of my favorites. Wonderful cinematography, fantastic fight choreography, Michelle Yeoh AND Zhang Ziyi—plus the soundtrack is *chef’s kiss*
Twitter Follows of the Week:
The stars of this week’s newsletter and great follows for an inside scoop on certain aspects of local journalism.