Tue | Sep 27, 2022

Gordon Robinson | PAJ’s mission

Published:Sunday | July 31, 2022 | 12:07 AM
I still find it odd that it took NYM almost 30 years to realize Erin Overbey was “unnecessarily hostile” and “opportunistic” and then fired her summarily.
I still find it odd that it took NYM almost 30 years to realize Erin Overbey was “unnecessarily hostile” and “opportunistic” and then fired her summarily.
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As if to provide cosmic emphasis to my opinion (July 10; Long Road to Press Freedom in Jamaica) there’s more to press freedom than constitutional law, a firestorm erupted shortly thereafter at the New Yorker Magazine (NYM).

Among my proposed solutions to what I consider an absence of press freedom in Jamaica, I wrote then , “Until the PAJ acts like a working journalists’ trade union and defends journalists, journalism and ‘press freedom’ from institutional vulnerability to attack by the wealthy, powerful, or connected, I’ll continue to believe and disseminate my opinion that there’s no press freedom in Jamaica.”

So, on July 25, we learned NYM fired its long time archivist and Sunday archive/classics newsletter editor, Erin Overbey. I first discovered this from a lengthy tirade posted on Twitter by Ms. Overbey. Space (and relevance) won’t permit a full verbatim record but, inter alia, she wrote , “So [NYM] has fired me, effective immediately. I’m speaking with the union about potentially filing a grievance on the termination ….”

Right away keen observers will note she has a union to represent her. I’ve repeatedly suggested the Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ) should register as a trade union so it can engage in collective bargaining on behalf of its members on many issues that have limited press freedom for too long.

Instead, PAJ’s focus seems to be hosting seminars; distributing press releases; honouring “veteran” (in my opinion a thinly veiled insult limiting achievement to long service) journalists; and, of course, bestowing annual PAJ “Awards”. Meanwhile working journalists scrounge around for a living and are vulnerable to undue influence from variegated vested interests needing cheap publicity or support.

But I digress. Back to Erin Overbey, who wrote, “[NYM] has never contested the facts as I’ve stated them: 1) that I was put under a performance review shortly after sending an email raising concerns about gender inequality and inclusion at the magazine; 2) that several errors cited in an email reprimanding me while I was under the performance review were not mine.”

NYM called Overbey’s claim an editor “inserted” errors in her copy “absurd”.

The Daily Beast (thedailybeast.com) on July 25, published (in its “Confider” section) what it called a “scoop” on NYM’s “behind the scenes drama” resulting in Overbey’s firing. Confider reported that “the decision to fire Erin Overbey was made at the highest echelons of Condé Nast [NYM’s owner].”

NYM’s termination letter asserted Overbey was fired “due to a pattern of conduct that is disruptive to the operation of the company and undermines the journalistic ethics of our magazine”. Regarding her allegations against one editor, the letter continued , “These egregious and baseless remarks maligned your colleague and called [NYM’s] journalistic ethics and integrity into question …This follows previous incidents in which you have made baseless accusations against colleagues, for which you have been counseled.”

So I guess at least one of Erin Overbey’s “facts” is disputed by NYM. However, since Overbey has been the archive editor and writer of many NYM features since 1994, it’s taken the magazine a very long time to recognize or act upon this alleged “pattern” of “disruptive” conduct.

CURIOUSER AND CURIOUSER

It gets curiouser and curiouser as Erin Overbey (who is white) also wrote , “[NYM] has also never disputed the magazine’s diversity data that I presented in a thread last year nor has it disputed the accuracy of my salary information which I highlighted in a thread on pay transparency and gender inequality back in March.

Additionally, [NYM] has never disputed that my two weekly archive newsletters have consistently been [NYM’s] top-performing newsletters … .”

In Overbey’s termination letter published by The Daily Beast, NYM doesn’t address these issues directly. The letter only refers vaguely to “your history of performance issues … your history of inappropriate and unprofessional behavior toward colleagues … your recent violation of the Company’s Global Business Communications Policy, and … your final warning for self-plagiarism issued on September 10, 2021.”

Now why would a September 2021 warning result in a July 2022 firing? Overbey addresses the “self-plagiarism” allegation thusly:

“A few days after I requested a new editor, the magazine then hit me with an allegation of an instance of self-plagiarism.

In 2020, I wrote a Classics archive newsletter about Burkhard Bilger’s terrific piece, ‘Egg Men’, on Las Vegas short-order cooks. This piece, while fantastic, really has, in my opinion, one perfect quote and I used it in this newsletter. A year later, in 2021, I wrote approximately five lines in a Sunday reading post about a collection of magazine food pieces that referenced this piece, used the same quote, and also used similar lines that had appeared in the Classics newsletter a year prior.

Classics newsletters are never published on the site; they are sent in newsletter format only. But fair enough; the point is taken, and it has never been repeated in any of my archive newsletters.

But it did give them a weapon to use against me, and I think, for a time, they thought that would shut me up.”

She also raised some concerning chronologies:

“The email I sent reiterating my concerns about gender inequality in the workplace was sent on June 14. I was put under a performance review on Friday, June 17th.”

Overbey said this wasn’t her first email on this subject as she’d been haranguing management regarding diversity, inclusion and pay disparities for a minute:

“I first started tracking [NYM] diversity data in 2019. At the time, I was growing increasingly concerned that no black editors for feature pieces existed then at [NYM] which meant that almost none of the long-form feature pieces (those sent up for Pulitzers, etc) had been edited by a black editor in nearly 15 years.”

She made this stunning allegation:

“In May of 2021 I learned that, during a union-bargaining session with the company, ‘diverse hires’ were referred to by an outside proxy as ‘taking longer’ and it was asserted that ‘a diverse hire’ is separate from ‘the right hire’. That summer, I also sent a note to management pointing out that I’d discovered the male archive editor who held the position before me (and was paid 20 per cent more than I was making in the job) hadn’t possessed the minimum archive qualifications required in the job listing... .”

She closed her Twitter Thread with:

“[NYM] is, in many ways, a wonderful institution. But it’s also ground zero for a kind of regressive literary gate keeping, class exclusivity and old-school cultural thinking that simply no longer have any relation to, or frankly relevance in, the modern world as we know it.”

In an oblique response to these startling allegations, her termination letter called her “unnecessarily hostile” and four unnamed current and former NYM staffers alleged to Confider she was “an opportunist” who ran to social media whenever she had disagreements with management. This is the Donald Duck Defence. If you can’t attack the message’s factual basis attack the messenger and call him/her names. I still find it odd that it took NYM almost 30 years to realize Erin Overbey was “unnecessarily hostile” and “opportunistic” and then fired her summarily.

LESSONS FOR JAMAICAN MEDIA

In an email to the Confider a Condé spokesperson wrote: “[NYM] prides itself on professionalism, accuracy, and adherence to the highest journalistic standards. False allegations that malign our journalistic integrity and that attack colleagues are inappropriate and unacceptable in our workplace.” But, to date, there has been no specific denial of her allegation that says, “This is specifically about the lack of diversity and the lack of pay equality at the magazine.”

An NYM spokesperson emailed the Confider. “Nearly 40 per cent of new hires at Condé Nast are from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds. While we don’t believe these [Overbey’s] tweets present a full or fair view of [NYM] and its ongoing efforts, there’s always more work to do, and we look forward to doing it.”

There are lessons from this brouhaha for Jamaican media and, in particular the PAJ. So, PAJ, this is your mission, should you decide to accept it. Devise a mission statement for press freedom that includes constitutional entrenchment, broader membership, a policy on diversity hiring, gender and pay equality and advocacy for better conditions for and protection of working journalists. Then don’t “look forward” to doing it.

Tomorrow is Emancipation Day. Begin the work to emancipate journalists from the chains of journalistic anxiety and press constraint by making the mission statement a reality. If you don’t, journalists will remain in terrorem of a lawyer’s letter or a phone call from a board room. Their instinct will be to evade both instead of reporting or opining on the news without fear or favour.

And “press freedom” will rapidly become a cruel joke.

Peace and love!

- Gordon Robinson is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com