‘Atlantic’ Editor’s Insensitive Remarks Reveal Lack of Diversity in Newsrooms

Jeffrey Goldberg, editor in chief of The Atlantic, finds himself the subject of severe criticism for his remarks regarding women journalists. In a recent Nieman Lab Interview, designed to discuss hiring practices and diversity practices in the nation’s print newsrooms, Goldberg and Adrienne LaFrance, the former tech editor and now executive editor at The Atlantic, spoke broadly about ways to diversify the newsroom from executive personnel to the reporters, focusing primarily on women. The two journalists covered a wide range of issues ranging from prioritizing change, recognizing sexist behavior, acknowledging the need for change, and emphasizing the importance of female leadership.

While ostensibly admitting the need for change and the challenges The Atlantic and other news organizations have faced in prioritizing diversity, Goldberg appeared clueless and tone deaf on the issue of women’s ability as journalists. These sentiments became evident in his discussion of the journalistic skills of white male staff versus women. Goldberg noted that a problem existed with print magazine cover stories. He went on to note the difficulty of writing 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,” Goldberg said. He concluded his comments on the issue by suggesting “we have to be very deliberate and efficient about creating the space for more women to develop that particular journalistic muscle,” according to the interview.

Goldberg’s remarks immediately set off a firestorm. Observers immediately pointed out that “lots of women and people of color already have the particular journalistic muscle required to write excellent longform fiction.” They pointed to work published in The Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates, such as “The Case for Reparations,” which has significantly influenced the political debate nationally and within the Democratic Party on reparations since its publication. Anne Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” is also a “defining piece of our era on women and work,” according to Vox.

Others viewed the comments as condescending, out of touch with the spirit of the Nieman Lab discussion, a basis for firing, gender insensitive, and symptomatic of the problem among the executive rung in the newsroom, according to Mediaite.

Major journalistic organizations devoted to advocating for women and journalists of color roundly condemned Goldberg’s comments. The National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) issued a statement on the interview. NABJ characterized Goldberg’s remarks as inappropriate for a top editor of a major publication and “sexist and racially insensitive.” The advocacy group also suggested that The Atlantic look more carefully at the many opportunities to hire women and journalists of color.

They also recommended that the magazine fund and develop programs to provide more opportunities for journalists in this area, and pointed out the fact that many historically Black colleges and universities offer training for women and journalists of color who desire training for in-depth feature reporting, according to the NABJ statement.

Goldberg’s response to the torrent of criticism was to allege that he was misquoted. In several Twitter exchanges, he stated that his words were misquoted and a correction was requested. Laura Hazard Owen, deputy editor of Nieman Lab, quickly responded that Goldberg was not misquoted because she taped the interview and he had not asked for a correction. Goldberg in a tweet offered a defense of The Atlantic’s record and a guarded apology: “@laurahazardowen's story has the details about how we're trying to improve (going from 17 percent women leaders to 63 percent women leaders in less than 3 years, for one thing). I'm sorry I didn't make myself clear in this interview, and I'm sorry that I hurt anyone,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

For her part, Owens hopes Goldberg will state he was not misquoted and believes people should read the whole piece. She states further that “I believe he spoke to me in good faith and they are doing good work in diversifying the staff there. I didn’t write this piece as a hit piece or a take down.” The issues raised by the Nieman Lab interview and Goldberg’s problematic statement are extremely important. According to a recently released report by the Women’s Media Center (WMC), the state of the women in the profession is "abysmal" at best. While women outnumber men in journalism colleges and programs, they make up approximately 41.7 percent of newsroom employees. Men continue to report and produce the majority of the news. And they tend to dominate hard news topics such as international reporting, politics, and crime as well as all other topics ranging from weather to entertainment. As WMC’s president Julie Burton suggested despite the changes in the media industry, one thing remains true, “Fewer women report the news than men.”

About the Author

Stephen G. Hall is a sections editor for The North Star. He is a historian specializing in 19th and 20th century African American and American intellectual, social and cultural history and the African Diaspora. Hall is the author of A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America and is working on a new book exploring the scholarly production of Black historians on the African Diaspora from 1885 to 1960.