The Week That Everybody Hated Vox

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
March 14 2014 12:30 PM

The Week That Everybody Hated Vox

There's very little upside in me writing about Vox, the new project spearheaded by Ezra Klein, Melissa Bell, and my former colleague Matt Yglesias. I've known the editors and a lot of the hires, socially, for years, which is part of a story that occasionally enrages the Internet.* (Little-known fact: People in the same industry, with similar interests, often fraternize with each other.) It's also very much in my interest that Slate conquer the Internet and Vox doesn't. Sorry, Matt.

But boy, is there a lot of Vox-trolling going on. On March 5, the Washington Post's media blogger Erik Wemple reported that Richard Prince, an advocate for racial diversity in newsrooms, was asking (and getting answers) about Vox's apparent paucity of nonwhite hires. Since then, the Post's enterprise reporter J. Freedom du Lac (who is Asian-American)** has occasionally and pointedly been tweeting about how white Vox seems to be. 

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The concern, from du Lac and others, eventually extended to Nate Silver's new 538 and Pierre Omidyar's new First Look Media after Emily Bell asked whether the hot new outlets were staffing up with bros.**

I generally endorse such concern-trolling, though let's call it what it is. If du Lac or Bell became aware of talented "diversity hires," they wouldn't pass their resumes on to Vox. They'd try to rope them into the Post or maybe the Guardian. Still, people bristle when they're accused of racialism or hiring only people who look like them. If they don't bristle, they don't think about it. But if you're not making that criticism while suggesting some hires, it looks like you're arguing in bad faith.

Conservatives had little to say about this—hooray, the MSM eating its own!—but in the last day they've gotten flak about the diversity push. Sort of. Media Matters, then AmericaBlog, then Slate's Mark Joseph Stern, then the American Prospect's Gabe Arana all criticized Vox for giving a writing fellowship to Brandon Ambrosino, a 23-year-old gay writer whose canon consisted of high-profile pieces—I'm summarizing here—telling fellow gays to get off their high horses already. Matt used to work at Slate; both Ezra and Matt used to work at TAP. I joined the "fun" on Twitter, saying that Ambrosino was what happened when editors prioritized clickbait over reporting.

But the conservative criticism has focused on what Arana and Stern wrote. "When those with whom you disagree are not just wrong but also evil they and their ideas are unworthy of debating with," wrote the Washington Free Beacon's Sonny Bunch. "Stern, and those who agree with him, seem to think Ambrosino should never work again."

That's a bit more than what Stern said. "Vox’s stated goal is to 'explain the news,' " he wrote, "yet Ambrosino’s only known explanatory talent is the ability to translate his private hang-ups into public screeds against his own community." I don't think the left is demanding that Vox hire within the family, as much as asking whether a gay writer who writes "rather than follow [Martin Luther] King’s example, some of us have decided to meet ideological violence head on with our own" should be the Secretary of Explaining Stuff.

Well, having joined the pile-on, and while agreeing that Ambrosino's "chill out, gays" columns are pretty bad, I wonder if Stern, et al. are being too harsh. Not about what he wrote already—that's fair game. They just don't know who else applied to be a writing fellow,*** or what Ambrosino said in his job interview, or what his ambitions are beyond what he said in the hiring announcement. Ambrosino is 23. I used to be 23. I wrote showy nonsense, too. When I was 21, I spoke at a rally in favor of the Iraq War. Crap like that probably helped me get noticed and allowed me to become the sort of reporter who knows what he doesn't know.

Ambrosino's longer pieces (i.e., more edited pieces) aren't my style at all—humblebrag confessionals—but they're highly readable. In "The Tyranny of Buffness," which hasn't played much into the get-Ambrosino conversation, he started with an anecdote about his own body shame and talked to social workers and scholars to figure out the role of beauty in the gay community. Didn't know anything about it before I read the piece, knew something after I did. If that's what Ambrosino wants to do with his career, he starts with more natural writing talent than most of us. The firestorm might have made him less likely to strike out with some poorly reasoned intra-gay trolling, and that's ... well, fine. Better than creating yet another writer-martyr, with no suggestions of who should be hired for jobs like this.

UPDATE: Oh, and Ezra Klein comments on Facebook and makes this post irrelevant. Great.

Contrary to some garbled reports, before hiring Brandon I read a lot of his previous work. Brandon’s past writing was often quite pointed and personal, and not a fit for Vox — and I told him so. The writing fellowship requires a very different approach.
But something that often happens to young freelance writers on the Internet is that they end up writing reams of their most controversial opinions before they ever get a chance to do basic reporting or benefit from a routine relationship with an editor. So as part of Brandon's writing test, I asked him to do eight news articles and two explainers -- more than 5,000 words of original content, in all. He needed more editing, training and direction. But he showed himself a strong, fast writer who really wanted to learn. And that training is what the fellowship is there for. 

UPDATE II: This piece on hiring and diversity by BuzzFeed's Shani Hilton is considerably more useful than mine. Hilton lacks my habit of referring to "trolling" as a synonym for "iteratively pointing out to someone."

*When the whole Vox thing launched, I asked Ezra for an interview, but he determined, probably correctly, that our friendship was a conflict of interest. Similarly, I asked him a question for this post, but he decided not to talk on the record.

**Correction, March 14, 2014: This post originally misspelled Pierre Omidyar's last name. Also, I got J. Freedom du Lac's race wrong, which is much worse, and let's move on.

***I know one person who did and is more of a standard politics reporter. But I'm sure there were scores more.

UPDATE III: As predicted up top, there was very little upside to writing this. Some factors made it a compelling subject for a post—knowing the people at the center of a media chin-scratch contest, having endured some "how-could-they-hire-this-guy" backlash. But I don't usually cover media topics, and I committed some dumb errors that wouldn't have been made had I been on one of my usual beats.

That said, J. Freedom du Lac has been kind enough to share the email exchanges he had with Vox after he pipped them on Twitter for not having diverse hires yet. In a March 5 email to Vox's Dylan Matthews:

I'd suggest broadcasting a call-out for candidates/suggestions through AAJA, NABJ, NAHJ and NAJA. I'd also suggest adding NLGJA to that outreach list. Just go through their executive directors or presidents and ask them to help. You'll hit a massive group of people that way. Hell, ask Richard Prince for ideas/help as well. He knows everybody (and his newsletter reaches a lot of those same people). Doris Truong at The Post might be able to help, too; ex-AAJA president, current VP of UNITY. I have a list of journalists of color I could recommend, but I'm saving those candidates for The Post's diversity committee, which meets tomorrow. Sorry!

From March 10:

Another avenue for you could be to check in with the alumni from the multi-culti high school journalism camp I co-founded (mumbles number) years ago. Sounds crazy on its face, I know, but Brian Fung and WaPo's newly hired Prince George's County reporter, Arelis Hernandez, were standout students way back when. Dan Hill, who interned at The Post doing a hyrbrid dev and investigative reporting gig a couple of summers back, was also in the program; he's at the Texas Tribune now. Others: Youngest correspondent in CBS News history. One of Anderson Cooper's producers. Oscar-shortlisted documentarian. Etc. We've had some super smart kids come through that program, though many of them weren't smart enough to listen to their parents who told them to become doctors, lawyers or engineers.
Ooops! Anyway, drop in if you want to post a general query. Never know who or what it might turn up.

There was more, but that was the general tone after the initial Twitter-shaming.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.