No One Can Explain Exactly What PJ Vogt Did Wrong, But The Point Is We Should Now Judge Him Guilty Forever
On the continuing derangement of the Reply All meltdown
I have not yet listened to Crypto Island, PJ Vogt’s new podcast. Just haven’t had the time. But I’m interested in the subject and am a longtime fan of the host, so I definitely will. For now, I want to talk about this review of it Nicholas Quah wrote for Vulture. There’s something very dark there that should be dragged into the light.
If you’re new to my newsletter or to this controversy, you might have to read this first (unlocked version here). I’ll give the tl;dr, but I can’t promise it’ll be enough:
-Vogt co-created and co-hosted Reply All, a Gimlet Media podcast about internet culture that was one of my favorites (if you’re new to it, start here)
-Reply All, as (I would argue) part of the racial reckoning, launched a reported series on the climate of alleged racial insensitivity at Bon Appetit called “Test Kitchen” that was hosted by Sruthi Pinnamaneni
-Halfway through that series’ planned run, a former Gimlet staffer named Eric Eddings posted a tweetstorm calling out Vogt and Pinnamaneni for ignoring the fact that Gimlet has similar issues with racial insensitivity, mostly centered around the pair’s initial opposition to a unionization drive at Gimlet (though by the time of Eddings’ tweetstorm, they had both changed their minds and supported it)
-The tweetstorm was circulated far and wide by journalists outraged at the injustice Vogt and Pinnamaneni had supposedly perpetrated against their vulnerable colleagues at Gimlet; both quickly apologized and went on leave before departing Gimlet entirely, with Vogt reemerging with Crypto Island
[-editorializing on my part:] Reply All has been basically unlistenable since Vogt left, though I can’t give a truly fair account of its output over the last year because I stopped listening and because so few episodes are released these days (Unnecessary update: A couple people have told me the show’s been solid lately. I will check it out! I have not listened for quite some time, because there were some real duds in there)
[-further editorializing on my part:] As I wrote here, no one anywhere provided solid evidence Vogt or Pinnamaneni had done anything remotely bad enough to warrant being run out of their professional community amidst a carnival-like explosion of seething online rage and gleeful unpersoning (more of it directed at Vogt, I think, perhaps because he’s more famous and/or because he’s a white guy and therefore a bit easier of a target in this type of situation)
Okay, you’re all caught up! Sort of.
After Nicholas Quah praises Crypto Island in his review, he continues:
On the other hand, there remains the “Test Kitchen” of it all. It isn’t hard to plug Crypto Island into the ongoing question about what should happen after someone gets so publicly taken to task for a wrong. In Vogt’s case, it was a situation in which he had placed his professional needs in front of those of others, a stance that resulted in him opposing an effort within Gimlet to unionize and improve conditions for co-workers who did not have the same power, privileges, and security that he did. It was the hypocrisy of subsequently trying to make a journalistic work dissecting similar injustices in another workplace, seemingly before having accounted for his own actions, that sparked the brouhaha which ultimately led to Vogt’s departure.
There are layers, of course, to the question of what happens to the ousted after something like this, and we rarely get good opportunities to process this question with the appropriate sense of proportion or nuance. Now that we have one such opportunity, I’m struggling with the tension. I don’t think someone in Vogt’s position should necessarily be side-eyed from making things or working again. At the same time, the straightforwardness of his return gives me pause.
Again: No one has explained exactly what Vogt did wrong that could possibly justify the shitstorm he faced. Quah accuses Vogt of “plac[ing] his professional needs in front of those of others, a stance that resulted in him opposing an effort within Gimlet to unionize and improve conditions for co-workers who did not have the same power, privileges, and security that he did.” If you actually unpack this, there’s almost nothing there: Who doesn’t “place their professional needs in front of others,” at least part of the time? That should be enough to ruin your reputation? As for the hypocrisy charge, wouldn’t that apply only if Vogt engaged in the same sort of behavior Bon Appetit staffers claimed took place there — that is, acts of explicit and implicit racial discrimination? Where’s the evidence for those acts?
I think Quah knows as well as anyone that there’s almost nothing here, because he published one of the reported pieces attempting to explain exactly what happened during this meltdown. If you read that piece you will be no more enlightened about what exactly Vogt is charged with, other than initially opposing a union he subsequently supported — surely not grounds for this sort of treatment.
And in providing a lot of useful context about the reasons Vogt and Pinnamaneni and other members of the Gimlet old guard might have been opposed to this particular unionization effort, Quah actually bolsters their defense against the charges of discrimination. His reporting makes it clear that the dispute was over how to properly distribute credit, revenue, power, and opportunity as Gimlet matured, especially in light of the facts that (1) the company did owe its success to its founding and early members, among them Vogt and Pinnamaneni; and (2) Reply All, its most successful show by far, effectively subsidized the rest of the company.
In other words, Gimlet was dealing with the same fraught questions you’ll find in any successful start-up seeking to expand, especially a company built around a tentpole property. On top of that, there was a culture of grind there, people not feeling like they were valued, drama about the reliance on overworked and underpaid contractors, and so on. These are all serious issues, but they’re found in most media companies and don’t appear to have anything to do with Vogt.
Another reported article on the controversy, published in the New York Times, further contextualizes Vogt’s and Pinnamaneni’s initial opposition to the unionization drive. For one thing, the unionization effort was initially hidden from their team due to their proximity to management, meaning they had a solid reason to distrust the efforts (even if the organizers, for their own parts, may have had good reasons to take this approach). The internal conversation surrounding unionization had also become toxic: The Times reports that “there was fear that expressing uncertainty would bring with it a label of being anti-diversity, said one former employee who was not on the ‘Reply All’ staff and did vote to unionize. ‘There was a lot of good faith skepticism,’ that person said.” I wonder why people thought simply expressing skepticism about the union could lead to reputational damage…
To be clear, it seems like Gimlet did have some issues with race. The Times piece notes that 24 of the company’s first 27 staffers were white, which — whatever you think about how big a role diversity should play in hiring — suggests a blind spot on the part of the founders. Both articles include various staffers and former staffers complaining about the workplace’s racial climate, and in some cases making specific allegations, though the details vary and some of the claims are pretty vague or rely on specific interpretations of certain events. (One of the claims in Quah’s piece, about many black staffers at Gimlet being described as “aggressive” in their evaluations, seems to be promptly debunked by a source with access to those records.) Anyway, there are no specific accusations of racism leveled at PJ Vogt, other than that he initially opposed the union.
In his earlier piece, in fact, Quah even quietly notes the absence of evidence supporting some of the most serious charges leveled at Vogt and Pinnamaneni:
Reply All’s resistance makes up the bulk of the allegations in Eddings’ thread; some details remain murky, and the situation seems more complex than a Twitter thread allows. He accused Vogt of sending “harassing messages” to members of the organizing committee, but no one interviewed for this piece was willing to be more specific about the content of the messages. Eddings also accused Pinnamaneni of holding an anti-union meeting “trying to rally people against” the organizing effort, but another former staffer and a source still at the company described the meeting as being more about Pinnamaneni trying to build a space where workers could feel free to express their concerns about the unionizing process without the organizing committee present. [Interjection from me: The Times’ reporting confirms this, complete with quotes from a Slack log that, in my opinion, knock down Eddings’ claim that she was “trying to rally people against” the union.] Beyond the specific allegations, former staffers were consistent in describing this as an emotionally intense period at the company, as the tension over the organizing effort and the general culture of overwork came to a head. The atmosphere within the company had taken on an icier tone after the union effort went public — now it had turned into outright resentment. Eddings told me he felt like those who opposed the union regarded workers who were interested in the union as “people who are bad at radio trying to wreck the company.” Other former staffers said they heard similar sentiments expressed in private conversation.
Again: At what point did PJ Vogt commit any act that could possibly justify the implosion of his very successful media career? And yet Quah writes in his latest piece: “I don’t think someone in Vogt’s position should necessarily be side-eyed from making things or working again. At the same time, the straightforwardness of his return gives me pause.”
What would constitute a sufficiently circuitous return? What does Vogt have to do to atone? It’s a tough question to answer because the formal charges still haven’t been delivered.
This Is Partly Vogt’s Own Fault
I don’t want to lay all the blame on Quah, though. Vogt arguably made his own situation more difficult by quickly issuing a vague public apology, as did Pinnamaneni.
Vogt’s Twitter account is now locked down, but the embed of his apology tweet still shows up in my old newsletter. Here’s a screenshot:
I feel like I’m taking crazy pills: WHAT DID YOU DO??
“I should have reflected on what it meant to not be on the same side of a movement largely led by young producers of color at my company. I did not. Those mistakes belong to me.” But of course there might be legitimate reasons to initially oppose a given effort by a given minority-led group. To argue otherwise is creepy essentializing: “Black and brown people support this thing, so I better do so too.” I don’t think that is anyone’s idea of a truly integrated, racially healthy workplace.
Quah’s latest piece continues, after the bit I excerpted above, with further reflection and apology from Vogt:
Others share this feeling [that there’s something too hasty about Vogt’s return]. In the comments to the first Crypto Island dispatch, someone wrote: “To be completely honest, I’m wracking my brain looking for a reason to keep supporting you after what happened at Gimlet. What do you say to all of the people that feel the same way that I do? Why should I believe you changed at all? I’m glad you apologised, but honestly you need to do more work publicly addressing the shit you were apart [sic] of to show that you have learned something — anything — from what happened.”
“I get what you’re saying,” Vogt wrote back. “I’ve very much felt the same way about people whose work I respected who let me down.” He talked about how it’s impossible to be unchanged by what happened to him last year, though he’s still processing how best to publicly address the matter. “I’m not there yet though, and so for now, I am doing the thing I know how to do, which is to report stories,” he wrote. “I understand there are going to be people who don’t want to listen to my work.”
From there, he shifted to make a broader point:
[Substack won’t let me do double indents, but this is indented:] I think the thing you’re asking for — proof that I’ve learned something and changed, is a very human thing to want, but a very difficult thing for me to provide to someone who isn’t in my life. The hard thing about making a mistake in public is that the human impulse is to run out and prove to people that you’re better, or different, or that you have been misunderstood. But while I am sure that the experience has changed me, I think trying to prove that is just not going to be good for anybody.
Of course, for every person mad that Vogt is back, he probably has 20 or 30 fans who still don’t understand exactly what happened, or why their favorite podcast has immolated in such a catastrophic public manner. They’ve been quite vocal on the show’s subreddit — since this all occurred, there was so much criticism of the show’s direction there that the moderators had to effectively ban criticism of the show, and of the subreddit’s rules about negativity!
But the point is, Vogt is indeed going to have trouble providing proof he changed, because to the extent he made a “mistake,” it was a very boring misdemeanor: When considering a unionization effort, he took his own needs and priorities into account, and initially opposed it. Then he reconsidered and supported it! Most people wouldn’t even consider this to be a mistake. I understand why he apologized — imagine the feeling that your entire professional network is turning against you, publicly — but I can’t help but wonder if he would have been better off taking a different approach. I think this is a common error people make during the peak heat of a social-media pileon. But now that he has “admitted” to doing… something… it certainly complicates the effort to defend him.
I’m Sorry But Screw Everyone Who Is Okay With This
I find this all exceptionally creepy — just that process of watching the unpersoning unfold in real time, watching established journalists breathlessly retweet Eddings’ thread so as to tout their own allyship. What happens during these blowups is that so much hate is launched at the target that after the dust has settled, they are left with this aura of moral taint that many people will not want to go anywhere near. It’s just unquestionable that Vogt did something deeply wrong — if not, why would all these people be mad, and why would they have launched the super serious charge that Vogt is sorta kinda racist-ish? It’s not worth it to doubt these claims publicly, because you could be next.
Human nature being what it is, we’ll always have witch hunts and interpersonal cruelty. But shouldn’t journalists have the fortitude to question these pileons rather than to accept them at face value — let alone participate in them?
Questions? Comments? Screenshots of me harassing Katie over her attempts to form a one-woman union? I’m at email@example.com or on Twitter at @jessesingal. Remember that comments might eventually be publicly viewable if I unlock this post. The image of the Reply All cover graphic is from here.
Even in cases where there are specific charges, people always seem to face this bind where enough is never enough. You write one white-text-on-black-field Instagram apology, then another, then another. In Vogt’s reply I think he correctly identified the problem: “while I am sure that the experience has changed me, I think trying to prove that is just not going to be good for anybody.” What can you do when critics don’t actually specify what it is that they want? That’s part of what makes them seem so Maoist; they demand an endless series of apologies, an endless process of thought reform. You can let yourself be tormented, or you can say “I’m done. I’ve said my piece. I’m launching a podcast - if you don’t like me, then don’t listen.” We need more of that. Don’t feed the crybullies.
'The Times piece notes that 24 of the company’s first 27 staffers were white, which — whatever you think about how big a role diversity should play in hiring — suggests a blind spot on the part of the founders'
Come on Jesse, this is nonsense and you know it.