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The Reply All Implosion Shows What A Toxic, Circular-Firing-Squad Mess Media Is Right Now (Unlocked)
It's disturbing to see journalists treat ambiguous allegations as the gospel truth
My subscribers voted, overwhelmingly, that they are okay with me sometimes unlocking previously paywalled posts that are at least three months old. That’s what I’m doing here — this post ran on 2/26/2021, and the original version lives here. As always, I’m cloning it to protect the privacy of subscribers who commented on the original — this version was created on 5/27/2021.
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It could be that PJ Vogt and Sruthi Pinnamaneni are such horrible, toxic, deeply anti-union people that they deserve the barrage of criticism that has been heaped on them over the last ten days — a barrage that has swept away years of high-quality journalistic work, and their reputations with it. It could be! Who am I to say? But boy do I have some questions.
For those new to this controversy, one of the best podcasts ever, Reply All, is now on hiatus because of a single tweetstorm by a former staffer at Gimlet, the podcast company which hosts Reply All (and which Reply All, by being one of the few podcasts in the millions-of-downloads-per-episode stratosphere, helped launch into such a valuable property it was acquired by Spotify). Eric Eddings was upset about an email he got from Pinnamaneni, who produced Test Kitchen, which was to be a four-part Reply All miniseries about problems with discrimination within Bon Appetit, based on voluminous interviews with current and former staffers of color there. (Two episodes in, that miniseries has now been canned.)
In his tweetstorm, Eddings wrote:
Last week I got an email from Sruthi about Reply All’s Test Kitchen series. I had been avoiding listening but once I did I felt gaslit. The truth is RA and specifically PJ and Sruthi contributed to a near identical toxic dynamic at Gimlet. This will be a longer thread, apologies. The BA staffers’ stories deserve to be told, but to me it’s damaging to have that reporting and storytelling come from two people who have actively and AGGRESSIVELY worked against multiple efforts to diversify Gimlet’s staff & content.
A bit of background. Reply All was/is an island at Gimlet. It’s the brand’s biggest show. And it showed in resources and power. When they spoke, the company listened. But they rarely exercised this power beyond the scope of their team. It was a clique. I’ve talked to PJ multiple times asking him to do more to contribute to diversity efforts at the company. Asking him to join the diversity group. To lend a voice when I spoke up at staff meetings. Anything to show the staff that he cared about the issue. His response was always that he liked that RA was perceived as a clique or club and that he cared about diversity but would have to think more about how he could get involved beyond his team.
When Gimlet unionized, many POC’s felt that it was their last chance at creating an environment within Gimlet where they could succeed. I joined the organizing committee. We put together a robust list of demands related to working conditions, equity, freelancers, diversity, & IP When RA came up, many pointed out that PJ and Alex G had some of the closest, deepest relationships to management. A lot of folks simply didn’t know them. The folks who DID know them didn’t feel comfortable pushing back on the fears of others. So RA found out about the effort last. They were pissed. The team led by PJ, Sruthi, and Alex G used their weight as a cudgel against our efforts at voluntary recognition. Sruthi personally held an Anti-union meeting, trying to rally people against it. I’ve personally seen harassing messages sent by PJ to other Organizing Committee members. Heard him denigrate other colleagues. He and I had a meeting, where I begged him simply not to attack the union. He told me he was slacking with Sruthi and that she had “called me a piece of shit and asked him to tell me.” I told him that we weren’t going to disrespect each other. He said “Well let me stop slacking with Sruthi.”
We went back and forth, I told him specific stories about POC who felt they had been discriminated against, the countless people who felt they had no pathway to promotion and the full scope of what we wanted to achieve. He wasn’t moved. I tried telling him about my own experiences here. How someone in senior leadership told me that they hadn’t worked with me on diversity issues because I seemed too angry. He didn’t comment on the diversity part, but made sure to tell me that I had in fact seemed angry. The union drive was weakened but ultimately succeeded. Alex Goldman is now on the bargaining committee and fwiw I’ve been told he’s been a staunch ally since. But Pj and Sruthi producing and editing this series is A LOT. They weren’t obligated to support me, diversity efforts at Gimlet, or the union. I haven’t spoken to Sruthi since the POS comment. I saw PJ last fall and we had a fairly civil conversation. His first words to me were “You were right about the union.” But it was so triggering to hear the words of people who have suffered like me from people who caused that suffering to me and others.
The focus should be on BA and what they experienced, but this series feels like an effort to rehabilitate themselves in the eyes of colleagues at Spotify and the ones who have left. PJ sent an apology to the Union just last week. Sruthi sent me an email. Not an apology but wanted to chat on the phone. I’ve been told she wanted me to talk to her for this series, which is RICH. That time was INFINITELY hard for me. There’s more but this is already long. I don’t know what happens next. I’m annoyed that I have to talk about this. There are some producers at RA whose work I cherish. I’m not asking you to stop listening to their show. But I’ve always felt that if you have a platform and any sort of power it’s your duty to use that in service of others and to tell the truth. So I felt the need to speak up so that they tell the whole of it.
As I pointed out on Blocked and Reported, many professional journalists instantly treated these allegations as true and publicly threw their support behind Eddings. And Vogt and Pinnamaneni have both, in the process of stepping away from Reply All (which Pinnamaneni was scheduled to do after Test Kitchen wrapped anyway) and apologizing, expressed regret for being against the unionization effort.
But a lot of the stuff in Eddings’ tweetstorm is ambiguous at best. We don’t know exactly why Vogt and Pinnamaneni were against this unionization drive. We don’t know why Vogt didn’t want to join the “diversity group” or what that would have entailed. We don’t know whether it’s true that Vogt didn’t “speak up” for Eddings in meetings, or even what sort of speaking-up Eddings wanted him to do. We don’t know how bothered we should be by one employee, in a moment of anger, saying “Tell X I think he’s a piece of shit,” in part because we don’t know the content of Vogt’s other ostensibly offensive utterances. We don’t know why, exactly, we should consider the alleged transgressions here to be on par with the alleged transgressions at BA — those allegations, while having some weak spots, were framed by Test Kitchen as involving racial insensitivity and an unwelcoming climate toward people from certain minority backgrounds, with some instances of explicit racism thrown in. Did Vogt and Pinnamaneni exhibit hostility toward basic precepts of diversity in the workplace, or did they have some other qualm about this particular organizing effort? Were they among the only holdouts, or did a lot of other people at Gimlet have qualms before the drive eventually succeeded? If so, what were the qualms expressed by others? Not every organizing effort is the same — there are different demands, different leaders, and so on. What is Eddings’ goal here, in light of the fact that, by his own admission, Vogt told him he was wrong about the union and given that at the end of episode 2 of Test Kitchen, Pinnamaneni said the same about her own role?
This is one of a million examples of potentially missing context I could pull, but take a look at this document posted by the Gimlet union:
There’s plenty of unobjectionable stuff in there, but this jumped out at me:
Second, the company must create concrete policies around representation on our shows. The voices we interview and the hosts we hire are integral to our programming and, too often, these spaces are filled with white voices. While representation will not solve the long-standing issue of white supremacy, it is important and is an easy step Gimlet can take. Several steps have guidelines for screening guests but we request that Gimlet make a policy, rather than leaving the task up to individuals and shows.
This is the sort of thing that is actually kind of complicated! A given podcast producer or host can both believe in diversity, equity, and inclusion and believe that some sort of racial quota with regard to guests — which is what “screening guests” means here — isn’t the best way to go about this. It might add a significant amount of work to an already stress-inducing position, and a reasonable person could say that other approaches to DEI — better recruitment at HBCUs, approaches to fighting implicit bias like removing names from resumes during the first round of hiring, and so on — offer better bang for the buck and put less of the burden on rank and file staffers. Another reasonable person might fire back that No, this is a really important means of breaking out of certain cycles, and either on-air diversity is important or it isn’t, and if it is employees should be willing to sacrifice. But the point is that if someone was opposed to a unionization drive in part because the unionizers in question sought to pursue specific DEI policies they didn’t favor, that would neither make them racist nor anti-union in some global sense. Part of the job of union organizers, after all, is to convince employees that it will be to their benefit to join up.
That’s all hypothetical. Maybe the supposed villains of this story really were just greedy and wanted to hoard the spoils of their prominent positions in the company, such as easy access to management. But we don’t know.
That’s why I’ve found the entire process of watching this controversy explode rather creepy — particularly the way just one side of a story that is likely complicated and multifaceted is being taken as, if not the gospel truth, something close to it. The writeup in the New York Times was more or less a press releases for Eddings’ tweetstorm, and didn’t include the sorts of basic details that would help situate readers or provide a sense of broader context. For example, that article mentioned that Eddings used to cohost a podcast called The Nod for Gimlet, but not that he and his partner ended up taking the podcast elsewhere (as alluded to in the above letter), which of course suggests some amount of prior grievance or dispute — at the very least, Eddings and Gimlet disagreed about the value of his own podcast.
One could argue, in defense of the author of that Times article and all the journalists feverishly retweeting Eddings’ account, that since Vogt and Pinnamaneni admitted to wrongdoing and apologized, there’s no other ‘side’ to report on anyway — everyone agrees harm was committed. I think that’s a pretty superficial reading of the situation. In full context (there’s that word again), neither Vogt nor Pinnamaneni could afford to do anything but apologize, since they were accused of what are considered, in the present climate at mainstream outlets, very serious charges. If they want to work with their colleagues again, they need to express remorse.
One more time: It could be that the general thrust of Eric Eddings’ tweetstorm is correct. Maybe more information will come out and it will turn out PJ Vogt and Sruthi Pinnamaneni are as bad as advertised. That could happen. But if it does, it won’t change the fact that so many people in a field ostensibly devoted to truth-seeking and curiosity made up their minds so quickly, without possibly having had enough information to do so.
In the meantime, I’m not convinced Vogt and Pinnamaneni should be considered racist, or racist-adjacent, even. I don’t know the full story. And what worries me is that in the present climate, there is almost no incentive for a journalist to really look into what could be a juicy, illuminating media controversy. Because if you really look into a controversy, you might find out — and be forced to report — that it’s a little more complicated than the first draft (always delivered on social media) might have led onlookers to initially believe. I mean, just ask Michael Powell.