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Mike Pesca Speaks

The inside story of the Slate meltdown

by
Sean Cooper
January 28, 2022
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Mike PescaWikipedia
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This article originally appeared in The Scroll on January 25, 2022.
This article originally appeared in The Scroll on January 25, 2022.

On Monday, the host of the podcast The Gist, Mike Pesca, introduced listeners to the show’s second season, picking up where he left off last February. At the time, he and the show were suspended by Slate, the magazine and podcast network where Pesca ran the program for some 1,400 episodes—a seven-year run he’s cheekily referring to now as the podcast’s first season. It’s a popular podcast that Pesca says has seen 100 million lifetime downloads with 20 million of those in 2020. The only difference between the two “seasons” is that Pesca will now oversee the show under his own media company, Peach Fish Productions, after he walked away with the show from Slate last year, following a seven-month investigation into his conduct as a white man talking with colleagues about race.

If you had a visceral reaction to that last sentence, of one of disgust or exhaustion to read of another account of a workplace fissured by a debate about white men and racism, you will presumably hold a firm opinion about Pesca’s innocence or guilt as either a casualty or an impediment of the institutional transformations that have been taking place over the past several years with regard to racial equality in media, education, and the corporate sphere. In contrast to dozens of similar prior dustups, however, Pesca’s case is noteworthy because it clarified that this debate about racial fairness, insofar as that is what this debate is actually about, has plateaued into a deadlocked stalemate where no one will get what they want—with organizations collapsing under the strain of perpetual internecine warfare, and activist-oriented reformers with no more enemies or institutions left to vanquish.

“As soon as we met him, we were like, oh, this is the Slate-est guy who doesn’t work at Slate,” David Plotz, who was then editor-in-chief, recently told me, remembering back to 2014, when Pesca made the move from NPR. “And then eventually he became the Slate-est guy that worked at Slate.”

Already well known for a house style (and perhaps obsessive attachment to being perceived) as funny and contrarian, the magazine had embraced podcasts early. They slotted Pesca into the audio department for a new show that borrowed from the loose, conversational tone of afternoon sports radio to provide an on-demand program for commuters, but one that was produced in the Slate ethos. It was a hit right out of the gate, and The Gist’s audience, along with several other popular Slate podcasts, went on to account for as much as 25% of Slate’s revenue by 2018.

In those four years, two other significant things happened: Slate implemented Slack, the workplace collaboration and chat tool, and Donald Trump won the presidency. The expectation from the Slate editorial leadership was that Slack would become an officewide water cooler where staffers would cross-pollinate their opinions and sharpen their ideas for their magazine pieces and podcast segments. But it quickly became a time suck, with staffers glued to the Slack channels, arranged by topics like politics and industry news, as a kind of internal social media that blurred the line between the professional and the personal.

“It seems crazy to me now, in retrospect, just how active Slate Slack was. People were just chatting with each other across all these different channels, all day, all night, about everything,” Leon Neyfakh, a former Slate magazine writer who launched the Slow Burn podcast series while on staff, told me. Much like Twitter, Slack polarized Slate staff around news and politics, and with the option to reward each other with +1’s and emoji endorsements that could be seen by all, it gamified a conversation that never stopped. At Slate, where being sardonic and scathing was the coin of the realm, there was, current and former Slate employees told me, an additional incentive for staffers to prove their mettle by turning against each other.

“People felt like they were on opposite sides of some high stakes, moral issue and people would do all the normal stuff that they do when they feel attacked on something that feels personal to them,” Neyfakh said, as he himself would “dig in on something or be performatively acerbic in a way, to perform for the people who I knew agreed with me.” Less a friendly or productive editorial conversation, Slack mirrored the ongoing politicization of nearly every issue in the wider culture. For those staffers who found themselves seeking to find nuanced discussion with colleagues about topics like immigration policies or various social justice movements, conversations quickly became arguments that cannibalized collegial goodwill, and as Neyfakh observed, “genuinely [made] them distrust each other or confirm their worst suspicions about each other.”

People felt like they were on opposite sides of some high stakes, moral issue and people would do all the normal stuff that they do when they feel attacked on something that feels personal to them.

For a progressive magazine on the left, turning the internal editorial process into a hypercharged version of social media accelerated the difficulty that Slate and other similar publications faced during the Trump administration, when the default point of view was that the country was burning, and there was little room to find subtlety or a variety of opinion when the predominant position was that everything under Trump got worse on a daily basis. This posture against anything with the taint of Trumpism calcified the nimbleness out of the Slate sensibility, which created a tension between a growing faction of the staff and employees like Pesca, who had continued to embrace the Slate posture to challenge and debate individual issues on the evidence of the ideas rather than from an ideological certainty.

“I don’t think of Mike as a contrarian,” Will Saletan, a longtime Slate writer, told me. “He’s somebody who says what he thinks, if it happens to be contrary to what other people are saying, he’ll say it, if it doesn’t happen to be contrary to what other people are saying, he’ll say it.” But wanting to challenge people’s arguments became increasingly fraught as the Trump years and the nation’s reckoning with racial justice and intense inequalities further polarized the media into representatives of tribal dispositions. “Suddenly there were way fewer ways for reasonable people to disagree,” Neyfakh said, adding that “it got a lot harder to do the pre-Trump Slate.”

To seek out a debate about the political efficacy of the defund the police slogan, or to entertain the possible economic benefits of Amazon building a new headquarters in New York, as Pesca did during segments on The Gist, was to betray a skepticism that the progressive party line inherently knew best. Even if those positions were ultimately correct, engaging them in debate challenged the underlying sentiment that there was a default moral position to be taken on the events of the day, a belief that many progressives weaponized against their opponents during Trump’s tenure.

“I come from a liberal background. People say what they think and if I don’t like it, I’ll argue with it, but it’s fine for them to say it. And I think some other folks don’t feel that way. They feel that it can be insensitive, aggressive, hostile, and in some way oppressive to hear what Mike says. I don’t feel that way,” Saletan said. “Mike’s arguments are well within the bounds of what should not only be tolerated but should be aired in these debates.”

Others at Slate didn’t agree, and Pesca’s approach to generating ideas and engaging colleagues in conversation placed him in hot water on two successive occasions that then led to his suspension.

The first incident arose from Pesca recording a segment for The Gist in October of 2019, about Marlon Anderson, a security guard who had a confrontation with a student at the Madison, Wisconsin high school where he worked. After a student, who was Black, repeatedly hurled a racial slur at Anderson, who was also Black, he attempted to instruct the student that the word was offensive. In doing so, he used the slur himself, which was overheard by administrators who had recently installed a zero tolerance anti-racism policy that prompted them to immediately fire Anderson for the utterance. Students subsequently rallied to Anderson’s defense, walking out of class in protest demanding that administrators recognize that words have context and intent, a view that was largely demoted to the fringes of polite thought in 2019, but given the race of the parties involved, school administrators all but had to acquiesce to their demands and Anderson was reinstated.

For Pesca and other journalists of a similar ilk, Anderson’s reversed expulsion was an interesting example of how the soft squishy language of anti-racism policies collapsed upon their hard impact with reality. What put meat on the bones of this story though was the way the media handled the whole affair, with several national news organizations taking up a narrative that Anderson was fired on the grounds of an anti-racism offense when he, to borrow the phrase deployed in myriad headlines, “used a racial slur” against a student. Other news outlets like CNN further obfuscated the crux of the issue—that intent and context change the meaning of language—when they covered the student protests and interviewed Anderson but blurred his face and silenced him speaking when he explained what was said and how. Though certainly there are sensitivities a cable broadcast network must abide by regarding racial epithets, CNN’s extensive effort to remove Anderson from the context of a story about context undermined their own journalistic inquiry.

“When the news says he was using the N-word that implies he was wielding the N-word. And that was not done here,” Pesca said during the segment on The Gist. “In fact, when the media reports that he used the N-word but then the media doesn’t say the N-word, can’t give you the actual quotes, bleeps it out, they’re really agreeing with one side of the story. The side that says there is no context for this.”

The problem for Pesca arose during the production of this segment when he originally recorded himself saying Anderson’s quote with the slur intact, something that offended at least one of his producers, according to Pesca’s account and another Slate employee familiar with the incident. (Both of his producers from that episode did not return requests to be interviewed for this story.)

For Pesca, the initial impulse to use the slur in the workplace grew from a concern that the CNN coverage, as he told me, “seemed like a little thumb on the scale. And then I said to myself, well, if I’m going to critique CNN’s coverage, and I can’t play the man saying the quote because it was bleeped and blurred by CNN, then it would be intellectually consistent and a service to my audience if I warn them that they were going to hear an offensive word before telling them what this man actually said, so you can be sure of what had happened.”

A conversation between Pesca, his producers, and his editors took place and they collectively agreed it wasn’t a necessity for Pesca to use the word. And in that regard, the decision was correct—Pesca could maintain continuity between his critique of the media and a documentation of the evidence by not saying the slur in full. The audience would understand what he meant. The segment was rerecorded without it, and the issue was over.

Until, that is, Pesca was summoned by the Human Resources department because of a complaint made against him by at least one of his colleagues for having used the word in the workplace. According to Pesca, he told HR that he was surprised people were upset because of how he handled the segment, but given the tumult it caused, he said he would “not consider saying this word again. And I didn’t, and it wasn’t even a close call,” he said to me.

“I had thought that I was trying to do everything right by discussing what is put on the air and doing it in the most thorough way possible through an editorial process. I did not for a second think that because my producers heard the actual word that they would be harmed in any way,” Pesca said. “There are disturbing things we hear because someone in the news said them. That is part of journalism. And to complain about another journalist who brings it up in what is essentially a first draft isn’t how I think we should do our jobs.”

Afterward, Pesca was told by HR that no action would be taken, the case would be closed, but he was asked to apologize to his two producers, which he tells me he did. (Katie Rayford, a representative for Slate, was not at liberty to confirm how this case was resolved because it was an HR dispute.) Prior to this incident, Pesca had said the epithet once before when he was interviewed by Christina Cauterucci, another podcast host at Slate, for an article she was writing about varying viewpoints in a workplace. According to an account of the incident in Defector, an online news startup, Pesca “brought up the same argument about whether or not white people, in some contexts for clarity, should be allowed” to say the word in question.

According to a Slate employee with knowledge of Cauterucci’s segment, the Defector account “happened as written.” Pesca disagreed, and describes the Defector’s description as “wildly inaccurate,” adding that during the wide-ranging interview, the specific issue of the use of the word was not exclusively about if “white people should be able to [say it]. It was about the use of the word by journalists in the press.” In an audio segment of the interview heard by Tablet, it was both of those things: Pesca and Cauterucci discuss the “enforcement of phrases and language codes” as they apply to race, gender, and journalists generally. Talking about a hate crimes trial that he covered 15 years earlier, where the exact use and intent of the word was central to the case, Pesca used the word with Cauterucci and says, “in 2019, I don’t know if I’d exactly even pitch that story if I was in the same position.” Ultimately, Cauterucci’s segment never aired.

That, then, was the context for the final incident on Feb. 14 of last year, when John Levin, a Slate editor, dropped a link into the organization’s Slack channel called Industry News. The link was to a New York Times story by Ben Smith on the departure of Donald McNeil, a veteran science reporter at the Times who resigned after news reports detailed exchanges McNeil had two years prior with students on a Times-branded education-immersion trip to Peru—a $5,500 excursion sold to privileged families who send their teenagers on an experience guided by Times correspondents that looks good on college applications. According to Smith’s account, during meals and conversations with the teenagers, McNeil said “racism was over” (McNeil would dispute this later in a Medium post) and used the N-word “in the context of a discussion of racism.” The teenagers made complaints about McNeil to the trip organizers, the Times investigated the incident and brought no disciplinary action against him. After the Peru investigation was leaked to the press by someone within the Times, Dean Baquet, executive editor, wrote a memo to assuage the staffers who’d felt McNeil’s behavior was beyond the pale.

“I authorized an investigation and concluded his remarks were offensive and that he showed extremely poor judgment … but that it did not appear to me that his intentions were hateful or malicious,” Baquet wrote. Unsatisfied with that response, a group of Times staffers wrote a letter to the publisher, A.G. Sulzberger, complaining that the media organization continued to provide “a prominent platform” to a reporter who had used language during the Times trip “that is unacceptable by any newsroom’s standards.” 

Under pressure from his editors and the group of colleagues who wanted him out, McNeil resigned. Reflecting the strong crosscurrents and contradictory motives for media institution leaders, Baquet then walked back his position from his initial staff memo regarding whether the intent of language matters at the Times, declaring that from here on out, the paper will not “tolerate racist language regardless of intent.” Days later, Baquet reversed that reversal under a different source of pressure, this time from members of the newsroom who pointed out that if you’re in the business of using language to explain facts and nuanced narratives, intent matters a great deal.

“In our zeal to make a powerful statement about our workplace culture, we ham-handedly said something you rightfully saw as an oversimplification of one of the most difficult issues of our lives,” Baquet told the newsroom during a meeting, adding that “of course intent matters when we are talking about language in journalism … The author and his purpose also matter, the moment matters.”

In the Slate Slack channel, the conversation zeroed in on Smith’s analysis that, just as the Times financial precarity pushed them to begin the branded excursions years earlier to make desperately needed money in a dying news business, there were financial stresses on Times leadership to cultivate a staff and newsroom that today was “beholden to the views of left-leaning subscribers, [and] may yet push it into a narrower and more left-wing political lane,” even if serving that specific audience would run counter to “its stated, broader strategy” to be a paper of record.

“I actually don’t know if I think his framing of this is right,” Allison Benedikt, a Slate editor, wrote in the Slack chat. “This is what I meant,” she then wrote, linked to a Tweet that said: “Lastly, the other thing wrong with Ben’s column is framing not being fucking racist as left leaning.”

Much like an email sent to an entire company, the Slack chat included messages by at least 20 staff members and could be seen by all full-time Slate employees. (A copy of the chat was seen by Tablet.) Soon, others built upon Benedikt’s foundation that eschewed an acknowledgement of Smith’s characterization of the financial pressures on media organizations to narrow their appeal to demographics that homogenize, in this case, around an increasingly narrow political point of view. That the chat could just as well have been about Slate went unsaid, though it seemed to bubble below the surface.

“Here’s my position. Expressing the views, not the word, the views he did, on that trip are not fire-able,” Pesca wrote in the chat. “Worthy of a talking to or a ‘what are you doing as a representatives [sic] of the Times Don?’ But nothing [requiring] much angst among management or staff …” 

“I just think you can’t bracket the word, so to me it’s like this would be a fair conversation to be having about something else,” Slate writer Ben Mathis-Liley responded.

“Right I get it, you take the totality of the offense into account, would be ignorant just to ignore that,” Pesca wrote. “The question is: Is an out loud utterance of that word, in a work environment, fire-able, censurable, etc. Even as a point of clarification to a question exactly about the use of that word. I thought not necessarily.”

That Pesca was perhaps talking about himself and McNeil at the same time seemed to animate the subsequent reply from Daniel Schroeder, a member of the production team that disagreed with Pesca’s decision to record the slur in the context of the quote from the fired and rehired Madison security guard. “When white people try to use the n-word in contexts like this there’s often an energy of ‘I’ve figured out how to get away with saying it according to the Rules,’” Schroeder wrote.

“Feel like it’s weird that everyone’s dancing around the point that working in an environment where while ppl feel empowered to say the n word in service of whatever argument they want to make is incredible hostile for black people,” Rachelle Hampton, a Slate staff reporter, wrote in the chat.

“Right! Honestly that should end the convo!” wrote another staffer.

Pesca added to his position that there are limited instances why a white journalist or professor would “use the word when conveying a quote in the name of clarity or factualness,” just as Terry Gross did some years back when she interviewed Randall Kennedy about his book that used the slur in its title. “But it’s not a comfortable point to even pursue right now,” Pesca said.

Ultimately, the Slack conversation was over before it had actually started. Slate’s editors intervened and told staff to drop the subject, before the magazine’s top editor, Jared Hohlt, added a closing remark that attempted to clarify the magazine’s official position on the word and the intent of language.

“One of the things I keep coming back to is something Nikole Hannah-Jones said in [a recent interview about McNeil’s resignation]: ‘Unfortunately, the way that this has been treated is as an academic, intellectual exercise about colorblindness, about fairness, and it’s deeply dismissive of the Black experience and how that word has been used.’”

“For that reason alone,” Hohlt wrote, “I didn’t—and don’t ever—want to see it become that kind of exercise or debate in a Slack channel here,” staking out a position that an intellectual engagement with historical context or factual evidence was mutually exclusive from empathy for the experience of a word’s derogatory use.

For the magazine, Hohlt sketched a rather hazy policy that could only complicate the matter. “If someone has said the word in a quote, we do not use the word in full. If a writer is quoting a text in which the word appears, we might use the word in full—when it’s a historical text, for instance. Or we might not. But every usage must be flagged and discussed with editors and the copy desk.” Hohlt did not return a request to comment.

For Pesca, his willingness to hold two competing ideas up for inspection at the same time in the discussion was a transgression too far for his colleagues and Slack management. Several complained to Human Resources, and Pesca was soon after placed on an indefinite suspension while his conduct around these incidents was investigated by the law firm Isler Dare.

After seven months of extensive negotiations about a settlement and official statement describing the nature of Pesca’s departure, Pesca left Slate and agreed that “Pesca [will] produce The Gist on a new platform owned and operated by Pesca.”

“The investigation determined that Pesca did not use ‘the-n-word’ outside the context of journalism, and that the two instances in which it was used with Slate staff were once in relaying a direct quote and once in discussing the ‘use/mention’ distinction,” said a statement signed by both Pesca and Slate.

“But the investigation revealed a disconnect between Pesca and some Slate staffers over the past few years. One of Pesca’s priorities in hosting The Gist has been to probe many lines of argument, including certain ones that some found offensive … While the investigation determined that Pesca did not violate Slate policy, it also found a mode of production for The Gist that was still out of sync with the rest of Slate in 2020 and 2021 …”

Though written in the legalese of a divorce separation, the agreement document sharply illuminated a key component of Slate’s ongoing evolution, away from its early pugilistic obsession with wit and intellectual gamesmanship and toward a tapered set of positions.

But it just felt to me like Slate wasn’t representing its historic role—a place where you could have a bold and unfettered and provocative conversation.

“I absolutely understand that there were people on staff who felt that Mike had crossed a line that could never be crossed. And that that was deeply hurtful,” former Slate editor David Plotz said, adding that the sentiment of those who were hurt occupied one side of a debate in which “two important moral views are at odds. One: this spirit of free inquiry and provocation and play and boldness that represented Slate’s intellectual ambition. And the other: the fact that you have to have a workplace where everyone feels safe.”

To Plotz, “the people who made the decision about Mike’s suspension are people I admire and think were in a really tough bind,” he said. “But it just felt to me like Slate wasn’t representing its historic role—a place where you could have a bold and unfettered and provocative conversation.”

After time away from Slate, Pesca was able to separate the admiration and encouragement he said he continually received from Slate’s editors to engage with controversial issues on his podcast from his idiosyncratic point of view, and the animus of the staff directed toward him “because their politics were different from mine, and because their definition of the value of dissent differed from mine. Much of the staff I think resented me in ways that I didn’t quite grasp the depth of,” Pesca told me. Now, he’s running the show under his own company, with a producer and some contract help to resume his daily broadcast during the work week.

Indeed, in hindsight, the split between Pesca and Slate looks to have been as much about larger trends taking place in a media landscape as about evolving culture war conflicts on language and identity. Increasingly, reportorial institutions with rocky financial futures are replacing a fidelity to journalistic purpose with a set of politics.

According to Katie Rayford, a Slate spokesperson, about 50% of the company’s revenue today depends on its podcasts. Not long after Slate finalized its agreement with Pesca, Slate CEO Dan Check announced five full-time staff members were laid off and the company would not fill some of their open positions. “The needs of our business have changed over the past several years,” he wrote, explaining the cost cutting measure. Earlier this month, Jared Hohlt, the top editor, left the magazine after less than three years on the masthead. Allison Benedikt, the site’s executive editor, and Gabriel Roth, the editorial director of audio, also announced in recent weeks that they too were leaving the company.

While Pesca regrets how things ended with Slate, he’s turned his focus on producing The Gist, which he says is “basically the same show, the same experience,” though he added, now that he’s outside the aegis of an established institution, “it feels liberating.”

Sean P. Cooper is a staff writer at Tablet and co-editor of The Scroll, the magazine’s afternoon newsletter. For alerts about his work, sign up for his newsletter here.

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