the promising accountability of the workplace confessional
When all the stuff about Andy Mills started bubbling over from podcast insider group texts into more of the “mainstream” industry Twitter last December, I joked to friends that the podcast industry’s whisper network is probably the last thing anyone would want to fuck with, ‘cause hello, these are people who’ve built careers out of getting a story to the right audience. Like, I’m surprised at this rate that no one’s started a pod called The Whisper Network and made it some audio version of the Shitty Media Man list, you know?
But this irony isn’t limited to just podcasters; you could say that media, as an entire industry, stands in this weird space as an ecosystem of highly trained storytellers who very often turn our powers on each other (that’s the point of media reporting, of course) and our places of work. (Also, publishing definitely occupies a similar space, but the pace of digital media and nature of virality allows for blitz attacks of an entirely different scale).
I’ve been thinking about this irony a lot in light of how recent controversies (the Andy Mills thing, the Don McNeil thing, Jennifer Barnett’s thing on The Atlantic and James Bennet, everything going on with Gimlet) have spotlighted this whole micro-genre of personal essays we could call the Workplace Confessional, wherein industry professionals seize the means of production (self-publishing) in order to share their POV on (real and perceived) workplace injustices.
****Real quick, let me be clear: I’m not equating the behavior or experiences of Mills, McNeil, Barnett, James T. Green or CC Paschal — the latter two whom I’m about to get to in a sec. I’m just trying to make a point about how VERY different circumstances have led to one similar form of response: self-publishing about your workplace experience.*****
Examples: After Mills resigned from the NYT audio department, he posted an essay-length non-apology on his website. Following McNeil’s resignation, we got a four-part screed that I personally have not bothered to read (NYT had a Cliffnotes version lol) on his Medium. Also on Medium: Jennifer Barnett’s accounting of her time at The Atlantic, which is so comprehensively detailed that Medium tells you it will take 14 minutes to read.
Then there’s alllllll the stuff going on about Gimlet, which shifted into high gear last month with a Twitter thread from former employee Eric Eddings but has since metastasized with audio producer James T. Green’s piece titled Glass Walls, which details his experience at the company as a Black contract employee (the piece is sectioned into four parts as well and posted on his personal website) and CC Paschal’s post, titled Hidden In Plain Sight, which details her own experience as the lead producer of and “sole Black femme” on the “Uncivil” podcast (posted last week, also to her personal website).
The content in these confessionals from Barnett, Green, and Paschal are each horrifying and worthy of deep analysis on their own, but I do think it’s also crucial to note the professional level of storytelling and even literary techniques employed (At one point, Green directly references Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley, and you can see clear parallels in the way both write about startuppy office culture). That is, these confessionals exist primarily to publicize three people’s experiences with a former workplace, but what differentiates them from, say, a random person’s Facebook post about getting mistreated by an employer, is this elevated form, which arises basically from nature of their authorship (i.e., they’re written by experienced storytellers).
Is this getting too meta? Is this just a case of media people caring about media people, and being inherent suckers for a well-crafted narrative? Isn’t it a no brainer that the industry of zippy storytellers happens to also be getting very good about documenting the flaws in our own system? Except, of course, when you think about what the gatekeepers at the top have to lose.
Obviously, it’s significant that Mills and McNeil, two white men, took to self-publishing their little essays in an attempt to rectify the larger narratives surrounding their gross misbehavior, whereas Green, Paschal, and Barnett use their workplace confessionals in order to reveal the depth of their mistreatment.
So I guess what I’m saying is that while I’m not particularly impressed with Mills and McNeil’s self-fashioned exit interviews — white guys are gonna white guy — I do find it bracing as a woman, as a person of color, that industry professionals like Green, Paschal, and Barnett are self-publishing about their workplace experiences so openly.
“After the dust settled, I wanted to go on the record with all the details,” Barnett writes in her Medium essay in explanation of why it’s, well, on Medium. “No one would touch it.” One can imagine that Green and Paschal would likely have faced the same obstacles when considering where to publish their own confessionals. (Mills and McNeil, meanwhile, would probably have been considered too radioactive in a different way). In pre-internet days, the barrier to entry (AKA, barrier to telling your story) would have been prohibitive. Now we have personal websites, Medium, newsletters, social media, etc.
Journalistically, we can be aware that each of these confessionals is one person’s accounting of the events, just as we can note that these posts are coming from experienced professionals who have established networks and track records speaking to their credibility. But in general, I find it fascinating that it’s not completely taboo to publish this stuff anymore (I was part of the gen warned against even tweeting disparaging things about any outlet ever, lest it ruin my chances of getting hired one day), and that overall, we’re loathe to give even the industry’s most beloved brands the benefit of the doubt. Like at this point, we’re just assuming every mag, site, and newsletter collective has at least one skeleton in the HR closet, right?
This entire industry (most industries tbh, but we’ll save that for another day) is predicated on everyone keeping their mouths shut and taking what we’re given just to have a chance to sit at the table, and having a stronger Workplace Confessional culture overall is, I think, going to help keep our employers more accountable, if for nothing else than the fear of bad PR. What we’re finding in the wake of last summer’s “reckoning” is, of course, that no workplace gets to sit this one out (though at the rate companies are tying severance packages to signed NDAs, a lot of ‘em sure seem to think they can).
I can’t imagine the kind of vulnerability, courage, and professional risk was involved in the choices of Green, Paschal, and Barnett to publish their confessionals, but our industry is better for having them out there. The storytellers have started taking aim at our own ivory towers; the form these forays are taking is fascinatingly powerful. What happens next could get messy and unsettling, but maybe that’s the point.
Quick note: I’ve been pretty out of the loop and only just caught up on the latest criticism around Substack and platforming. If you’re looking for the links, Rusty has a good roundup in yesterday’s Tabs and Allegra has a good analysis in the Study Hall newsletter. If you have thoughts, hit reply and let me know.
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