This post has been updated to say Indian Country Today has removed controversial content from its website. Update #2: Statement from Vanity Fair.
Vanity Fair, in partnership with 60 Minutes, ran a series of polls over the weekend designed to measure readers’ moral values. One of the polls asked readers about the “biggest ethical misjudgment in US history.” The poll offered several options from which to choose, including slavery, wars and the treatment of Native Americans. Slavery received a plurality of the votes, with treatment of Native Americans coming in second. The results led Indian Country Today Media Network to post its own poll question on Monday: “Rate That Genocide: Which Was Worse, Slavery or Treatment of Native Americans?“
The provocative headline drew immediate outcry from at least one journalism association, but perhaps not the one many would expect: The Native American Journalism Association (NAJA), the smallest of the four associations for journalists of color, wrote a four-page letter taking Indian Country Today to task for being “irresponsible,” “divisive,” and bating people in order to drive up traffic on its website. NAJA is demanding Indian Country Today apologize for what it calls a “lack of news judgement” and lapse in journalistic ethic.
“Genocide is real and should never be compared or rated with other crimes against humanity. It should never be used to stir attention or generate social-media shares,” states the letter, which was sent to Indian Country Today’s publisher Ray Halbritter and creative director Chris Napolitano.
“At worst, your staff failed to understand the seriousness of the subject matter and used the unsettling headline to bate people to your site and drive up ICTMN Web traffic before directing them to vanityfair.com,” the letter continues. “At best, your staff wanted to highlight the unfortunate Vanity Fair/60 Minutes poll that asked people to choose from slavery, the treatment of Native Americans, the Vietnam War, Iraq War and the bombing of Hiroshima in ranking… But even in a best-case scenario, ICTMN’s efforts would have fallen short of adding to the post valuable thought-driven context, a central part of our jobs as journalists. And even in a best-case scenario, there is no defense for the headline.”
Not only does the Vanity Fair/60 Minutes poll as well as the brief in Indian Country Today make the mistake of minimizing acts of terror sustained by Africans and Indigenous people in this country, they also — albeit perhaps unintentionally — pit disadvantaged groups against each other.
When it comes to these types of journalistic “misjudgments” by mainstream media outlets, the ethnic press traditionally served as a counter-balancing voice of reason, bringing clarity and reasoned perspective to volatile issues regarding race and injustices faced by minority communities. But in the digital era, where Buzzfeed is king, some ethnic publications and journalists of color are facing unprecedented pressures to be more provocative, exciting and inciting. We saw it more than a month ago in Madame Noire’s and Naturally Moi’s clumsy coverage of R. Kelly’s transgender child. We saw it a week ago in ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith’s convoluted commentary about domestic violence. And we see it now with Indian Country Today’s awkward response to a poll that had already made light of two of the ugliest phases in American history.
A few days ago William C. Rhoden explored the problematic trend in media of how the line between being thought-provoking and merely provoking has become blurred and how thoughtful discourse has been compromised. “… fitting nuanced points into three- to five-second sound bites is like trying to fire a pass through three defenders in airtight coverage,” Rhoden writes in the Sunday New York Times. So too is squeezing the horrors and complexities of slavery and Native American genocide into the space of a poll question.
“The poll is about ethics, or the lack of them,” said Beth Kseniak, Vanity Fair’s executive director of public relations. “When we asked the question about the biggest ethical misjudgment in U.S. History, we were simply curious about how Americans view their past.”
While Vanity Fair apparently still doesn’t get that its poll is offensive, Indian Country Today removed the content in question from its website late Tuesday afternoon after receiving the letter from the Native American Journalists Association. Napolitano, Indian Country Today’s creative director, emailed me saying editors found the Vanity Fair/60 Minutes poll to be problematic and wanted to expose the offensive premise behind it in an absurd way.
“But intent is useless if the execution is shoddy. And clearly it was,” writes Napolitano in his email. “The headline had an element of satire to it but didn’t name the target of the satire. The body text of the article was not satirical at all. The graphic from the Vanity Fair site, presented at face value, only muddled things further. Our piece ended up offending readers in the same way the Vanity Fair piece had offended us. To those readers who were troubled by the headline and article, we say: We’re sorry.”
Based on introductory paragraphs in the Vanity Fair piece, their intention was/is to spur readers to examine themselves and their own awareness of the differences between right and wrong. Unfortunately the magazine’s editors responsible for this lapse in judgment failed, and should probably examine their own awareness.
Now that Indian Country Today has apologized, NAJA leaders say they will turn their attention to Vanity Fair, which they called “misguided.”
Whatever Vanity Fair chooses to do, Rhoden astutely points out in his New York Times column that when it comes to being provocative in this manner, Buzzfeed is a master. Wannabes like Indian Country Today and Vanity Fair “just wind up being picked off or fired.” That’s especially true for media organizations in a country getting browner by the day.