I LOVE BIG “BUTS”

Quill magazine cover with image of women jogging, shot from behind

Is this magazine cover sexist?

When I was first asked that question Saturday, I said, No, but it’s stupid.

The cover story in SPJ’s bimonthly magazine is about journalism training, and the cover photo is a lame stock image chosen by a lazy editor – who quit his job a few weeks ago and obviously didn’t give a damn.

Then I saw this…

…and I thought, Sure, it sucks, but “not appropriate”?

Then SPJ member Marie Baca wrote this, in which she said…

I have a feeling that some of you think I am blowing this out of proportion, but I also have a feeling that some of you know that I’m not. Maybe some of you have had some of the same experiences that I’ve had in the journalism industry. You know, the ones that aren’t something worth filing a sexual harassment or discrimination lawsuit over, but the ones that very quietly tell you that you maybe you don’t deserve the same respect or opportunities as your older, whiter, male-r colleagues.

…and I thought, Damn, but does SPJ really look that bad?

Over the weekend, my fellow SPJ board members emailed (too) casually about this. Without asking us, SPJ posted this reply…

…and I thought, That’s not the way to handle this – no ifs, ands, or buts.

This is what irks me most about SPJ. We run from the Big Questions. We don’t like to admit we’re wrong, which means we never learn.

I admit it right now: I was wrong, but I’m glad I was. I learned something this weekend. When was the last weekend you learned anything?

I learn best when I say yeah, but and the reply kicks my ass. I emailed Baca yesterday, copped to changing my mind, and asked her some questions. Her answers were enlightening and depressing.

Asked and answered

Marie C. BacaI’ve edited Baca’s comments because they were long – but not boring or rambling. 

Q. How would you rate SPJ’s handling of this? 

I would characterize SPJ’s handling of this issue as “horrendous.”

Any organization that represents an industry like journalism, one that has a long history of discrimination, has the duty to treat accusations of sexism with great seriousness. It was clear from the initial response I received from the SPJ Twitter account – a non-apology if I’ve ever seen one – that this was not going to happen.

Q. How could we do better next time? (Because I won’t be surprised if there’s a next time.)

Before SPJ said anything, on social media or otherwise, the following things should have happened:

• Interviews should have been conducted with the people involved with the cover photo decision as well as the two people who complained.

• The directors in charge of diversity as well as the ethics panel should have been asked to review the complaint and the comments from Quill staff against SPJ discrimination policies and issued a recommendation.

• The board should have discussed the issue in light of the aforementioned information and recommendations.

Then, and only then, should any sort of statement be offered on behalf of SPJ.

Q. Has anyone personally reached out to you yet?

I just got off the phone with president Lynn Walsh, and it is difficult to describe the enormity of my disappointment in our conversation.

Lynn seemed both irritated and defensive. She acknowledged the photo was irrelevant for a journalism publication, but said she did not find it sexist or inappropriate.

She insisted that SPJ had already issued an appropriate response via Twitter and said the organization did not plan to investigate the issue further or issue any statement on behalf of the organization.

Q. Some SPJers think this is no big deal. What would you tell them?

To those who say this is no big deal, I say this:

Why have I received hundreds of social media comments from both male and female journalists expressing their disgust at the photo?

Why did it spur a discussion among my colleagues about the countless instances of sexism they’ve experienced over the years in all sorts of different journalism organizations?

Why was the knee-jerk reaction of the SPJ to defend the photo as opposed to taking more than a few hours to discuss the complaint?

And finally, why are we as journalists willing to call out others in positions of authority on their overt and less-overt acts of discrimination, but so unwilling to turn the looking glass on ourselves?

The real damage

Honestly, I think Baca is angry out of proportion. At this point – and I could be wrong again – I’d conclude: The photo is sexist, but it’s a misdemeanor, not a high crime. 

Still, I wonder how much of Baca’s outrage is due to SPJ’s terse and timid response. It reminds me of the old journalism expression, “It’s not the crime, it’s the coverup.”

It’s not the sexism, it’s the silence.

You know what the real tragedy is? Excellent journalists like Marie Baca won’t ever run for SPJ’s board of directors. And she is excellent. I looked her up.

Baca is versatile enough to report deeply about “forced pooling” in shale drilling for ProPublica and then turn around and write this for The Wall Street Journal: “Near Lake Tahoe There’s a Bear So Tough, Bullets Bounce Off His Head.”

She’s the kind of journalist we need running SPJ. But I wonder if she’ll even renew her SPJ membership when the next bill arrives.

The real problem

Without violating any confidences, I can tell you this…

Some of my fellow board members don’t think this even deserves a discussion. There was a lot of, “I would hate to see this incident detract from the important work we have to do.”

Thing is, we don’t have a lot of work more important than this. SPJ’s board tends to obsess over “chapter financial report requirements” and “election of unaffiliated delegates” – which actually means little to SPJ, even less to me, and nothing to you.

Meanwhile, Baca and dozens of other journalists are publicly questioning a public SPJ decision. Even if you don’t mind the cover image, you can acknowledge an image problem.

It’s not going away either, because Baca isn’t backing down…

I will continue to demand that SPJ investigate the cover photo situation, acknowledge the sexism inherent therein, come up with a plan to prevent this from happening in the future, and issue a public statement describing all of these things.

Want to know the weirdest part? Six men sit on SPJ’s board of directors – along with 14 women, which includes the current president and the next one.

So if Baca isn’t fighting The Man. She’s fighting The Woman.


SPJ Diversity chair Dori Zinn, a friend of mine, opined last night. Read her here. I kind of doubt SPJ will tweet about either of our posts today.


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