How The Correspondent is faking an inclusive image

Dutch news website De Correspondent is setting up its US edition: The Correspondent. They promise to bring inclusive and emancipatory journalism. But their track record with diversity in The Netherlands is very poor.

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Much is said about the value of diversity in media. In The Netherlands, for the past year, there have been heightened discussions about who should tell stories and who should be represented. Hardly a day goes by without a feature or discussion on a mainstream outlet about the importance of representation. These discussions quickly shift into matters within the wider political context: issues surrounding democratic values, the history of minorities and marginalised groups or who is even offered a seat at the table. These discussions can sometimes even take a rather acrimonious tone, especially when the dominant culture feels implicated in supporting the current status quo. Ultimately, much is discussed but hardly anything changes. Dutch media remains heavily dominated by white people, mostly men, and mostly with a middle class background.

Hoe De Correspondent een inclusief imago faket

As if these discussions hadn’t already been contentious enough, this past week news reached The Netherlands that De Correspondent (or “Corrie” as it is sometimes casually referred to) was starting a crowdfund initiative in the US. For this purpose, they enlisted a number of high profile figures to help market the publication for potential donors. In an effort to position themselves as progressive or associate themselves with certain emancipatory values, they reached out to people like DeRay Mckesson, a recognizable name inextricably tied to Black Lives Matter. They also hired Baratunde Thurston, someone who has devoted a good part of his professional life to anti-racism struggles. The Correspondent positions itself as a highly desirable newcomer in an American media landscape saturated with centrist takes and ‘all opinions are equal’ noise.

The Correspondent has a very poor track record with diversity in The Netherlands

However, many in The Netherlands raised an eyebrow with this marketing effort since their domestic track record has left a lot to be desired throughout the years. So much so, in fact, that they are locally known for their middle of the road, centrist takes that operate under the assumption that all opinions are equal and the feelings of racists are as valid as those of their victims.

In February 2017, as the country was on the last leg of the campaign for the House of Representative elections that took place in March of the same year, for example, they commissioned known centrist Joris Luyendijk to explore the feelings of notorious right wing politician Geert Wilders’ voters. The title of his piece: The common denominator of PVV voters: the feeling that something has been taken away from them. For an organization so committed as they claim to be to the values of emancipatory politics, one could argue that the feelings of people who vote for oppressive politics should always be treated with skepticism. What matters, ultimately, are the material consequences for their victims.

The actions of The Correspondent to overwhelm critics through social media harassment would indicate that they don’t take to criticism well.

These past few days I wrote a quick Twitter thread expressing my distrust about The Correspondent US’ newly found inclusive values. The thread got some moderate attention and was picked up by some industry insiders. I said then, that The Correspondent has a very poor track record with diversity in The Netherlands. Due to the attention that the thread got, Rob Wijnberg, who has systematically ignored everyone’s past complaints in the country, felt obliged to address some of my comments. Of course, without mentioning my name, as if those observations had sprung from hot air rather than from a person living in his country of birth who also knows the local media landscape and speaks and understands the local language.

Surely someone as committed to diversity and inclusion would not seek to erase his critics? The actions of The Correspondent to overwhelm critics through social media harassment would indicate that they don’t take to criticism well. Perhaps because in The Netherlands, they easily dismiss criticism using the weight of their media power, they thought they could dismiss international critics in a similar fashion. It was quite telling that, for the first time, Wijnberg addressed what many had said before in Dutch. Since my Twitter thread was in English and it reached an international audience, the issue could no longer be kept confined to our local media comings and goings. Suddenly, and for the first time, The Correspondent was being scrutinized by the kind of audience that Wijnberg would like to attract.

For all their talks about being a different kind of journalism, the Dutch experience has been quite the opposite

In his response for an English speaking audience however, he extensively explains how now, finally, The Correspondent is committed to diversity. Now they will do better. He does not mention that in the Dutch language website, the exact same commitment was made by his editorial team in 2014, on the one year anniversary of the the site’s foundation. In this one year evaluation, then co-editor in chief Karel Smouter wrote: “We have been too white, too pedantic and too complicated. But also: too left, too modest and too superficial.” Of course, a renovated commitment is subsequently made to be “less white, less leftist and less superficial”. Back then, in this statement, they also stress the importance of ‘diversity of ideas’ to avoid ‘the left wing bubble’. I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide which of these promises was ever delivered.

In The Netherlands, however, Wijnberg has systematically ignored critiques, especially those coming from people of color. On social media, he has even blocked some vocal women of color who attempted to engage with the repeated promises that have been made. Staff writers for The Correspondent have also been publicly hostile to people of color who speak about the publication’s issues with race. Up to now, The Correspondent as a media company has been completely unreceptive to critiques, except when performative declarations about diversity are made as part of marketing efforts. And even then, these declarations of “the need for diversity” also include the caveat of “diversity of ideas”. For all their talks about being a different kind of journalism, one that is accountable to the community and listens to the audience, the Dutch experience has been quite the opposite.

Their star reporter has opened up about being assigned to a new editor who does not believe in climate change

Critics have met walls. In the past few days, this wall is starting to show cracks, though. Sarah Kendzior, so far their star US reporter, whose work about the Trump administration made them known in the US and whose face and name they used as part of their crowdfunding campaign, has opened up on social media about the soured relationship, the money she claims she is still owed for her work and an account of a bizarre editorial shift when she was assigned to a new editor who does not believe in climate change or the dangers of the Trump administration.

An anonymous account1 of troubling working conditions has also been published this week. The writer, who calls themselves Themys Anonymous, claims that they fear retaliation and being unable to work in Dutch media again if their identity is revealed. They also mention an atmosphere of undemocratic decision making and strict power structures that directly contradict all the marketing points that Rob Wijnberg constantly touts as “the company values”. In October 2018, the magazine Quote published a rather damning account of the inner workings of De Correspondent. They mention the lack of diversity in a white, male, ego driven environment that puts up a facade of progressive values but is more akin to a cult. Their financial lack of transparency in regards to the use of subsidies and donations is extensively covered.

Rutger Bregman uses dehumanising language in his essay to refer to trans people: “the transgenders”

In his essay, Wijnberg also elaborates how his position throughout the years has changed. Now, finally, the organization is committed. Now, finally, they believe that diversity is positive. One has to wonder how long ago this change took place when as recently as April of 2018, they published a piece by Rutger Bregman, under the title Why it’s unhelpful to label people as racists, fascists or terrorists. Racism, it seems, should not be named or given the spotlight. According to Bregman, telling people that their beliefs are racist will only make them more racist.

However, this is not all. The essay also uses dehumanizing language to refer to trans people: “the transgenders”, a noun that is usually frowned upon to refer to trans people. Perhaps it is the case that Rutger Bregman is not necessarily familiar with the language of inclusion or might not know any trans people who could persuade him to use less alienating language (and therein lies the value of inclusion beyond marketing pitches). However, even when media organizations do not have direct contact with people from within the trans community, they could still use the guidelines issued by the European Union, in Dutch, about the preferred, non-dehumanizing way of referring to trans people. These language guidelines are freely available for download. If, as Wijnberg states, the organization is committed to change, surely as recently as a bit over six months ago, they would have known this.

When a media organization represents the values of those who are marginalized by the structures of power, society at large improves

We are also told in Wijnberg’s essay that progress has been made: work has been commissioned by black writers and people of color. The organization has engaged with local activist groups and given them a platform. What Wijnberg conveniently leaves out is that The Correspondent receives generous subsidies from the Dutch State and different foundations to do so. It is unknown how much money they receive in the form of subsidies or donations to specifically address diversity issues in The Netherlands. There are no reports or yearly statements to verify how those public funds were used, only statements about the fact that subsidies are not used to cover fixed costs.

There are oblique references to diversity subsidies such as the one in a report from the Foundation for Narrative Journalism or references on the website of the Foundation for Democracy and Media but there has been no local accountability as to how these funds were used or to which concrete, long term objectives they were allocated. All we are left with are the promises that “now, finally, diversity matters”. In some cases, such as the 100,000 euro donation received from the Craig Newmark Foundation, the money was dependent on having a diverse team from the moment The Correspondent set foot in the US. The donation was specific for the US expansion and not meant to improve diversity at the Dutch offices of The Correspondent.

I truly hope that The Correspondent keeps the promises they’ve made to their American readership, patrons, donors and investors. When a media organization represents the values of those who are marginalized by the structures of power, society at large improves. The Correspondent could, maybe, finally fulfill its potential to occupy such space. If that happens, I also hope they finally fulfill the promises they have been making in The Netherlands since their foundation. We could also benefit from this newly acquired awareness.

Editorial update – November 30, 2018
The Correspondent informs us that they are not able to give out information about the diversity of their permanent editors, because the company does not collect this data. We are referred to the colophon, in which we find no ethnic diversity in the fixed editorial positions.

Gaat blockchain de journalistiek redden?

  1. This article has been taken offline. ↩︎

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