Writing by Paula Lacey. Illustration from Twitter (@ChrisLestrange).
In the summer of 2020, following the murder of George Floyd, heightened discussions of racial inequality empowered people of colour to speak out about their experiences of discrimination in white-dominated industries. One of the highest profile companies to face this reckoning was Bon Appétit, a subsidiary of media giant Condé Nast, the food magazine largely responsible for the late-noughties coolification of cooking. The scandal sent ripples through the media industry, as outlets which undoubtedly suffer from the same structural issues scrambled to condemn BA. Viewing this echo-chamber response from the outside, I see BA’s downfall and the resulting fallout as part of an ongoing conversation, one which connects authenticity, accountability and the necessity of honest self reflection when reporting injustices.
Far from the mumsy culinary content of before, BA made food fun, and their success only skyrocketed at the creation of their YouTube channel in 2012. Viewers fell in love with the candid and personable approach to cooking, as well as the smiling group of chefs that were the face of the brand. However, in June 2020 a series of social media callouts from current and ex-staff at the magazine highlighted problematic behaviour of senior management including the editor-in-chief, Adam Rapoport, in brownface. Soon a Business Insider report was published, where 14 current and former staffers exposed the company’s toxic workplace culture which systemically sidelined and undervalued the people of colour or those with nonstandard accents.
In the weeks that followed, ten of the thirteen YouTube cast members decided to step away from the channel, in solidarity with their colleagues who had been pushed on camera for diversity points but never fairly compensated for their work. Many have gone on to star in their own shows with other food networks, and in October 2020 the BA channel relaunched, with a new EIC and a new, more diverse cast. Although the new chefs are just as talented and charming as their predecessors, the channel has not yet recovered from losing 10,000 subscribers during the scandal of the summer.
In early February of 2021, successful podcast Reply All released the first few episodes of their mini-series “The Test Kitchen”, where they looked to uncover how the toxic workplace environment developed at BA in the decade leading up to the fallout. Reply All had primarily covered stories about technology and the internet up until this point, and some fans found it bizarre that the show had stepped into unfamiliar territory. But as a workplace drama that had played out on the public stage of social media, it almost seemed appropriate that the story be treated as a phenomenon of the digital age. However, within weeks of the podcast's release, it became clear that the show had overstepped.
In the second installment of the miniseries the host, reporter Shruti Pinnamaneni, mentioned briefly that Gimlet, the production company for Reply All, had experienced their own version of the events they were covering in 2019 which resulted in a unionisation drive, which Pinnamaneni had opposed. She compares herself to Christina Chaey, a BA writer who regrets how she had predominantly stayed quiet whilst other people of colour were making noise. Pinnamaneni admits that she was wrong to oppose the union, but that ultimately the responsibility to change things doesn’t lie with the workers, but with the management who perpetuate inequality.
After this episode was released, a twitter thread from ex-Gimlet staffer Eric Eddings went viral, where he detailed how Pinnamaneni and Reply All co-host PJ Vogt had actively and aggressively worked against the unionisation process, which was an attempt to improve the pay and treatment of POC workers. He revealed that Pinnamaneni had personally organised anti-union meetings, which she failed to acknowledge in the episode, and that she and Vogt had intimidated and denigrated their colleagues who were working to make change. Listening to The Test Kitchen, Eddings felt as though he was hearing his own experiences parroted back at him by the very people who had minimised them, in an attempt to save their image.
Soon, both Vogt and Pinnamaneni had issued apologies and announced that they would be stepping away from Reply All. On February 25th, a three minute episode of Reply All was released titled “A Message from the staff of Reply All”, where the show’s co-founder Alex Goldman acknowledged and apologised for the “systemic editorial failure” which led to the show’s production, and a disclaimer was added to the two previous episodes. Goldman explained that the final two episodes of The Test Kitchen will not air, and that Reply All will be placed on pause until they can “get to the bottom of what went wrong” with the series and the company itself.
It took me weeks to figure out where I stand on this. I had loved the first two episodes of The Test Kitchen; I’d been a huge fan of BA, and was among the thousands who felt hurt to discover that the magazine's glossy exterior concealed a toxic culture of discrimination and gaslighting. As an aspiring writer, white and socially privileged, I could see how those inequalities would have been to my benefit had I been in the position of the white staffers at BA. I wondered if I would have realised what was happening, or if I would have been among the hurried apologies after the fact. And so when the podcast was announced, promising to uncover the root of the systemic racism at BA, I thought it was a necessary step to understanding how these exclusionary practises develop beneath the surface.
When it was cancelled, I didn’t understand why at first. It felt counterintuitive. How can we hope to prevent these cultures from developing without laying bare the mechanisms that enable them? I wasn’t alone in this, and much of the public response focused on decrying “cancel culture”. The whole thing felt like another symptom of the left’s self-destructive drive for ideological purity, in which only the innocent can speak out against inequality, so much so that self-censorship impedes the truth from getting out. Dramatic, I know.
Thinking about it more, to me the issue speaks to the nature of reporting; exposé journalism that lays bare injustice has an implied air of moral superiority, in which we assume that the reporter unequivocally condemns that which they are reporting on. HBO have recently announced an upcoming sitcom based on the events at BA, but their workplace practises are yet to come under scrutiny, as a fictionalised retelling doesn’t require the same personal accountability. In the case of Pinnamaneni and the team at Reply All, this raises the question of whether somebody can authentically condemn something that they themselves have participated in and benefited from. Despite the apologies issued by Pinnamaneni and Vogt, many argue that any reporting on injustice coming from those who have perpetrated a similar injustice can only ever be damaging and disingenuous, even if they admit to it. Although I understand that viewpoint, I’m not sure if I agree.
The decision to produce the series devoid of nuance was undoubtedly a misstep, both on the part of the editorial team and on the reporters who chose to present their findings without full accountability of their own personal complicity. The podcast was made with full knowledge of the parallels between the treatment of people of colour at Condé Nast and Gimlet, but the producers were only willing to fleetingly refer to it as a way of humanising the host. It would have been powerful to see a comparative angle, with hosts from the right side of the union dispute, where a voice could be given to the Bon Appétit staff whilst also grappling with how the exact same structural inequalities played out at Gimlet, and why they hadn’t suffered the same reckoning in 2020. To me, this would show how easily these structures are replicated across the industry and how they often go unpunished, rather than isolating Condé as one bad apple.
Instead the podcast presented their own misgivings as an afterthought, as if telling the BA story absolved them, making Eddie and other workers involved in the dispute feel gaslit and hopeless. What could have been an opportunity for brutal self-reflection, resulted in the voices of the BA members being silenced, again. I’m still not sure how I feel about the decision to withhold the final two episodes. Clearly the show could not be aired as had been intended, and a short acknowledgement at the start of each episode does not undo the hypocrisy or the hurt caused. I hope that one day the Bon Appétit staffers’ stories get to be told, but in a sensitive and honest way that brings justice, to them and to the countless victims of structural racism in media that go unheard.