My New Band Is: Teenage Mistake
What's missing from the Teen Vogue story, and who's responsible
|Elizabeth Spiers||Mar 20||43||2|
Conde Nast recently hired 27 year old political reporter Alexi McCammond to be the editor in chief of Teen Vogue and rescinded the offer after some bad press and the departure of a couple of advertisers over some racist Tweets that McCammond posted when she was 17. The dominant narrative about what happened is that staffers were angry about the Tweets and McCammond was either “cancelled” or held accountable for them, and this was either an outrage or justifiable depending on who you ask. I think this narrative is wrong, or at least incomplete. I think it’s not just the tweets, and it’s not entirely McCammond’s fault that this is happening, and a lot of this mess has to do with the way Conde Nast operates and who its leadership is.
Is this really just about some old Tweets? Probably not.
Here’s why: imagine you are a staffer at Teen Vogue. Your new editor in chief has just been announced, and she has no managerial experience, no experience editing, and no fashion experience. (And there’s also this whole episode.) You know more about running the magazine than she does, and so does the magazine’s lowest level intern. And now you are working for this person, who might have been a fine political reporter but has zero experience doing the job for which she was hired. What do you think staff reaction to that was? A cheery, well, let’s see if this works out! I’m sure it’ll be fine!
I’ve been the new boss before, several times, and staffers are naturally wary if you come in lacking even one of these things: managerial experience, domain expertise, experience doing the actual job. The idea that McCammond came in with none of these qualifications and what staffers were upset about was just the Tweets defies common sense. (If you think that people are generally okay with their bosses having no real qualifications for the job, consider the almost bipartisan disdain for Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, Senior White House Advisors.)
If the staff was okay with her lack of qualifications, that would be extremely unusual.
But here’s why the Tweets are what we’re talking about:
If staffers complained about all of these things and the Tweets, the Tweets are the only real incentive Conde has to reverse their decision. The Tweets are bad PR for them, and caused two advertisers to pull out of Teen Vogue. And Conde cares deeply about PR and advertising. They do not care if staffers don’t want to work for someone who knows less about their job than they do.
The Tweets are the only leverage staff really had with management. And they were not, as some “cancel culture” obsessives allege, “weaponized.” The Tweets are self-evidently bad and no one has to position them that way to make them damning. Teen Vogue covers unionization now, but as far as I know, there isn’t a Teen Vogue union. Any bargaining with management is happening informally.
Two things can be true: the Tweets are what staffers highlighted because unlike the other complaints they actually made a difference to Conde management (not because they care about the nature of the Tweets, but because they don’t want to look bad and lose advertising), AND staffers are genuinely upset by the Tweets and that is one of their complaints.
Conde knows they made a bad decision, and they have to throw someone under the bus, which is what they do in situations like this. Who is it? McCammond, of course.
Alexi McCammond was fired because Conde Nast can’t fire Anna Wintour.
McCammond should never have been hired as the editor in chief of Teen Vogue because she had no managerial experience, no experience editing, and no domain expertise in fashion, which is still the primary topic of the magazine. It is still Teen Vogue, not Teen Bon Appetit, or Teen New Yorker or Teen Car & Driver.
And it says something about Wintour’s disregard for the publication that she thinks someone with no experience can run it. McCammond was an inappropriate hire and not because McCammond is an inappropriate hire for any position, but because she is an inappropriate hire for the editor in chief position at a large national magazine.
Who’s to blame for that? Anna Wintour, not Alexi McCammond. But Wintour is still untouchable at Conde, in part because management appears to believe its fashion brands and advertising base will collapse if she’s not there. This has been the case for eons, and is also part of the reason has often struggled to adapt to the digital age and is still overwhelmingly reliant on traditional and crumbling business models.
Anna Wintour is a legendary editor who built Vogue into a best in class publication. That does not make her a genius strategist, or a good manager, or the best person to figure out how to respond to changing business and political environments. Part of the problem with the hire is that Wintour understands that political coverage is more central to Teen Vogue’s brand now (and that shift was driven by staff, not Wintour) and somehow that led to her believing you could just hire a young political reporter to run it.
My Conde Under-bussing Story:
My assessment of this situation comes in part from having covered Conde Nast as a sometime media reporter, and also having worked with Conde on various projects. (I also sometimes write for Conde Nast publications.) And Conde Nast once gleefully threw me under the bus because they knew I had no real power in the situation and they didn’t want to admit publicly that the mistake in question was theirs. Here’s what happened:
A long time ago, in a land that inexplicably had a cafeteria designed by Frank Gehry, I was hired as part of a consulting team to develop a new digital publication. In the course of working on this project, I edited the publication for a time while we went through a recruitment process to find a permanent editor. I enjoyed working on the project and the people I worked directly with at Conde, though the project was messy for all of the reasons new projects at big media companies usually are (lots of stakeholders who disagree about everything, etc.)
At one point, Conde PR asked me to join a call with a New York Times reporter to talk about the publication. I get on the call and am informed—by the reporter—that a writer I’d assigned an article to had an egregious conflict of interest. This was news to me, the first I’d heard of it, and particularly galling because the Conde had insisted that I use the writer, who I’d never worked with. It didn’t occur to me for even one second that the writer they insisted I assign a piece to would have an ethical issue, and one that they apparently knew about.
I had to think about how to respond on the call while being white hot furious with Conde PR for putting me in this position. I could have told the reporter that Conde had insisted that I use the writer and I had no idea about the conflict, and blasted the PR people on the call for not even warning me about why we were having it. But if I had, I knew they’d take it out on the consultants I was working with, who were wonderful people who went out of their way to put me on the project. So I apologized for Conde’s mistake and just took the hit. In The New York Times. Editor Spiers Who Is Either Ethically Compromised Or Just Stupid Runs Piece By Author With Obvious Conflict of Interest.
I still loathe those PR people. They knew that I wouldn’t tell the reporter what really happened because I couldn’t do it without hurting my own team. Someone had to be thrown under the bus, and that day it was me.
That you are mostly reading about McCammond’s Tweets does not mean that McCammond’s Tweets are the only issue at play here. The Tweets are the only thing about the impropriety of the hire that Conde can’t justify, and the only thing that’s already lost them advertisers. This Is About The Tweets is the story Conde Nast wants to tell and the one that’s the best one for them. That doesn’t mean it’s the whole story.
So under the bus goes Alexi McCammond!
That said, the Tweets are bad, and a justifiable reason to rescind the offer. There should also be a statute of limitations on stupid teenage mistakes. These two things are not mutually exclusive.
Imagine for a minute that you are a staffer at Teen Vogue and you’re Asian American. Your new boss comes in with all of the qualifications Alexi McCammond does not have, but ten years ago she Tweeted some pretty racist things about Asians. She’s 27 and her teen years are not that far in the rear view mirror.
Here are some questions you might ask yourself: does she still believe those things? Does she secretly think I’m inferior? If she does think I’m inferior, how will that affect my career? Will she refuse to promote me or discount my work? How can I be sure?
I’ve seen a lot of empathy for McCammond on Twitter from white guys who work in media. They can imagine being in a situation where a dumb mistake from their past catches up with them professionally so they identify with McCammond. But so far I haven’t seen any of them identify with the staffers, who now might be in the position I just described.
And you can’t run a large publication when your staff has zero confidence in your ability to do it well and fairly.
There’s also the issue of the audience that Teen Vogue actually serves. Is it really good to project the notion that nothing you do as a teenager really matters when you’re speaking directly to teenagers?
But, look. Teenagers really do a lot of stupid shit, some of it really horrible. When they express real remorse for it, they should be forgiven, personally.
But there’s a huge difference between being forgiven personally and being handed a big prestigious job in spite of those bad actions, especially when there are plenty of talented editors who are better qualified and don’t have a history of racist tweets or ethical violations.
I don’t believe teenagers should be prosecuted as adults, either metaphorically or literally via our terrible broken justice system. I believe in restorative justice and automatic expulsion of juvenile records. But that’s not what we’re talking about here.
And it’s not my place (or yours, probably) to decide whether the Tweets are forgivable. The people in the position to do that, to believe (or not) that McCammond has matured and is not racist and can be trusted, are the Teen Vogue staffers who are people of color. They can forgive her, or not. They’re the ones who are affected by the issue.
And I do feel bad for McCammond on some level.
All of this blew up and is going to follow her around for a while because Conde Nast and specifically, Anna Wintour, made bad decisions. It may be difficult for her to get a managerial job specifically because she really has to demonstrate to her staffers that she’s changed in a way that people who haven’t tweeted racist things don’t.
But I don’t think that makes her unemployable generally, nor should it. I think there are also plenty of opportunities for her to demonstrate that she can be trusted on these issues.
Every white guy who’s been supposedly cancelled for saying bigoted things seems to have a well paying job now, so I think McCammond will be okay. I’d wager someone will even pay her to write about this experience, and I think she should do it.
Unrelated: I wrote a column for the Washington Post this week about Andrew Cuomo, who is not my favorite person. I compared him to a malevolent A.I.
[Recurring Disclosure Feature: I wrote a lot about Anna Wintour when I was the founding editor of Gawker. Very specifically about Anna Wintour in elevators. And the cafeteria. I wrote a lot about the cafeteria.]