Staff at USA Today's FTW blog at odds with publication after editor fired for addressing racism – New York Daily News

One day after a man in Boulder, Colo., opened fire at a grocery store, longtime USA Today sportswriter Hemal Jhaveri reacted to the mass shooting with an inaccurate assumption of the gunman’s race.
“It’s always an angry white man. Always,” tweeted Jhaveri, who had been promoted to USA Today’s Sports Media Group Race and Inclusion editor, while also serving as a columnist for the popular For The Win blog. However, Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa, a fair-skinned Syrian-American gunman who graduated high school in neighboring Jefferson County, did not fit Jhaveri’s profile. Right-wing pundits for mainstream publications and media titans as prominent as Fox News’ Sean Hannity feasted on the viral outrage over an unfounded denouncement of white men, renewing the racist and misogynistic comments toward the Indian-American journalist that fueled her virality.
Jhaveri apologized publicly and deleted the post, but it was not enough. Gannett, the owner of USA Today, weighed a suspension before ultimately firing her the next day. Kate Gutman, USA Today’s senior vice president of content ventures, sent an email to Sports Media Group staffers claiming Jhaveri’s tweet “ran counter to the company’s views on diversity, equity and inclusion,” and that Jhaveri was “previously disciplined for a similar situation.”
However, Jhaveri’s former coworkers say Gannett used her errant tweet as an opportunity to punish her for directly confronting issues of racism and journalistic negligence throughout the company while fleeing criticism from those upset with the provocative columns she was purportedly hired to produce in her role as race and inclusion editor. The decision has left staffers wondering just how insulated their jobs as journalists are from the whims of public blowback.
As one For The Win staffer put it: “How this firing was justified, is that by posting what she did — it was racist towards white people.”
Indeed, last Monday, Mizell Stewart III, USA Today’s Vice President of News Performance, Talent & Partnerships, told staffers over Zoom: “If the word ‘white’ on that tweet was substituted for ‘Black,’ I would expect to have the same conversation” that forced her removal. Stewart, who told staffers he was present for the discussions that led to Jhaveri’s firing, also argued that her collection of tweets needed to have the same consequence as another USA Today staffer fired over a “sexist and antisemitic” internal post.
The front page of a USA Today newspaper is seen at a convenience store in Washington, DC, on August 6, 2019. (Photo by Alastair Pike / AFP) (Photo by ALASTAIR PIKE/AFP via Getty Images) (ALASTAIR PIKE/AFP via Getty Images)
Stewart sent the Daily News a statement that said “immediate actions have been taken” and reiterating “diversity, equity and inclusion” as core values. Jhaveri did not return The News’ request for an interview.
After her dismissal, Jhaveri published a statement, writing that her bosses had previously brought up past tweets with her they “found problematic.”
Jhaveri’s former For The Win colleagues who met amongst themselves last Thursday learned that USA Today’s top editors wanted only to suspend her — at least at first.
“The plan was originally to do this suspension. That’s what the journalists in the room decided,” said one staffer in a Thursday Zoom meeting, a recording of which was obtained by The News. “The journalists got together and said, ‘This is journalistic malpractice. We have to do something about this, and a suspension is the right call.’”
Apparently, though, Gannett’s human resources argued that Jhaveri’s Boulder tweet was a fireable offense by resurfacing those older, since-deleted tweets.
The first was Jhaveri’s 2018 critique of an article from Martin Rogers, a then-USA Today columnist who defended Qatar’s selection as the host nation of the 2022 World Cup. He asked his American audience not to let “humanitarian or social reasons of conscience” stop them from traveling to the nation under fire for human rights abuses.
Rogers minimized Qatar’s politics and policies — such as the use of slave labor and jailing LGBT people — as “a little on the repressive side.” One former colleague said during their internal meeting that Rogers’ column “read like something that he was getting paid by the Qatar government to like, promote it to U.S. readership.”
The staffer added: “And he probably was.” (Executives at USAT declined to answer whether or not Rogers was disciplined or had been compensated by the Qatari government.)
Another since-deleted problem tweet: questioning a fellow USA Today reporter’s “white privilege.”
“It appears they made the argument…that Hemal was being racist to that employee,” said one For The Win staffer about how Jhaveri’s bosses viewed her comment. “She was being warned at that time to not use racist language in any direction.”
According to sources, Gannett/USA Today management forced top For The Win editor Nate Scott — who Jhaveri answered to despite her lofty, Gannett-wide title — to fire Jhaveri and publish a statement throwing her under the bus.
“USA TODAY is aware of inappropriate social media posts by one of our staffers and immediate actions have been taken,” the statement posted to For The Win’s Twitter account said. “USA TODAY was founded on the basis of diversity, equity and inclusion. We hold our employees accountable to these principles both personally and professionally.”
USA TODAY is aware of inappropriate social media posts by one of our staffers and immediate actions have been taken. USA TODAY was founded on the basis of diversity, equity and inclusion. We hold our employees accountable to these principles both personally and professionally.
One staffer told the News the tweet was “one of the most laughable PR statements I’ve ever seen.”
“What have you done to earn the right to say that?” said the staffer. “You were founded by a rich businessman in Virginia in 1980. You weren’t founded on those on those beliefs.” (USA Today’s nationwide paper was founded in 1982 by Allen Neuharth.)
Despite USA Today’s public commitments to inclusion and recent efforts to diversify leadership — which included Jhaveri’s promotion and hiring Mike Freeman as the paper’s first editor of “sports, race and inequality” — staffers say that the paper remains actively opposed to expressing their racial or political identities.
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Just days before the “white man” tweet, Jhaveri angered the same crowd with a column about the Cinderella NCAA Tournament run by Oral Roberts University, the conservative Christian school named after a crackpot televangelist with policies she argued were bigoted against LGBT students and faculty. (Jhaveri was slammed over the column in the pages of USA Today, making it clear that any policy against criticizing colleagues only runs one way.)
Stewart denied Jhaveri’s column about Oral Roberts or the conservative outrage factor during his Monday Zoom call. “The Oral Roberts story never came up in conversation,” he said. “That was not the point of this conversation. The point of the conversation and the actions that were taken were entirely on the tweet that Hemal posted in reaction to what took place in Boulder.”
Jhaveri’s former colleagues find that hard to believe, because she was fired so suddenly without a thorough explanation. They believe USA Today’s fear of political engagement undermines their public commitments to inclusion — which, at one point, included Jhaveri’s promotion — by actively opposing their writers from expressing their identities and the political consequences. Gutman’s email to staffers after Jhaveri’s firing included an attached copy of Gannett’s social media policy — a document restrictive enough as to ban unqualified use of “Black lives matter” on social media — as an unsubtle reminder of the limitations of company-approved discourse.
“It is not acceptable to write “Black Lives Matter” in caps with no context or to include the hashtag #BLM in your bio with no context,” read the update USA Today sent company-wide on Oct. 22, months after protests erupted and policy proposals were initiated in response to the police killing of George Floyd.
“If the Oral Roberts thing doesn’t happen,” one For The Win staffer told the News, “I don’t know if she gets fired. I really don’t. Because I don’t think the backlash is as intense. And then that just speaks to the fact that they didn’t fire her because of, like, what she actually did. They fired her because of the backlash.”
“She got in trouble before because she was criticizing the company in public,” continued the staffer, “And this was a totally different thing. So, for me, it just didn’t make any sense.”
Stewart told staffers that Jhaveri’s termination “was the product of what we call ‘progressive discipline.” But, Jhaveri said in her statement that Gannett and USA Today never specified what her previous mistakes were.
Another staffer was suspicious of the company’s swift and severe discipline of Jhaveri’s social media conduct.
“They talked to her about her tweets before in the past. and, it just seemed like they were at a point where they were looking for a spot like this to bring the hammer on her,” a source said. According to the source, Jhaveri alerted management that she was being harassed because of the tweet, inadvertently hastening her firing. “So if someone is gonna ask for help, and a couple of hours later you’re unemployed — that kind of seems like you were waiting for this moment,” the source said.
Several of Jhaveri’s former colleagues questioned management’s odd decision to promote Jhaveri into an important role related to race and then quickly toss her aside. “I find it strange that they would promote her to race and inclusion editor, then fire her after her first mistake,” the staffer said.
Copyright © 2022, New York Daily News
Copyright © 2022, New York Daily News


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