NY Times Writers Jazmine Hughes & Jamie Keiles Resign After Signing Letter Against Israeli War on Gaza
Written by GRB on 14/11/2023
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
We turn now to look at how Israel’s bombardment of Gaza is creating turmoil in newsrooms. The New York Times Magazine‘s award-winning writer Jazmine Hughes was recently forced to resign after signing an open letter condemning Israel’s siege on Gaza. In an email to the staff, the magazine editor, Jake Silverstein, wrote, “While I respect that she has strong convictions, this was a clear violation of The Times’s policy on public protest. This policy, which I fully support, is an important part of our commitment to independence,” he said.
Jazmine Hughes is an acclaimed journalist who won a National Magazine Award earlier this year for her profiles of Viola Davis and Whoopi Goldberg in The New York Times. She also worked on the _Times_’ prize-winning 1619 Project about the role of slavery in the United States. Her last piece was about Danny DeVito and his daughter Lucy starring in a Broadway play.
Meanwhile, a contributor at The New York Times Magazine who signed the same letter criticizing Israel, Jamie Lauren Keiles, has announced he’ll no longer write for the publication. He’s a transgender journalist who describes himself as a, quote, “religiously observant Jew.” In a message on social media, he said it was a, quote, “personal decision about what kind of work I want to be able to do.”
The letter they both signed read in part, quote, “We stand in opposition to the silencing of dissent and to racist and revisionist media cycles, further perpetuated by Israel’s attempts to bar reporting in Gaza, where journalists have been both denied entry and targeted by Israeli forces. … We condemn those in our industries who continue to enable apartheid and genocide. We cannot write a free Palestine into existence, but together we must do all we possibly can to reject narratives that soothe Western complicity in ethnic cleansing,” they wrote.
Jazmine Hughes and Jamie Lauren Keiles join us together in their first broadcast interview. We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Jazmine, let’s begin with you. Talk about your decision, that led to your forced resignation from The New York Times, to sign the letter. Why did you choose to sign on?
JAZMINE HUGHES: I signed on to the letter as mostly a conscientious person. I felt so overwhelmed by the media that I was seeing, the reports that I was hearing. And I don’t purport to be an expert on the situation, by any means. Admittedly, I’m pretty belated to the entire approach. And I wanted to personally hold myself accountable.
But what really stuck out to me about the letter is that we were — the letter was addressed in part to other news organizations, other journalists, that spoke about workplace violations, harassment that people were facing, that spoke about the ways in which the conflict is being covered. And I considered it a conversation within the industry that I wanted to be a part of.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk a little about what your concerns were about how it was being covered by the Times?
JAZMINE HUGHES: Well, I don’t want to speak about particular ways that it was covered by The New York Times, but just in general, I felt as if I wanted to be part of this conversation that really held the industry itself to a particular standard. And also I felt personally implicated as a taxpaying American, and I wanted to hold myself accountable for these sorts of things. With regard to the _Times_’s coverage, I — actually, no, I didn’t have anything particular about the _Times_’s coverage. I just wanted to speak to the matter at large.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And this whole issue, obviously, of objectivity within mainstream or commercial journalism, your sense of how it has been applied over the years?
JAZMINE HUGHES: I think that objectivity is a wonderful, beautiful project for a world that does not exist. Right? And I think that, I guess, specifically within the Times, but in mainstream media writ large, that the recent, like, diversification of newsrooms has been a great boon, I think, to both coverage and to people’s, like, egos. But what happens when we suddenly have like an influx of people with different identities, different experiences and different wants in a newsroom? I signed the — I signed the letter, rather, as an employee of The New York Times, but as a Black person, as a queer person, as a woman. And, you know, all these identities have — all of those identities, or all of the communities thereof, have been awarded their rights by agitation, right? By protest. And I, as a person at the core of all these identities, wanted to amplify that effort. And I think that — sorry, that’s it.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Jazmine, you’ve talked about the awards you’ve won for your writing, like the National Magazine Award, being from a very subjective point of view, and that that’s your power, that’s what you win the awards for. Can you amplify on that?
JAZMINE HUGHES: Sure. I have won — I had won three awards during my tenure as a writer for The New York Times Sunday Magazine: one for being under 30, which I am no longer; one for writing a story about coming out as a lesbian; and one for writing these stories on — like stated, on Viola Davis and Whoopi Goldberg. And all of these stories were predicated, in some part, on my identity.
I think the biggest difference, or, I guess, the biggest note that I want to make, that I signed that letter as a magazine journalist, right? I wasn’t working in the newsroom. I wasn’t doing the sort of stories where you take the sort of like distant, authoritative stance where you are presenting unbiased and unfiltered facts. Every story that I’ve written for The New York Times has been, like, through my very real identity and experiences. The fact that I’ve written so many stories with the word “we” — right? — that can refer to any group of people, any sort of community that I’m a part of, already puts me in a situation where I didn’t purport to try to write or continue the sort of — the standards of the newsroom, of the actual New York Times. I think that I was writing — or, all the stories I wrote had a particular voice, and I think that voice translated onto the letter because it’s me, and that’s what makes sense.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s bring Jamie Lauren Keiles into this conversation. You also resigned from The New York Times Magazine. You’re a transgender Jewish writer, a self-described “observant Jew.” You were a New York Times Magazine contributor. Talk about your decision.
JAMIE LAUREN KEILES: Yeah. So, first and foremost, I signed the letter as a person. I feel like growing up as a Jew in America, you’re asked all the time, “What would people do if there was another Holocaust?” And for me, it was just really important to say this is the time when you’re supposed to speak up. Like, this is the moment that you’ve been hypothetically asked about your entire life. So, journalism aside, I signed it as a person, and I think it’s the right thing to do. And I wouldn’t support an ethnostate anywhere else in the world for any other group, and I don’t support it for my own people. So, that was, first and foremost, why I signed the letter.
The secondary question of sort of why did I sign it as a journalist has to do a little bit about with questions about sort of what do we expect of contingent labor. Jazmine is a staffer, but I’m a contributing writer for the magazine, which means I don’t have benefits. I don’t have any kind of protections. So, that’s how most of the journalism in our industry is currently being produced in this moment, by contingent laborers. And I think there’s this bigger question of, like: If an institution is not willing to give you a job, then what do you owe them? Right? And I think, like, I’m not — as someone that doesn’t have job security and isn’t protected and doesn’t have access to the labor rights that a union grants, I think it’s like incumbent upon me to be owning my own platform as much as possible, right? I owe nothing to the institution of the Times, if the Times gives nothing to me. And I think that, to me, the commitment to signing the letter, beyond the fact that I just think it’s the correct statement to make, it’s a little bit of a protest of this idea that just because you’re a person who produces news — and like Jazmine, like, I cover celebrities. You know, this is not my main topic. But it’s the idea that the magazine or the Times as a whole would have some hold on my speech just seemed ludicrous to me. So, in some way, it was a small amount of protest over the labor conditions in the industry at large.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So, in other words, what you’re saying is the Times holds you to the code of conduct of an employee but then does not provide you the benefits or the protections of an employee. What did the editors say to you once the letter had come out?
JAMIE LAUREN KEILES: I mean, it’s a little less clear than that — right? — because, like, there’s not formal statements saying what contributors and what 1099 workers can or cannot say, right? When you go say, “Hey, where’s the line? Like, what is political speech, and what is a statement of fact?” like, it’s very hard to get a clear answer on that.
So, I signed the letter. This was the second letter I signed. I signed an earlier letter regarding the paper’s coverage of trans issues, and I was reprimanded for that. And they said, “Well, you know, you can’t sign this letter because it singled out the work of other writers specifically within the institution.” And I said to that, “Well, I don’t work here, so I don’t know what you’re talking to me about.” And basically, I signed this letter and resigned shortly after, because I felt a reprimand was coming, which Jazmine’s situation, on some level, seems to have borne out.
But the biggest frustration, I think, from the labor perspective is that when you asked, “What are the guidelines? Where are the hard boundaries of what kind of speech is acceptable for a Times contributor or not?” there’s no written guidelines. People will tell you vague things on the phone, like my editor did, such as, like, “Well, you can attend street protests and post on social media, but don’t make a big thing about it,” right? So, like, to me, it’s a little bit of a question of, like: Are there clear rules about this? What types of objectivity are we maintaining to be, like, the requirement for doing this job? And then it’s incumbent upon me to accept or reject those things or not. But as long as it’s this vague triangulation about, like, “Well, you know, there’s kind of just a vibe about what types of speech are OK,” like, I just, as someone that’s, like, trying to do intellectually honest work and be in pursuit of truth in some sense, whether or not a totally objective position is possible, I think it’s really important, especially as the industry becomes more and more centered on people who do this kind of 1099 contingent work, to have clear guidelines for what is expected of journalists who are doing this work.
AMY GOODMAN: Jamie, I was wondering your response, and if you were a part of the protest last week — it was just after Jazmine had resigned — the large group of media workers who led a march to The New York Times and later occupied the paper’s building entrance for over an hour, denouncing what demonstrators called biased reporting toward Israel. Protesters read the names at the time of at least 36 journalists — it’s now over 40 journalists — killed by Israeli fire in Gaza — it’s 40 altogether, also involving Lebanon — and distributed mock newspapers with the words “The New York Crimes,” accusing the Times with complicity in laundering genocide. Also, people like Nan Rubin [sic] announced that — rather, Nan Goldin announced that she would end her project, her collaboration with The New York Times, the well-known artist. Jamie, your thoughts?
JAMIE LAUREN KEILES: Yeah. So, I did attend the outside march in support of the action that was led by Writers Against the War on Gaza, which is the group that produced the letter that Jazmine and I both signed.
I don’t necessarily think my anger is focused specifically on The New York Times, because, like, while they are indicative of a broader problem with the industry, I think this is like an industrywide question, right? So, like, the Times, as like one of the — the, quote-unquote, “paper of record,” becomes the center of this conversation, but, like, it’s by no means exclusive to the Times. And, like, my particular employment situation there really is like not that critical when we think about the broader issue, right?
To me, the media questions around it — right? — it’s like critical thinking skills that journalists would be expected to apply to any other situation — right? — and stuff like providing historical context or thinking about, like, the semantics of power within certain language that’s chosen, even things like the Times naming their vertical the “Israel-Hamas war” versus perhaps like the “Israel-Palestine war” or the “Israel-Gaza war,” right? There are all these choices that are being made, things like — I was really, really disheartened to see the CNN embed with the IDF, right? Like, there are all these ideas about, like, journalistic objectivity, but then, when it actually comes down to the level of like news being produced, things we would expect of news coverage on any other topic are totally being forgotten here. And I just think, like, any attempts to silence journalist pushback to this seems to me to be like, in some way, an endorsement of Israel’s actions, right? So, like, all I think that — but beyond a ceasefire, which is my personal demand, as far as an industry demand, all I’m asking for is fair, fair, reasonable coverage that you would expect of any other topic.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us in this first broadcast interview you’ve done. Jamie Lauren Keiles resigned from The New York Times Magazine, as did Jazmine Hughes. Jamie Lauren Keiles is a contributor, and Jazmine is — was a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine.
Next up, we look at how the United States and other nations are helping to arm Israel in its assault on Gaza. We’ll speak with Antony Loewenstein, author of The Palestine Laboratory. Stay with us.