To highlight a story about the return of dangerous, pre-crash practices to the housing market, Bloomberg Businessweek decided to publish a cover that didn’t just blame consumers rather than lenders for the rise of subprime lending and the treatment of mortgages as a way to get access to cash, but specifically portrayed consumers of color (and female consumers) for engaging in this behavior:
It’s awful as art, and as Ryan Chittum explains in a great piece at the Columbia Journalism Review, awful as journalism. “The narrative of the crash on the right has been the blame-minority-borrowers line, sometimes via dog whistle, often via bullhorn,” he writes. “Minority borrowers were disproportionately victimized in the bubble. But BusinessWeek here has them on the cover bathing in housing-ATM cash, implying that they’re going to create another bubble.”
Predictably, Bloomberg Businessweek editor Josh Tyrangiel has apologized in a statement to Politico, saying “”Our cover illustration last week got strong reactions, which we regret. Our intention was not to incite or offend. If we had to do it over again we’d do it differently.” It’s appropriate that they’ve apologized. But I’m fundamentally dissatisfied with these sorts of apologies, because they neither explain how the offending incident came to pass in the first place, nor the practices an organization will employ to make sure they don’t repeat the same errors in the future.
Does Bloomberg Businessweek have people of color or women on its design staff, who could be among the first people to filter out ideas that they’ll later present to the editors? And if they don’t, are the white people designing the magazine soliciting input from staffers of color, or from reporters who might be knowledgeable about the racial dynamics of an issue that’s turning into a cover story? Are there people of color on the editorial team that’s responsible from picking among the cover options? And if not, are the people in that position going to people who can give them a gut check? If neither of these things is happening, why not? What are the internal editorial standards regarding cartoons, caricature, and race? If those don’t exist, why don’t they? If Tyrangiel wants to answer these questions, I’m more inclined to listen. If you want to walk a line and publish edgy covers, you have a particular obligation to think about where the line is. And if you want forgiveness, you need to actually look at yourself and your practices in a systemic way.
Yglesias gets an explanation of where the image came from: “To go with the story they commissioned an illustration from a Peruvian illustrator who, in a missive that Businessweek shared with me, explains ‘I simply drew the family like that because those are the kind of families I know. I am Latino and grew up around plenty of mixed families.’ That’s understandable enough as far as it goes. Obviously, though, as Businessweek well knows someone else on the staff should have been able to see how this was going to look in the US context.” Agreed on the illustrator’s part. But this still seems like a failure of editorial process.