Two years ago, Axios, a unique media company based in Washington, D.C., said it “supported and encouraged” employees to hit the streets in protest after police murdered George Floyd, even promising to bail them out of jail if they got arrested.
“We proudly support and encourage you to exercise your rights to free speech, press, and protest,” Axios told staff in June 2020. “If you’re arrested or meet harm while exercising these rights, Axios will stand behind you and use the Family Fund to cover your bail or assist with medical bills.”
It was recognized as a break from traditional media policy that asks journalists to prioritize stilted versions of objectivity over their right to protest, their wellbeing, and the wellbeing of their fellow citizens. And as newsrooms reckoned with how traditional notions of journalism served to inculcate the status quo, Axios’s statement was seen as progress.
“We trust our colleagues to do the right thing, and stand firmly behind them should they decide to exercise their constitutional right to free speech,” Axios founder Jim VandeHei said at the time.
Two years later, Axios appears to have licked its finger, stuck it in the air, and decided that protest is no longer the vibe. In a Monday memo to staff, the subject line of which was “This is hard [heart emoji],” Axios told employees the company did not support anyone joining protests related to abortion.
“Several have asked why we permitted people to attend protests after the George Floyd murder but discourage it for or against abortion,” the memo said. “First, some context for those not here at the time: What we said was that we would stand behind anyone calling for racial justice & equality. This was before specific policy solutions were being debated. It was a fleeting moment of unity.”
This makes no sense. Defector spoke with several Axios employees who said as much, but were scared of losing their jobs by speaking about the memo publicly. One employee indicated that they found the memo to be discouraging not only because it rolled back what they saw as a fair and progressive policy, but because it betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of what the racial justice protests of 2020 were about. The actions of those who joined those protests were always inherently political. For Axios to diminish that movement as a “fleeting moment of unity” in an attempt to weasel out of a commitment to supporting their employees’ rights to exercise their full citizenship is just as pathetic as it is insulting.
Defector obtained the memo, written by VandeHei, Axios Editor-in-Chief Sara Goo, and Axios human resources head Dominique Taylor. It reads in full:
The funniest part of this embarrassment is that the memo is written in Axios’s lobotomized house style. The company’s professed belief that their dumbed-down format is the best way to cover the news and communicate the essential information of a story does therefore imply that all their internal memos should also be formatted that way; they couldn’t type this memo up in a normal human way without implicitly repudiating their own highly weird way of talking to readers.
The least funny part of this is what it means for Axios employees. Will they be fired for exercising their right to protest? Why were employees trusted to march in 2020 without “trumpeting policy in public” but not now? Is Axios’s position really that the racial justice protests in the summer of 2020 were apolitical? What about Axios employees who live in states where abortion is set to be banned? Will Axios’s “Family Fund,” which was previously made available to cover bail costs for anyone who got arrested while protesting, be used to cover costs associated with traveling to get an abortion in another state?
I put this last question to Axios flacks. They viewed my email, sent last night, 34 times as of publishing this post but did not answer. I’ll update if I hear back.