Slate Podcast Host Mike Pesca Suspended Following Internal Discussion About Use Of Racial Slur
5:14 PM EST on February 22, 2021
Mike Pesca, host of Slate’s daily podcast, The Gist, has been suspended from the company indefinitely, according to an internal memo sent to staffers late last night that has been obtained by Defector. Sources confirmed that Pesca’s indefinite suspension is without pay, and that his access to company Slack and email channels has been revoked. The memo announcing Pesca’s suspension, sent by Slate CEO Dan Check, refers obliquely to a “conversation that took place in Slack last week” and states, “We can only do our best work when all employees feel heard, respected, and fully able to do our jobs.” Defector has obtained images of the Slack conversation that Check’s memo refers to, in which Pesca argues a point that he has previously gotten into hot water for arguing: that in some contexts, white people should be allowed to say the n-word.
The inciting incident occurred last Monday, Feb. 15. In a Slack channel dedicated to discussions of media industry news, a Slate employee shared a New York Times story about Donald G. McNeil’s departure from the paper. According to the Times’s own reporting, McNeil said the n-word “in the context of a conversation about racist language” while chaperoning high school students on a 2019 trip to Peru. The Times knew about the incident in 2019, at which point McNeil was formally disciplined. After The Daily Beast reported on the trip last week, McNeil left the paper.
Several Slate staff members told Defector that they believed the McNeil story was an appropriate topic of conversation for that particular Slack channel, but did not appreciate how the conversation became about whether or not white people should be allowed to say the n-word in certain contexts. The conversation, which took place over several hours, began with Slate staffers who were not black, including Pesca, politely arguing about whether McNeil’s conduct on the 2019 trip was worthy of disciplinary action. Pesca argued that “McNeil’s journalism made the Times more valuable to more Americans than having ousted him in 2019 would have.” After several of his colleagues pushed back on his point, Pesca wrote, “My points are his internal conduct was in a grey area, you guys don’t think it was.”
After some more polite back-and-forth with his colleagues, Pesca wrote: “Here’s my position. Expressing the views, not the word, the views he did on that trip are not fire-able. Worthy of a talking to or a ‘what are you doing as a representative of the Times Don?’ But nothing requirement much angst among management or staff? Or no? - should the Times discipline staffers who question the idea of White Supremacy or who express retrograde ideas on mass incarceration?”
Pesca went on in a subsequent message: “The question is: Is an out loud utterance of that word, in a work environment, fire-able, censurable, etc… Even as a point of clarification to a question exactly about the use of that word. I thought not necessarily. I agreed with John McWhorter. But that’s (notice the date) 2019 thinking. McNeil was originally disciplined in 2019. Just a little while later society seems to have rendered a different verdict.”
A few minutes later, Rachelle Hampton, a black staff writer, joined the conversation and wrote, “Feel like it’s weird that everyone’s dancing around the point that working in an environment where white people feel empowered to say the n-word in service of whatever argument they want to make is incredibly hostile for black people.”
The conversation continued sporadically for a few more hours before Pesca made his final point: “I don't think it's proper to use it in casual conversation and I'm in no position to tell Black NY Times workers that they shouldn't be worried it's going to pop out of a colleague's mouth at some point. If you want my opinion it’s that there are some limited reasons why a non African American journalist or professor to use the word when conveying a quote in the name of clarity or factualness […] But it's not a comfortable point to even pursue right now. If I had the opposite opinion I know a hundred ways I could make the opinion I actually have seem horrible and racist, and you know what, maybe it is.”
Later, Check chimed in to say the conversation should be stopped “not because this topic is unimportant -- but precisely because it is very important.”
“I feel outraged,” a Slate staffer told me when asked about Pesca’s participation in the conversation. “I cannot believe I had to watch him enthusiastically provoke people on whether or not it is appropriate to use a racist slur.” Other Slate staffers that spoke to Defector expressed frustration and anger at Pesca’s insistence on having that particular conversation. “I don’t want to be in a workplace where people feel emboldened to have this argument. People’s humanity is not an intellectual debate,” one said.
On Tuesday, at 5:12 p.m. EDT, a full day and half after Check’s comment, Slate Editor-in-Chief Jared Hohlt posted a message in Slack saying that he did not ever want to see a similar argument in Slack again. “While we are a workplace where people argue about things all the time, it’s also a workplace where we must think very hard about the lived experience of colleagues whose experience is different than ours,” Hohlt wrote. Then on Friday, during a weekly all-edit meeting, Hohlt announced that Pesca would be suspended for a week. When asked why Pesca’s suspension was upgraded from one week to indefinite in the time between that meeting and Check’s memo on Sunday, the company said that following the Friday staff meeting, “we moved to take additional action, which is the indefinite suspension pending the outcome of an investigation.” According to several employees who attended that meeting, Hohlt said that if Pesca had used the n-word during the conversation on Monday, he “definitely would have been fired.”
“I felt like I was losing my mind when [Hohlt] said that,” a Slate staffer told Defector. “I think my jaw actually dropped.”
That staffer’s shock was due to something that many people already knew: that twice in 2019, Pesca had actually said the n-word at work. During the Friday meeting, staffers shared details about Pesca’s previous use of the word. “I had no idea about either earlier incident,” a staffer told me, “but when I went back and read what [Pesca] said on Monday it’s just so, so clear he’s talking about himself, not McNeil.”
In 2019, multiple current and former Slate staffers told me, Pesca said the n-word at the company office on two separate occasions. The first incident happened during the reporting of a story. The company was working on a package titled “The Wokeness Divide,” which was ultimately abandoned. Christina Cauterucci was working on a story about the divide in newsrooms, and as part of her reporting interviewed many members of her own company. Sometime in the early spring, she interviewed Pesca. In that interview, presumably as an example of how he differed in viewpoint from his more liberal colleagues, Pesca brought up the same argument about whether or not white people, in some contexts for clarity, should be allowed to use the n-word. Pesca used the actual word during this conversation, and Cauterucci, according to multiple sources, pushed back, asking him if he would have used that word in front of a black colleague. “Maybe,” he said back to her.
Cauterucci, later in the year, filed that story with this anecdote included. According to multiple sources, editors at Slate removed the anecdote. But Cauterucci fought for it to stay in the story. The draft was still going back and forth in edits in the fall of 2019, when Pesca used the word at work again.
This time, he was recording his podcast, The Gist, and used the n-word while once again talking about certain contexts in which it would be appropriate for a white person to say the racist slur. The employee who was producing that episode of The Gist was black, and elevated her concern about the segment to Slate editors. According to multiple sources, the segment never ran, and Pesca re-recorded it. The incident, multiple sources have confirmed, was raised as an HR complaint, and was apparently investigated. Some staffers believe that the HR complaint was raised all the way up to Slate’s parent company, The Graham Holdings Company. A spokesperson for Slate told Defector that the company would not comment on personnel matters, but did say that if any HR complaint was filed, senior editorial staff members would have been made aware of it.
Pesca’s use of the n-word in professional settings goes back even further. In June 2006, he reported a segment for NPR titled “When is the ‘N-Word’ Not a Racial Slur?” in which he used the slur. In February 2007, he recorded a segment for NPR titled “NYC Official Wants N-Word Ban,” in which he yet again used the slur.
Following the 2019 incidents, Slate management sent an email to podcast hosts and producers announcing a new “sensitive language” policy that ended with the statement, “Slate trusts you to use good judgement and to be responsible for what gets said on your show.” An all-hands meeting was also called to discuss the new policies, but at no point during the meeting, according to staffers who were there, did management clarify why it was taking place. At that meeting, multiple sources confirmed, Pesca raised the argument again, this time pointing out that another Slate podcast, Slow Burn, had recently said the n-word on their podcast. At that time, the most recent season of Slow Burn was about Biggie and Tupac and was hosted by Joel Anderson, a black reporter. Sources in that meeting said the producers of the Slow Burn team “seemed blindsided and confused,” and that they “kept looking at management waiting for an intervention that never came.” Many staffers noted that in 2019 there were no black employees in Slate’s top management, and only one person of color.
“It is very hard for us to really understand what the punishment was in 2019 and what the level of reprimand was,” a Slate staffer said.
More generally, Slate staffers spoke to Defector about what they deemed to be a cultural problem that allowed Pesca to feel empowered enough to say these things in the first place. Some pointed out that when a black producer was hired to work with Pesca on The Gist, she left the company after three months. Others referenced times Pesca had made flippant comments about non-binary pronouns.
“Mike Pesca is really the only one causing these kinds of conflicts,” a staffer told me. “We have other staffers who hold opinions that are unpopular at Slate, but they are not provoking their colleagues in a harassment-worthy way.”
Defector reached out to Pesca to ask him if he had any comment on his suspension or the events that led up to it. In response to a list of 11 questions, Pesca wrote in a Twitter direct message: "I have been told by Slate not to discuss this publicly. I'm in a bind because these allegations could cause great reputational damage and they are very misleading and often inaccurate. All I can do is call on Slate to release the full Slack conversation so people can read my words and not hear second hand descriptions of motivations others have assigned to me."
In response to questions about whether he had ever made flippant comments about non-binary pronouns or responded "maybe" when asked by Cauterucci if he would have used the n-word in front of a black person, Pesca wrote: "As far as the other allegation I would very much like the opportunity to respond and discuss but this is not the right forum."
In response to questions about Pesca's suspension, Katie Rayford, Slate’s director of media relations, said, "While we cannot discuss specific personnel matters, we are committed to fostering a safe, inclusive and respectful environment for all employees. And we can only do our best work when all employees feel heard, respected and motivated to do their jobs.” But Slate employees told me they weren’t just worried about Pesca. They were worried about the culture that allowed him to feel bold enough to say these things.
“There are people who enable him to be who he is at work,” one staffer told me. “The problem isn’t simply that Mike Pesca is intellectually lazy and racist. The biggest problem is that he is accountable to no one.”