Andy Mills' Late Resignation Was Long-Overdue
A prime example on the pitfalls of prestige and clout in the media.
There are few stories that quite capture the immense privilege some command in the media as Andy Mills’ unceremonious resignation from the New York Times. It’s illustrative of how the most powerful currency in media isn’t journalistic rigor or even an aspiration to change the world for the better, but rather a primal reliance on much clout amassed to silence critique, or worse yet get away with abuse.
Having cut his teeth at the New York radio scene for years before becoming a producer for the NYT in 2016, Mills’ defining moment was the production of the podcast Caliphate for the paper of record, which after the shocking discovery that its main character had fabricated the events, returned a Peabody Award it had won for the hit series back in 2018. The latter unfolded over Christmas with the NYT thinking the worst was behind them, but as scrutiny mounted over Mills’ past abusive behavior, the producer seemingly deemed his best way out to ditch his job at the paper.
What’s most egregious about Mills’ case isn’t the amount of harm done — it isn’t inconceivable for him to overcome past faults and aspire to do better — but for many of who have been on the other side of his unkempt hubris, there has been the realization that they couldn’t get away with half of what Mills has done without being completely outcast from the radio scene altogether.
This isn’t a first for the media–the story of high-profile individuals recently has been the inherently-corrupting nature of power; a zeal that if not kept under check, could very well pose peril to culprits and victims alike. Mills had fallen ill to the woes of great overnight success — much of it with little warrant — and the combination of his clout alongside the archetype of a successful figure in media — unmistakably white, often male and straight — lead to his undoing.
If Mills’ resignation letter wasn’t quite as asinine as Bari Weiss’ before it (albeit for less editorially-contentious reasons), it still comprises the hallmarks of what seeks empathy, but doesn’t exactly do enough to earn it. He speaks in it about his small-town roots and a slow but steady rise from the ranks of typical proletariat well into the elite of the podcast production scene–needless to say however, Mills downplays much of what he had been accused of in producing Caliphate, while also casting a similar epistemic fog on his scandal-ridden stint at WNYC. To put it lightly, Mills seems to not have taken the lessons of his criticisms in stride, painting them as anomalies in an otherwise uneventful career–the particularly keen will correctly remark however that Mills was allowed to co-create one of the most popular podcasts in the US in The Daily, even as his past at WNYC was still under question, later allowed to ride the high of a successful production which turned out to be but completely fabricated drivel.
Kelsey Padgett @KelsPadgeSpecificity is powerful! So here's a bit from me. Andy Mills told coworkers and others in radio/podcasting that I was hired not because I was qualified, but because I was a woman. https://t.co/T7VLnUrCjX
Opportunities to create impactful pieces of media don’t arise much, and it’s been a particular hit to indie podcast producers who are rarely afforded that opportunity to realize that even in the presence of great vigilance regarding their own personal conduct, an abuser with a passable enough figure could sweep right in and claim all the spoils for themselves. This is something that even I have to confront as a small blogger who has to watch those who disrespect the craft gain more than those who immensely revere it. In a world where there’s wide distrust in media and ever-rampant dis-and-misinformation, it’s crucial to give our audiences peace of mind that what we’re creating hasn’t a shred of journalistic malpractice in it; otherwise, why would they be inclined to hear what we have to say?
The issue that Mills is exemplary of however, isn’t unique to his medium, or even the organization he works at–it’s an issue spanning the entirety of media, and we’ve yet to scratch the surface of what it would spell for our information ecosystem if we were to seriously tackle it. Some might caution the sudden disruption of such a delicate industry — one that has been hit particularly hard by plummeting ad revenue on the heels of much economic uncertainty — but for every single abuser that the industry coddles, there’s a hundred more willing to do their job, and likely a whole lot more qualified. The myth of meritocracy is only that: a myth; and the sooner we collectively internalize it, the healthier an ecosystem the media will be.
To be a good journalist isn’t just about abiding an arbitrarily-set code of ethics–it’s about recognizing that the intimacy and investment one has in their stories carries with itself major responsibility; and if they cannot be entrusted with it, then they shouldn’t have it. “[Journalistic malpractice and rampant harassment] are intrinsically connected,” says Flash Forward host and producer Rose Eveleth. “The inability to consider a version of the world in which you’re wrong. The complete disregard for a story that doesn’t match your narrative. The lying. The bravado. The complete lack of introspection. It’s bad to hire serial harassers not just because they’re a liability and they hurt people in your workplace. It’s also bad to hire them because they’re sort of inherently bad at the work of journalism: asking yourself hard questions about whether you’re right about something.”
Criticisms of Mills (mine included) come with a heavy cost–they’re to some an indication that you’re not so willing to swallow the pill of mistreatment, even if it meant furthering your professional prospects. Dangling the promise of prestige (and sometimes a hefty salary) despite much pain in its attainment is often used as a way to subdue, but abusers are remiss to think this would be everlasting–with avenues for independent work plentiful, and a sharper focus cast on the issues plaguing media today, it’s only a matter of time before the status quo is no more. How long will that transition take depends entirely on us and how much scrutiny we’re willing to put through our harshest subjects of criticism, so may it not waver in the face of much-predictable backlash.