The Wokest News Stories of 2020

When editors in 2020 weren't being fired in bunches, they were taking aim at everything from Beethoven to mermaids to skyscrapers

The year 2020 will be remembered in the real world for a terrifying pandemic, mass unemployment, a nationwide protest movement, and a historically uninspiring presidential race. The year in media, meanwhile, was marked by grotesque factual scandals, journalist-cheered censorship, and an accelerating newsroom mania for political groupthink that was equal parts frightening and ridiculous.

The tiniest violations of perceived orthodoxies cost jobs. Reporters and editors were whacked en masse in uprisings at the New York Timesthe Philadelphia Inquirerthe Wall Street JournalVox, the Miami Heraldand countless other places.

Some of the purges were themselves amazing news stories. A contractor named Sue Schafer was fired after the Washington Post published a 3,000-word expose about a two-year-old incident in which she attended a Halloween party dressed as Megyn Kelly, who herself had been fired from NBC for defending blackface costumes. Schafer, in other words, was fired for dressing in blackface as a satire of blackface costumes, in an incident no one heard of until the Post decided to make an issue of it. This was one example of what the New Yorker recently exulted as the “expensive and laborious” process of investigative journalism, as practiced in 2020.

Raymond Chandler once said that when he ran out of ideas, he just had a character burst into a room with a gun. 2020 op-ed writers in the same predicament could insert random nouns into a MadLibs template: “Is _____ Racist?” Everything from knitting to Jesus to women to botanical gardens to dieting to mermaids to  Scrabble and perhaps a hundred other things made the cut, to the point where it became a bottomless running gag for inevitable cancel targets like the satirical Twitter personality, “Titania McGrath.”

A few of these stories were interesting, but most were indistinguishable from pieces in the Onion, whose satires of media have been rapidly gaining on reality for years, the gap tightening to less than a year in 2020 (see the 2019 Onion piece, “Man’s Existential Terror About Country’s Slide Towards Authoritarianism Sublimated Into Campaign To Get Journalist Fired For Tweet”).

If in looking at the following list it strikes you to wonder, “Where were the editors?”, it turns out an atmosphere in which even senior New York Times bosses have to be afraid of staff is almost like having no editors at all! Given their importance in preventing the scourge of what the New Yorker called “journalistic individualism,” i.e. reporters allowed to operate outside the “collective interest,” this was really too bad. In honor, then, of that sacred covenant between writers and editors — well, the ones not purged, reassigned, or forced out this year — here’s a shortlist of the most remarkable (and presumably edited) articles of 2020, the year of the woke headline:

16. Fast Company, June 15: “5 thoughtful ways to approach discussing racism at work.”

After the murder of George Floyd on May 25, offering white readers literary guidance on how to suppress their inner conquistador in diverse company became an extremely popular genre, both in books like smash #1 bestsellers White Fragility and Antiracist Babyand in press treatments like this Fast Company piece. The latter contained the following advice:

DO BE MINDFUL OF OPENING UP MEETINGS AND INTERACTIONS WITH QUESTIONS LIKE “HOW ARE YOU?” OR “HOW WAS YOUR WEEKEND?” Recognize that by doing so, you can potentially be re-triggering what your Black colleagues are experiencing or dismissing their experience by pretending all is normal. It’s not and hasn’t been for a long time.

Don’t ask “How are you?” Just assume the answer is, Same as it’s been for 400 years, jackass, and keep walking to your cubicle. Welcome to 2020!

15. Deadspin, June 22: “We’ve Lived with 'The Masters' Name Long Enough.”

2020 was a big year in renaming. The Washington Redskins and Cleveland Indians monikers, recognized as offensive decades ago, were finally tossed in the dustbin of history. Infamous Republican Louis Gohmert, offended on behalf of removed Confederate symbols, tried to woke-trap the Democratic Party by introducing a bill demanding it change its name, given its genuinely racist history and “ties to slavery.” That was a nice try! Gohmert managed to squeeze a sympathetic quote or two out of a few Democratic members, but the gambit otherwise stalled for lack of coverage.

Then there was the idea floated on Deadspin by sports legend Rob Parker — the man Fox hired to make sure they had someone on staff to out-meathead Skip Bayless in a pinch — who said it was time for “The Masters” golf tournament to change its name. “When you hear anyone say the Masters,” he wrote, “you think of slave masters in the South.” Did it matter that “The Masters” was named for people who’d mastered their craft, much like Master titles in chess, or Masters tournaments in tennisping-pongangling, and dozens of other pursuits? Of course not! As Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf noted, when deciding this past summer to pursue a hate crime investigation against a Black man named Victor Sengbe for hanging tree swings she said looked like nooses (they didn’t look like nooses), “Intentions don’t matter.” Or, as Parker put it, “When has anyone mastered golf?”

Parker might have been outdone by a British petition to rename the actually white White Cliffs of Dover, the old name being a “microaggression against people whom 'white' does not describe,” but it appears that campaign was one of 2020’s many not instantly discernible satires.

14. San Francisco Chronicle, September 8: “Wine’s diversity starts with the way we talk about the taste of wine.”

Is wine exclusionary because its “vocabulary… is nearly exclusively rooted in flavors and aromas common to Western Europe”? A Blanc de Blancs, the Chronicle noted, tastes like Brioche, while inky Cabernet sauvignons recall cassis, “a flavor of ripe, black currants.” Meanwhile, “Grenache blends have the distinctive taste of garrigue — a specific blend of herbs like lavender and sage that grow near the Mediterranean coast.” In other words, French wine culture comes from France. One of many entrants in the “rethinking enjoyable benevolent things” genre perfected in the next entry:

13. Vox, September 16: “How Beethoven’s 5th Symphony put the classism in classical music.”

You may have thought Beethoven’s famous DUN-DUN-DUN-DUN symphony was an inspiring metaphor for the composer’s resilience in the face of incipient deafness, but Vox had a different take. “For some in other groups — women, LGBTQ+ people, people of color,” they wrote, “Beethoven’s symphony may be predominantly a reminder of classical music’s history of exclusion and elitism.” The site went on:

One New York City classical music fan wrote in the 1840s, for example, that he wished “all women shall be gagged by officers duly licensed for the purpose before they’re allowed to enter a concert room.”

What did the above have to do with Beethoven in particular? Good question! Before Beethoven, Vox explained, musical audiences clapped and even called for encores in Italian mid-performance. But “after Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony debuted in the early 1800s, these norms changed.” It seems Beethoven’s music needed to be listened to carefully to be fully appreciated, hence the no-clapping thing. This coincided with other forms of etiquette (like bans on coughing and dress codes) that persist today and “can feel as much about demonstrating belonging as appreciating the music.”

In sum, Beethoven’s music was so beautiful that people decided to be quiet to appreciate it more, while things having nothing to do with Beethoven that happened later made classical music kind of affected and classist in other ways. Therefore, Vox concluded, Beethoven’s 5th symphony in particular is a symbol of the “‘wall’ between classical music and new, diverse audiences,” even though it’s the only classical music piece to be popularized via a modern pop/disco hit that reached #1 on the Billboard 100 and sold 750,000 copies.

12. Refinery29, January 21, “The Dangerous Rise Of Men Who Won’t Date ‘Woke’ Women.”

The actor Laurence Fox must be a much bigger deal in Britain than we could ever understand in America, because numerous pieces were written denouncing his odious views. Vice, as usual a proud leader in the production of woke-clickbait, wrote a blistering feature about Fox as the spiritual head of the “‘Warrior Toff’s’ War on Wokeness,” noting that British men like him “are built for war, for the high seas, for the stage, for death and glory” and “once upon a time… could have sent a thousand Geordies over the top.” In the era of drones and diversity initiatives, however, all that’s left to such men is “reactionary statements,” like for instance Fox’s vicious January revelation that he does not “date woke women.”

Funny? Stupid? Meaningless? None of the above, wrote Vicky Spratt of Refinery29, one of the many sites on this list to have an editor croaked in a staff uprising (Christine Barberich was ousted for fostering a culture where “white women’s egos ruled the near non-existent editorial processes”). Spratt’s diagnosis of Fox was simple: “Dangerous.” Fox, she wrote, was using his platform to “legitimize a bigger backlash against diversity and progress,” which Spratt personally saw manifested in men on dating apps, who wrote things like “no psychos” and “I fucking hate big eyebrows.” The problem didn’t “stop at dating,” though, as Spratt went on to note that every now and then, such bile “spills out dangerously into the offline world”:

In 2016 the Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered by far-right terrorist Thomas Mair…And it was 8chan that hosted the manifestos of three mass shooters who killed scores of people last year: the El Paso shooter (who left 20 people dead and many more wounded only a couple of weeks ago), the Poway shooter (who opened fire at a synagogue in California last April) and the Christchurch shooter (who killed 51 people at two mosques in New Zealand last March).

It starts with not dating woke women. but ends with murdering 51 people! Incidentally, the “Celebrity Sparks Backlash By Doing Mildly Annoying Thing No One Outside Twitter Noticed” was another popular 2020 trope, with a recent story about Jennifer Aniston’s unconscionable decision to post a picture of an “Our First Pandemic” Christmas ornament being just one of many space-eating examples.

11. Time, December 15: “Co-Founding the ACLU, Fighting for Labor Rights and Other Helen Keller Accomplishments Students Don't Learn in School.”

Time wanted to point out Helen Keller’s “forgotten” past as a Socialist who co-founded the ACLU (well, forgotten since 2015, when “Helen Keller’s Forgotten Radicalism” was first made the subject of a Time story), an innocuous enough pursuit that nonetheless led to this money quote:

However, to some Black disability rights activists, like Anita Cameron, Helen Keller is not radical at all, “just another, despite disabilities, privileged white person,” and yet another example of history telling the story of privileged white Americans. 

It doesn’t get more 2020 than “Helen Keller, Child of Privilege,” though there were many contenders:

10. Vice, August 13: “Dear White Vegans: Stop Appropriating Food.”

Vice, indignant again, denounced white vegans who tout “recipes… that rely on racial stereotypes,” like “African peanut stew.” (Or is it just a recipe from Africa?) The site noted that if you do a Google search on vegans or vegetarianism, you sometimes have to go all the way to the second page to find a nonwhite vegan. “The problem is few people think to go to the second page of Google results,” a board member of the Toronto Vegetarians Association lamented.

The story denounced these crimes in a jargon-packed rhetorical crescendo:

In this post-Floyd world of racial reckonings, many vegans are starting to look inwards at their own privilege. White vegan influencers are urging people to follow BIPOC accounts as part of the #AmplifyMelanatedVoices campaign, while racialized vegans who have amassed large followings continue to post about Floyd and Breonna Taylor. 

Vice three years ago did a story asking “Why So Many White Supremacists Are Into Veganism?” reminding us that Hitler didn’t eat meat. This newer story, though, is not about Hitler so much as “white ladies who do yoga,” who were presented as “gatekeepers of the vegan movement.” The latter theme was another 2020 trend:

9. New York Times, June 29: “A White Gatekeeper of Southern Food Faces Calls to Resign.”

A popular assignment this year was the “We Interviewed Some People With Indignant Complaints About a Boss-Like Person” think piece, an exemplar being this really long New York Times article about people who think a man named John T. Edge needs to step down as head of the Southern Foodways Alliance. After a career celebrating “African-American, indigenous, and immigrant cooks,” opening doors for “countless writers,” and helping rebuild a Black-owned restaurant in New Orleans after Katrina, it was time for Edge to concede he held “too much power” in heading a nine-employee organization, because as a 57-year-old white man, Edge represented — this was written in the middle of the summer protests — a “statue that needs to come down”:

There are no homophobic texts or reports of sexual harassment. By many accounts, the work around the intersection of race and food that Mr. Edge, 57, has spent 20 years attending to has been crucial.

A chorus of voices is rising, though. Mr. Edge, they say, is a statue that needs to come down.

“I view him as a dear friend and a close ally, but principles don’t mean anything until they cost you something,” said the author Lolis Eric Elie, 57, a founder of the organization who has also written for The New York Times. 

8. The Conversation, August 16: “How Hollywood’s ‘Alien’ and ‘Predator’ movies reinforce anti-Black racism.”

The unwritten rule during the summer of historic anti-police protests was that commercial media analyses about racism had to invoke George Floyd by the third paragraph. This Conversation article took a bit longer, but that was only because the thesis was more ambitious, tying the killings of Floyd and Breonna Taylor, respectively, to Predator and Alien. The essay connected George Bush’s conquest of Mike Dukakis in 1988 to the hypersexualized representation of a dreadlocked jungle alien in the famed Schwarzenegger flick, while connecting slavery, Dick Nixon’s Southern Strategy, the myth of the Welfare Queen, and the scourge of no-knock warrants to “Ridley Scott’s Alien franchise, with its vicious and endlessly breeding carbon black alien mother.” That film, the piece noted, “came at the height of neoliberal experiment and in the U.S. especially, an all-out assault on Black people.” (The British Scott made Alien in 1979).

Hollywood obviously does play on racialized horror tropes, and though it also makes outstanding monsters out of unmarried white women (Fatal Attraction), naked German dudes (The Terminator), models (Species), Tony Shalhoub, and pretty much anyone or anything else they can think of, it does raise questions that the supposed big joke in Ghostbusters was that civilization could be threatened by the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. Furious dissections of film and TV content were increasingly common:

7. Yahoo! News, December 26: “Pixar's 'Soul' is getting rave reviews, but it left me cringing up until the very last minute.”

Policing of “whitewashing” casting decisions has been popular in op-ed pages for a while now (the Internet exploded when it was discovered Julia Roberts had been floated to play Harriet Tubman). Pixar’s first movie featuring a Black lead brought the phenomenon to animated films, when a cartoon named Joe Garnder voiced by Jamie Foxx was invaded by the inner voice of Tina Fey (the same Tina Fey, Yahoo! reminded us indignantly, who was forced to pull episodes of 30 Rock that featured blackface!). “The movie should have leaned into Joe and his family instead of using a ‘soul,’ voiced by a white actress, to help him on his journey,” Yahoo! complained. The casting was described as so problematic that it “nearly became a white-savior movie,” making it fully Blind Side-adjacent, in case you didn’t know what that means (you’re supposed to).

6. ABC.com, July 1: “America's national parks face existential crisis over race.”

A consistent feature of post-Floyd features about racism was to present as crises or conspiracies things that had at least partially banal explanations, which often appeared buried somewhere near the bottom of the text. The actual story in this ABC exposé could have been that the spiritual and mental health benefits of visiting America’s national park system ought to be shared more broadly with Black and Hispanic Americans especially, who, we learn quite late in a piece that first extensively hints at more insidious explanations, cited “lack of transportation… and the cost of visiting” as the main reasons they didn’t visit more.

Before getting there, ABC railed against the “systemic racism” of America’s “Great White Outdoors” in decrying the fact that only 23% of park visitors are people of color, as opposed to 42% of the population. In search of an explanation for this “existential crisis” that “threatens parks’ survival” (how?), ABC observed that much of the park system was built during the Jim Crow era, and noted unironically that “some figures close to the conservation movement like Madison Grant, who founded organizations like the Bronx Zoo, espoused actively racist ideologies.”

5. Globe and Mail, September 5: “Is it time to decolonize your lawn?”

Canadians have long led Americans in their willingness to ritualistically self-denounce, a phenomenon that seems to be part patriotism (see how much quicker we are to be ashamed of ourselves than our southern neighbors!) and part inherent national instinct toward apology. The Globe and Mail asked Canadians to self-flagellate both for harming the environment and for importing a culture of manicured lawns that violates indigenous ideas about gardening, or rather, not-gardening. “What is a lawn but a statement of control over nature?” asked Canadian professor John Douglas.

As the happy occupant of a home surrounded by overgrowth, I wouldn’t be surprised if the authors are right when they wonder if people will someday look back at lawns the way we think about how “Victorian ladies used to like to wear dead birds as hats.” Still, there was something pretty weird about the sudden outpouring in 2020 from major corporate outlets denouncing “settler colonialist” culture, including the “mindset” behind such offenses as irrigation: “You see that river there? We can dam that,” seethed Douglas. “We can organize that water.”

This has been going on for a while. Outline’s 2018classic, “The Racist Language of Space Exploration,” set the standard by building on an offhand Elon Musk reference to a potential “colony” on Mars to craft a 3000-word essay about the evils of everything from the British East India Company to Plymouth Bay. The “It’s Time To Decolonize Your (Something)” theme spread in many directions in 2020:

4. NPR, June 6th: “Your Bookshelf May Be Part Of The Problem.”

76% of publishers — “the people you might call the gatekeepers,” said author Juan Vidal — are white. After noting this, Vidal realizes sadly that “grown white men in their forties” who are “cracking open James Baldwin or Toni Morrison for the first time” are “not going to eradicate racism.” Forced to ponder other solutions, he wonders if the “homogenous nature of their personal library” (he doesn’t offer examples) “is part of the problem,” before dismounting into the fashionable 2020 injunction that white people shut up for the greater good. Although, the wording is a little odd:

Anti-racist books will only do a person good if they silence themselves first and enter into the reading — provided they care enough to do so.

Do anti-racist books care enough to silence themselves and enter the reading? Vidal didn’t say. Incidentally, though the piece opens by quoting Richard Wright, the only other author Vidal mentions is H.L. Mencken, whose Book of Prefaces “helped Wright find new ways of looking and seeing.” So that was confusing! Meanwhile, across, the ocean:

3. Huffington Post, April 23: “I Teach At Oxford, But I Don’t Want It To Win The Coronavirus Vaccine Race.”

In 2020 it would be nuts to expect anyone to be publicly patriotic, or proud of their educational institution’s history. Even by this year’s standards, though, it takes a special kind of dickhead to root against your school developing a vaccine because “the story” would then be that China is bad and “the best brains of the UK have saved the world.” Oxford “gender and vulnerability” professor Dr. Emily Cousens conceded her school’s researchers were doing vital work back in April, but insisted such races for knowledge have “winners and losers,” and declared: “If my university is the first to develop the vaccine, I’m worried that it will be used as it has been in the past… as proof of British excellence.”

2. (Story uncovered)

The biggest effect on newsroom culture in 2020, arguably, came in the form of stories reporters did not do, out of fear that they might send the wrong message either to the public or to co-workers, whose opinion was increasingly to be feared. The most obvious example involved the dichotomy of the public health response toward the anti-lockdown protests of the spring, versus the anti-police protests following Floyd’s murder.

The New York Times did its first real piece on the subject in July, waiting nearly two months into the protests to quote health experts saying things like “I certainly condemned the anti-lockdown protests at the time, and I’m not condemning the protests now, and I struggle with that,” and “Do I worry that mass protests will fuel more cases? Yes, I do. But a dam broke.” In another context, we would probably denounce this as the worst kind of journalistic irresponsibility, but in 2020 waiting just two months to be honest about a public health crisis was considered virtuous.

Similar decisions led to non-coverage or under-coverage of counter-narrative scientific developments (e.g. the retracted Lancet study about “Trump-touted” hydroxychloroquine), derogatory stories about the likes of Hunter and Joe Biden, polls about public attitudes (including minority attitudes) toward things like the defund the police movement or the use of terms like “Latinx,” and violence connected to protests. Efforts in the latter case to avoid seeming negative in tone led to absurd contortions, like CNN’s infamous “Mostly Peaceful Protests” chyron:

Obviously, conservative stations like Fox have long been similarly selective in what they do and do not cover. This used to earn ridicule from mainstream press critics. In 2020 it was papers like the New York Times and stations like CNN that should have caught that flak, for the exact same behavior. They mostly didn’t, though audiences definitely noticed.

1. The Guardian, July 6: “Upward-thrusting buildings ejaculating into the sky' – do cities have to be so sexist?

Probably there is a “mine’s bigger than yours” element to some skyscraper construction, but the main reason human beings worked for centuries to design everything from elevators to load-bearing steel skeletons was to fit more people in crammed real estate. After all, it was either build up, build down, or discover a fourth dimension.

The Guardian skipped that part, but did include an old quote from architecture professor Dolores Hayden, decrying the skyscraper as an accessory to gender oppression:

The office tower… is one more addition “to the procession of phallic monuments in history – including poles, obelisks, spires, columns and watchtowers,” where architects un-ironically use the language of “base, shaft and tip” while drawing upward-thrusting buildings ejaculating light into the night sky.

Happy New Year, TK readers.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Sue Schafer as a Washington Post reporter. Also, the Times portrait of John T. Edge was taken for a previous feature.