The View From the Newsroom

Multicultural Belgium. Sans Papiers demo, June 2016.

“We changed the picture,” the Russian editor said over the messaging client from Brussels. “Jean is here, and he agrees. We substituted it for something more appropriate.”

That something more appropriate was a photo of a white man, which had replaced a picture of a black man. Tellingly, the editors imposed a lid on the conversation and refused to brook it further.

A typically fraught morning editing run, between 6 and 8 AM, I decided to cut my losses, and not debate it any further. They knew I wasn’t happy, but there was no time to fight about it.

If I got into it with them, the chances are they’d push out unedited articles just to make deadline and we’d look even more stupid. I was the news editor and would have to answer for it.

But, I showed them no mercy in a letter I wrote to the editor-in-chief after we were done. The article in question, a special report about healthcare in the EU, had been filed without a picture.

According to our production protocol, our journalists were required to produce their articles in their entirety the night before, including acquiring images. We’d edit everything the next morning.

Still, without a photo subscription, I’d used a Creative Commons image of an African-American soldier convalescing in a US military hospital in Germany. Nothing indicated he was foreign.

Except if you found the GI’s skin colour to not signify Europe appropriately. Even though the city our agency was based in is full of Belgians of Congolese and otherwise Central African origin.

If the editors in question didn’t have their own subjective difficulties with diversity, I would have been kinder in my upbraiding of their behaviour with our boss. But, they weren’t and deserved it.

The Russian editor, for example, was known to call politicians he didn’t like ‘niggers’ on Twitter from time to time. Our boss, who was Jewish, would make him delete the posts.

The other editor, a far more reserved French-speaking Belgian, would let it out more behind closed doors, expressing discomfort, for example, at the prospect of hiring a lesbian to run our Berlin office.

“Wouldn’t that be a bit weird, having her manage something as significant?” he asked rather innocently, as though it were somehow extraordinary.  “She’s a Green, too,” as though that made her credentials worse.

“Berlin is the queer capital of Eastern Europe,” I replied as the sole city resident in the room, trying to downplay the issue. “No big deal. Neo-Nazis often joke that Merkel is gay anyway.”

The racism was perfunctory, but not prohibitive of hiring minority editors like me, the editor-in-chief, or the half-African German who ended up getting the Berlin job.

You just had to put up with this discomfort with the growing diversity of the office in exchange. We didn’t deserve to be there, was the vibe. But they couldn’t do without us, either.

“Joel,” the Belgian editor asked me towards the end of my time at the firm. “Why do Jews still believe they deserve compensation for WWII? Haven’t they been paid enough already?”

It’d been a very hard week at the office. We were hovering on the edge of insolvency, but no one was owning up to it, and everyone in the newsroom was trying to push each other out to survive.

Our relationship was at best tense. The last thing I wanted to do was add fuel to the fire by telling him that I thought his question was inappropriate and rude.

“What’s on your mind, chief?” I replied, sauntering over to his desk. “Look at this,” he said. “It’s a press release from the Israeli embassy, for a conference on Holocaust claims in Central Europe.”

Inspecting the documents, which focused on outstanding compensation issues in Slovakia and Hungary, I decided to play it safe. Albeit, with a touch of ethnicity.

“Totally kosher,” I said, reassuringly. “In the newer member states, in Central Europe, these discussions are just starting.”

“And the ambassador? Why him?” asked the Belgian editor. “He’s Israeli, not European.”

“Because many of the Jews from these countries, who survived, ended up as refugees in Israel after the war. Given their advanced age, the government is taking care of this for them.”

I was proud of my response. It was careful and took the high ground, without giving away how I really felt. I knew my place, after all. If I was his equal and spoke that way, I’d have been canned.

We’d already had our share of run-ins, the most recent of which involved our Russian colleague complaining to the CEO that the Belgian had made anti-Semitic statements in the office.

Not having initiated the discussion, I’d told the CEO that the issue was under control and that he didn’t need to pursue it on my behalf. Nonetheless, he did and I just barely held on to my job.

The editor in question had been humiliated by the allegation and sought my firing for impugning his reputation, I was told. The editor-in-chief had gone to bat for me.

Why the Russian editor spoke out, putting me in the firing line, I’ll never understand. It was obvious this would happen. Some say he knew it, and this was his way of easing me out.

That the Belgian still felt comfortable to discuss such fraught subjects with me afterwards was especially curious. If he had intended to provoke a new fight, I deprived him of the opportunity.

Photograph courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.