In the impoverished ecosystem of contemporary print media, New York magazine has styled itself as a venue for rigorous, often wry, and overtly left-leaning journalism. More playful than The Atlantic. Less conservative than The Atlantic. And with more of an old-school commitment to voice-driven narratives than you might find in, say, The Atlantic.
They have built that reputation on the back of well-reported features in particular, often about issues related to social justice. But the magazine’s latest cover story was a missed opportunity for both transparency and righting social wrongs. Last week, we outlined some of the crucial omissions in “Canceled at 17,” a lengthy feature about the social plight of a high school student who had been “canceled” after showing a naked picture of his girlfriend to friends at a party. Now, it appears that the piece withheld some even more relevant context: that one of writer Elizabeth Weil’s children attended the school at the center of the story.
As we noted, Weil’s article is anonymized: stripped of real names, any specific locations, and all but a few vague dates. This both shielded the identities of the story’s subjects, and framed their experience as a grim emblem of the social justice moment. But in pursuit of that anonymity, the magazine chose not to disclose the fact that Weil had been a part of the school’s community at the same time as the protagonist. (We are not naming the child or school to protect the subjects' privacy).
A personal relationship to a story does not always constitute a conflict of interest; reporters find ways into stories through such avenues all the time. (A spokesperson for New York said that, while the magazine knew about the connection, they did not find that it rose to the level of a conflict of interest. “This story was thoroughly vetted, and we stand behind its integrity,” said Lauren Starke, Vox Media’s Senior Vice President of Communications.) But the key to navigating such conflicts is being straightforward about potential bias. That’s why most editorial standards, including New York’s own, recommend that a “personal or family relationship” result in either recusal from coverage, or more typically, a public disclosure.
One can imagine a version of Weil’s piece that does the latter. If anything, an honest accounting of her personal connection and the attendant emotions might have strengthened her story. But New York was faced with an editorial conundrum: Being frank about Weil’s involvement in the story would risk subjecting its underage sources to public scrutiny. It would have also revealed the piece for what it was: a personal, and by extension, particular, story — not, as it purported to be, a sweeping parable of the times. That tension presents an inherent flaw in the assignment. In omitting the relationship, New York contorted their material to make a tidy allegory about cancel culture. They stripped a potentially sharp piece of its complexity — the gray area in which most good stories, and especially those on sexual assault, reside.
Disclosing Weil’s relationship to the school would have contextualized the tenor of the story, which, as many people pointed out, was distinctly sympathetic to its protagonist. Withholding it, on the other hand, left several factors unaddressed. For one, it obscured the fact that the incident and subsequent walkout in question came as a response to a wave of Bay Area protests over how the region’s schools handled Title IX violations. For another, if Weil had a relationship with the protagonist or his parents, it might have colored her understanding of the situation (post-publication, Weil clarified to Gawker that she had no personal relationship with the protagonist or his parents prior to her reporting). And finally: If this incident was, as Weil made it seem, a big deal within this relatively small high school, it seems likely that Weil’s relative could have known someone involved.
One irony of “cancel culture” is that, in attempting to diagnose a social moment prone to outrage and accusal (one which, if you believe its critics, often disregards due process), the term dispenses with nuance itself. Victims are either canceled or not. There is little space to gauge the relative impact of crimes versus social consequences. Lives are ruined on both sides. In throwing its institutional weight behind a so-called “canceled” male teen who unambiguously violated a female teen, New York suggested an equivalency when in truth, there was none.
But they also missed a very real — and timely — opportunity to dissect the ripple effects of sexual misconduct from a more honest angle. A forthright account could have addressed the failures, both obvious and unexpected, of institutions tasked with safeguarding students; it could have examined the unsatisfying pursuit of extralegal accountability and its impacts on parents like Weil. It might have assessed how a culture so accustomed to conventional power, to the implicit importance of male reputation, responds when either is challenged. It is understandable that the magazine did not want to reveal Weil’s connection to the school. But then, perhaps, she was not the writer for this story.
Update: In a statement sent after this piece published, Weil said that she did not personally know the primary sources interviewed for the story.
Update II: In another statement, a spokesperson for Vox clarified that Weil's child had graduated before the events last fall: "She did not have a child at the school during the events described, nor any ongoing relationship with the school."