The ‘Forbes’ Lesson on How Racism Still Operates in Journalism

Racism is insidious. It allows covers for the most heinous acts against Black and brown people. Meanwhile, its practitioners persist in publicly denying that the very idea of a racist act is ludicrous, unimaginable. I experienced this firsthand (here). My supervisor called the teaching of race-related topics in the writing classroom an agenda that I forced upon my students. This came before a racist attack on my appearance and followed by requests that I tone down my Afrocentric physical traits to comfort my roster of predominantly white students. I learned then that racism needs darkness and intimidation to thrive.

A Black Actor’s Story of Erasure

This week, Forbes online magazine gave us a great example of how insidious racism can be. It also shows how desperate those forces are to stay in the dark. Journalist Sheraz Farooqi’s interview with actor Ray Fisher (Justice League, Zack Snyder’s Justice League) is ground zero for the action. The original article contained Fisher’s story. It was loaded with direct quotes from Fisher on his experience with the director Joss Whedon, producers Jon Berg and Geoff Johns, and Warner Bros exec Toby Emmerich. The article stated that the parties were asked for comment, none were available when the article posted.

Fisher talked about how characters of color were “erased” during Whedon’s reshooting of key elements of the Justice League film. Whedon was brought on to finish the film after director Zach Snyder stepped away because of a family tragedy. Snyder has always said that his version of the film was more than 90% complete. However, Whedon cited several reasons for his reshoots. One of those reasons was the difference in filming methods. According to Fisher, the filming method excuse became the point of one particular POC (people of color)character erasure.

Fisher’s original quote above was removed from the article.

You can take a look at all the characters erased from the film in this article I penned over a year ago. Although some white characters were also erased, theirs was not as significant as melanated people. Whedon’s cut eliminated nearly all of the Black and POC characters in minor roles or greatly reduced them. Fisher’s character Cyborg was one of those greatly reduced. He went from being what Snyder called “the heart” of the story to a side character with very limited screen time.

In addition to the quote above, Fisher also talked about toxic working conditions and other issues that made working on the Justice League a hardship for both the cast and crew. The harassment continued after Fisher spoke out earlier this year. Whedon, Johns, and Berg have all led targeted campaigns to silence Fisher since he opened up about the treatment over the summer. The investigator hired by WB has even worked to prevent Fisher’s story and others from seeing daylight.

The Forbes Live Erasure Example

The edit of the Forbes article on 10/29.

This Forbes article ran on October 28. On October 29, a new version appeared. It had a new headline, a new title for Farooqi, an update, and an alteration of the article. In one day, the title had changed to tone down Fisher’s allegations within the article. Also, Farooqi was tagged as a “former” contributor, implying that he lost or left his position.

The original article.

The update explains a bit. But the quote alteration is the key to seeing what happened here. Forbes removed Fisher’s quote about the colorism and erasure, to replace it with a quote from the camp of the very person that Fisher says is responsible for the erasure in the film! Here’s what the Whedon camp says.

The 10/29 update text.

In an interview with Page Six, Matthew Hutchison, chief communications officer for Forbes told why they made the change.

“The contributor’s story captured a discussion that has been in the public sphere for some time. The post was updated to add comments from Warner Bros. and Joss Whedon and a quote was removed to add balance and fairness.”

Hutchison is hiding behind balance and fairness, (and also the notion of editorial discretion) to get away with the very crime that Whedon is accused of, that Fisher has been trying so hard to report all this time — erasure.

Fortunately, it didn’t go unnoticed. Vanity Fair wrote up the odd turn, noting another publication’s questioning as well.

As the Hollywood Reporter noted, though, one of Fisher’s most incendiary claims — that Whedon allegedly changed an actor’s skin tone in the film — was removed from the Forbes piece. The original quote read as followed: “What set my soul on fire and forced me to speak out about Joss Whedon this summer was my becoming informed that Joss had ordered that the complexion of an actor of color be changed in postproduction because he didn’t like the color of their skin tone.”

In regard to the quote removal, Forbes added an editor’s note at the top of the piece that read: “This story has been updated from its original version, including the wording of the original headline. Comments have been added from Warner Bros. and representatives for Joss Whedon.

This was the silencing of Fisher and the erasure of his words happening in real-time. The thing is, the darkness that once made these tactics so effective was not here to cover things.

The quote that replaced Fisher’s after the update.

Why We Should Question Forbes

Forbes had essentially replaced the words of a victim with that of his accused’s entourage, including a lawyer. This is the type of behavior that sexual assault victims suffer when trying to speak out against powerful men. Their words are wielded against them. With the help of powerful people in law and media, these accused men are allowed to remain in power, and their dangerous behaviors unchecked.

The Guardian discusses how Harvey Weinstein, the infamous sexual abuser who was taken down as a part of the #MeToo movement, used lawyers to silence his victims.

“One of the jaw-dropping disclosures was that Boies contracted private detectives to try to foil the New York Times from exposing Weinstein at a time when the lawyer was also employed as a legal counsel to the newspaper. The Times promptly severed relations with him.”

This passage is about David Boies, attorney for Weinstein. While he did not use a private detective, Whedon used his attorneys to contact several outlets this week to contest Fisher’s words. One must assume that the attorney also had a hand in Farooqi’s departure. This is silencing. We all should care that a powerful white director is still allowed in the year 2020 to use these tactics against a Black man who is trying to speak out against racism experienced by himself and others in a workplace environment. That it also endangers a Brown journalist’s job in the process.

Shade-Tree Journalism

Let us also note that Forbes’s decision to remove a chunk of the original article and alter the headline is not “best practice” for the industry. When there is a retraction or update, the editor adds an update to the beginning of the article and/or an “Editor’s Note” at the end of the article. This is where the new quote should have been displayed. Fisher’s words never should have been altered. In the event that the words were found to be slanderous or false, the article is removed. The ENTIRE article. Removing one claim is not only odd, but it also implicates Forbes in the event Whedon is eventually charged/sued over Fisher’s claims.

Cinema Blend offers an example of how the update should have worked.

This is Not the End, That’s for Certain

It should be pointed out that only the colorism and erasure claim was removed. The gaslighting and account of a hostile work environment were left in the article. It’s as if being called a racist was unacceptable, but being accused of harassment, verbal and mental abuse was…okay?

Fisher updated Cinema Blend on October 30, disheartened by undeterred.

UPDATE: Ray Fisher has sent CinemaBlend a reply to the statement’s provided by Joss Whedon’s spokespeople. He said, “This is only a hair’s breadth away from Berg’s, ‘Fisher was upset about booyah’ defense. I’ve been trying my best to make sure that Joss Whedon and Jon Berg aren’t able to be thrown completely under the bus by the other guys. But when they make these half-baked knee-jerk excuses publicly, they make my job a lot harder. I’m settling in with my family for the night. I’ll have a more in-depth response tomorrow.”

Fisher is pressing on, and we wish him the best. As for Forbes, their ties to Whedon and their assistance in attempting to silence/erase his words warrant investigation. I also hope Farooqi is a part of that investigation. Whedon should not get to use journalists and anyone else in his path as pawns in a game to stay relevant. I say this because this is not Whedon’s first set of allegations by people he has worked with onset. However, I believe it is the first time an accuser has refused to back down and stay silent.

It’s 2020, and although racism is still insidious, we now know what it looks like. We also have social media to help the silenced. As this case moves forward, I am sure that we will get more opportunities to learn, in real-time, what racism and harassment tactics had been used in the past. We will also get a chance to comment on why they no longer fly today.

Jonita Davis is a writer, film critic, and professor. She’s a member of NABJ, AAFCA, a Rotten Tomatoes critic, and an adjunct professor.

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