Why I Left Vocativ

D.C. police on Inauguration Day. Behind them, the mass arrest in which I was caught. Image: Shamila Chaudhary

Yesterday, I left Vocativ, the news site where I’ve worked since August of last year. I’ve included the text of my resignation letter below, though it may help to first read the story that led to this. It’s here, thanks to Freedom of the Press Foundation.

Here’s the resignation letter I sent to management:

As you well know, I was arrested earlier this year while covering Inauguration Day protests for Vocativ. During my time in jail, I witnessed police mistreat their prisoners in ways that raised significant concerns for me. Since my release, I’ve worked with Vocativ’s editorial leadership and management to bring this story to light. Vocativ has not only declined to pursue this story, but has taken the unusual step of banning me from speaking about it publicly.
Make no mistake: What I witnessed was textbook abuse of power, and I have neither the ability nor the will to excuse, dismiss, or forget such behavior. In Vocativ’s judgement, the abuse I witnessed — which, by all appearances, was premeditated — does not merit discussion on our site. While I strenuously disagree with this judgement, I acknowledge that it is Vocativ’s to make.
However, I cannot accept and will not agree to any arrangement that precludes me from speaking about this issue, and I am personally and professionally insulted that this organization — ostensibly a news publisher — expects anything less from me.
As a journalist, I have a professional obligation to seek the truth and report it, and to speak that truth to power. I would be remiss in my duties if I did not report on the suffering that I witnessed, which came at the hands of law enforcement officers. I cannot remain silent on these events, and I am embarrassed that this organization would make such a demand of me.
Vocativ has the potential to be a great newsroom. It is staffed with promising, intelligent reporters producing important, insightful work. I’m grateful to the organization for providing for my legal defense, and for speaking out on my behalf during the brief time in which I was charged with a crime. I only wish that its concern for justice extended beyond its own payroll.

The letter doesn’t describe what its recipients already knew: that for months, management encouraged me to forget these events. In various meetings, my account was challenged, questioned, and belittled. “We view this as an example of the justice system working,” one manager told me.

Another asked, “You don’t think people know that police abuse prisoners?” (They do, of course, because journalists report it.)

In nearly every meeting, it was stressed to me that Vocativ had spent a great deal of money on my legal defense, as if large expenditures should trump journalistic principles.

I’m left with questions. Most importantly: Why was Vocativ so insistent that this story stay buried? Was the wrongdoing not egregious enough? Admittedly, it was (for better or worse) not on par with the headline-capturing police behavior we’ve read about in recent years. But then why ban me from speaking about it? What did Vocativ find so objectionable about a journalist telling the truth about police abuse?

I wish I had answers, but for all the conversations I had with managers, that point was never made clear.

I understand, of course, that the abuses I witnessed are not the most heinous, the most jaw-dropping, the most repugnant that audiences have ever read. But to limit reporting of police misconduct to only those cases is unethical: it permits police to engage in whatever level of mistreatment they please, so long as it falls below headline-making level.

Today, I’m grateful to Freedom of the Press Foundation for publishing the piece, and to my friends and colleagues who helped me work through these last few months. And while I’m saddened by the outcome, I’m grateful that my conversations with Vocativ’s management were civil and mostly respectful. Vocativ has produced good work in the past; indeed, it’s why I took the job in the first place. My former colleagues will produce good work in the future. I hope that their managers have the courage to support them.

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