Nine days ago, a fellow journalist vaguely threatened to sue me and not-so-vaguely called me a racist.
My crime? Trying to attend a meeting about diversity.
I was in San Antonio for the annual Excellence in Journalism convention. It’s co-sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists, where I’m both a member and an elected leader.
Over the past decade, I’ve attended dozens of boring SPJ committee meetings that keep the place humming. Those meetings are open to all members because, well, how hypocritical would it be for journalists to close journalism meetings?
So at 8 a.m. a week ago Saturday, I sleepily shuffled into the SPJ Diversity Breakfast. I planned to sit in the corner, not eat the eggs that weren’t meant for me, and listen to the guest speaker.
Instead, SPJ diversity chair Rebecca Aguilar motioned me outside. I thought she might offer me some leftovers, which has happened before. (Journalists have no problem devouring other people’s uneaten food.)
Instead, Aguilar told me the meeting was invitation only – and I wasn’t invited.
I told her I’d attended these meetings in the past, and traditionally, any SPJ gathering that doesn’t charge admission is open. (In fact, the SPJ banquet the next evening cost $75, but I paid nothing and sat in the back so I could hear the speeches. And I was neither invited nor hassled.)
“No, you’re wrong, this is not open,” Aguilar said. “You need to leave.”
Coincidentally, I said I had spoken with SPJ’s incoming president, who said no one had asked her to close any meetings.
Aguilar simply repeated, “You need to leave.”
When I said I was going to sit in the corner, be quiet, and not eat anything, Aguilar threatened, “I could call security on you right now.”
To end the conversation, I started slowly walking back into the room and said over my shoulder as meekly as possible, “Look, I’m just gonna sit over here and be quiet, OK?” Before Aguilar could say anything else, her guest speaker approached.
So I sat and listened. But I was irked that Aguilar tried to kick me out. The convention has its own app, with a Facebook-like news feed, so I posted a short version of what I’ve just told you – to document and, I admit, mock the situation. But I didn’t mention Aguilar by name.
Since that post quickly got buried under photos of selfies, sessions, and lunches, I figured that was the end of the irony. But a few hours later, Aguilar walked up to me as I sat waiting for yet another boring SPJ meeting. With witnesses present, she stood in the aisle where I was seated and asked in a very sweet voice, “Hi, Michael. Why are you such a liar?”
I replied wittily, “Uh, what?”
“You are a liar,” she repeated, the sweetness now gone. “You lie! I never called security on you!”
I agreed. I reminded her that she threatened to. Obviously, I wasn’t led away in handcuffs, although that would’ve been fun.
“I have a lawyer,” Aguilar said. “You should know that.”
“OK…” I replied, stalling for time while I figured out what was happening.
“What do you have against Hispanics?”
“What do you have against women?”
“Look, I just wanted to attend an open meeting. This has nothing to do with you.”
She kept calling me a liar and obliquely accusing me of racism and misogyny, and I kept repeating, louder and more demonstrative each time, “This isn’t about you, it’s about open meetings!”
When Aguilar again repeated she had a lawyer, I finally blurted, “So are you going to sue me or what?”
This time, it was Aguilar’s turn to walk away. But her parting shot was ominous: “I don’t know what your game is, but it won’t work.”
The meeting started, and not 15 minutes later, Aguilar was elected SPJ’s secretary-treasurer. She’s now SPJ’s third-most powerful person – and on track to become president in two years.
So I furiously typed up the details of my freaky encounter, noting the names of witnesses who heard the whole thing, and emailed several other SPJ leaders.
In the past, SPJ leaders have accused me of “damaging the organization” because I’ve written about its weirdness. They haven’t questioned the accuracy of my reporting, just expressed their earnest desire that I come to them first before “writing on your little blog.”
So in that email, I said I’d keep this twisted tale between us until we could talk. That evening, I proposed what I thought was a fair compromise: Everything I’ve told you so far would remain confidential if Aguilar did two things on a private phone call with SPJ’s top two leaders…
- Apologize for publicly implying I’m a racist misogynist.
- Promise to not close meetings and publicly accuse members in the future.
Obviously, you’re reading this, so that didn’t happen. I gave it more than a week, and SPJ leaders really did try negotiating a private compromise. I even offered to apologize myself for my original post, if Aguilar would also apologize.
Everyone thought that was reasonable, except for Aguilar. She doesn’t believe she did anything wrong – whether it’s closing a meeting without permission or threatening someone with less power than she has.
So here we are. Believe it or not – and many won’t – I feel a little sad about that.
Aguilar is a dangerous bully. Accusing people of racism without any proof can torpedo careers, although probably not mine. (I’ve already sunk that on my own.)
But I understand why Aguilar does it, and under different circumstances, I can even applaud her take-no-prisoners tactics.
Aguilar made her bones in local TV news. As a middle-aged Hispanic woman, she began her career when news stations were still dominated by white men, both in front and behind the camera. I’m guessing she had to burn a lot of bridges just to earn the same perks an average white dude like me got for free.
I’ve always admired those who punch up and shame the regime. Thing is, Aguilar is now leading a regime. There’s nowhere left to punch but down.
As diversity chair, Aguilar’s tenacity helped SPJ add color to its pale complexion. But if she’s elected SPJ president with that same chip on her shoulder, she’ll end up being SPJ’s next dictator president.
If she truly wants a colorblind SPJ, she needs to accept this uncomfortable fact: Her race and gender don’t excuse her own behavior. I didn’t disrupt her meeting because she’s a Hispanic woman. I did it because she was wrong. And since she’s now more powerful in SPJ than I am, she’s the one with the power to discriminate.
Without violating any confidences, I can tell you: SPJers who knew what happened begged me not to write any of this. Not because they’re bad actors with dubious motives. In fact, they’re among the SPJers I respect most. (And that includes the new president, who I admire almost as much as I despised her predecessor.)
They’re not wrong that even on my “little blog,” this isn’t a good look for a struggling organization. But I also argued the opposite: If Aguilar doesn’t learn her lesson now, the cost of her education will skyrocket later.
If she fights every battle by weaponizing discrimination and brandishing lawyers – and she’s done it before – Aguilar will eventually insult someone much more important than me. And since she’s now a high-ranking SPJ leader, the organization will have a lot of explaining to do on much bigger websites.
That’s why, in the most ironic move possible, I filed a complaint last week under the convention’s brand-new code of conduct, which bans “intimidating or threatening behavior.”
If the situation weren’t so dire, it’d be kind of funny that I’m the first person citing the code of conduct – because I mocked it just days before I needed it.
I have yet to hear anything about my complaint. The code is frustratingly vague on who sits in judgment and how verdicts are rendered. But the code allows for “revocation of your membership.”
That, of course, is a ridiculous punishment. So as the aggrieved party, I’d plead for leniency. I believe Aguilar has the energy to be an excellent SPJ president – if she submits to mandatory sensitivity training.
Yes, I’m demanding a powerful Hispanic woman submit to sensitivity training. That’s not a snarky request. I’m sincere, and I actually consider it progress.
As SPJ diversifies its leadership, those new leaders will screw up just as often as their lily-white predecessors. They shouldn’t be treated any differently when that happens.
Update: SPJ resolves my code of conduct complaint by saying it won’t talk about my code of conduct complaint. It’s really funny.