Global News Corus Racism
Global News laid off employees who were pushing for change on race issues. Photo by Carlos Osorio

In The Midst of a Race Reckoning, Global News Laid Off Some of Its Most Vocal Internal Critics

A dozen current and former employees spoke to VICE News, alleging a culture of racist microaggressions, tone-deaf coverage, a lack of accountability, and retaliation for speaking out at one of Canada's biggest media outlets.
Manisha Krishnan
Toronto, Canada
August 26, 2020, 2:19pm

A group of journalists who repeatedly raised concerns about racism at Global News, one of Canada’s largest media outlets, was laid off in the organization’s most recent round of cuts, on the heels of commitments from management to “do better” on issues of diversity.

VICE News spoke to 12 current and former employees of Global News and/or its parent company Corus Entertainment who described being given racially tone-deaf assignments, passed over for jobs as white colleagues were promoted, and threatened with being fired. They spoke about retaliation when they raised workplace concerns and repeated failures by the company to be accountable and transparent regarding racist microaggressions and problematic coverage.

In a Twitter thread, a Black multimedia producer alleged she overheard one colleague use the N-word and that her boss yelled and belittled her at work. A former correspondent for ET Canada, who is Black, told VICE News she was instructed to sanitize a segment on racism and was not informed that she could bill for working time that totalled $21,000 over the course of her relationship with the show. One former worker said they were called into a meeting to discuss how their complaints about race were making their white male colleagues “uncomfortable.”

Does your workplace have an issue with systemic racism? You can contact reporter Manisha Krishnan by email at manisha.krishnan@vice.com, on Twitter @manishakrishnan, or securely on Signal at 1-416-357-3726.

All but two asked not to be identified in this story or wanted to speak off the record for fear of retaliation from their current and former bosses. In interviews with VICE News, corroborated by emails and recordings of meetings, they detailed how the company laid off many of its most vocal internal critics in the midst of a major reckoning over race.

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Corus, a publicly traded company with a staff of roughly 3,500, has not revealed how many employees it laid off on July 23. So far VICE News has identified 22 people who were laid off, eight of whom had signed an open letter calling out systemic racism within Corus; more than 150 current and former employees signed it in all. (Disclosure: two of my friends and former colleagues at VICE, Tamara Khandaker and Rachel Browne, were among those laid off.)

In an internal memo leaked to J-Source, Troy Reeb, executive vice president of broadcast networks at Corus Entertainment, described the cuts as necessary to cope with a collapse in advertising revenue exacerbated by COVID-19. The company’s revenue dropped 24 percent in its third quarter, which ended on May 31. The company lost $750 million in the quarter (largely as a result of a one-time impairment charge from its broadcast licences). According to the Canadian Press, the company also received $17 million from the Canadian government’s COVID-19 wage subsidy program, which is intended to help companies avoid layoffs.

Reeb said the cuts mark a return to “trusted, objective… fact-based journalism” and that Global News’ website will no longer support lifestyle and entertainment journalism, or social media teams.

VICE News has obtained emails and audio of meetings in which members of Global’s lifestyle team confronted senior management about shortcomings in the news outlet’s ability to tackle stories on race and hold itself accountable for its mistakes. Those managers, in turn, repeatedly praised the lifestyle team for its inclusive coverage, only to lay those same people off weeks later.

In an email to VICE News, a Corus spokesperson said the layoffs were executed solely “to position the organization for growth” and that Global News is committed to telling diverse stories.

“Global News remains committed to an open and collaborative environment where the open exchange of ideas is the bedrock of the organization. As an organization, we encourage our employees to engage in productive discourse and work collaboratively to address all points of view. Corus in no way engages in retaliatory behaviour when it comes to employees expressing their point of view,” the spokesperson said.

In a separate email to my editor, Reeb suggested it would be unethical for me to report this story because I have previously criticized Global’s reporting and their decision to lay off Khandaker and Browne, who hosted and produced the current affairs podcast Wait, There’s More.

“Ms. Krishnan has made several statements showing demonstrable animus toward Global News and Corus Entertainment. Should (VICE News) choose to publish her article, it is important that readers of (VICE News) understand it is not being written from the perspective of an unbiased journalist but rather as commentary from someone who expressed strong, preconceived opinions before beginning any work on her article,” Reeb said. He attached a five-page PDF of screenshots of tweets illustrating my friendships with Khandaker and Browne as well as my criticism of a Global story that the outlet unpublished following external and internal backlash.

Based in Toronto, Corus Entertainment’s portfolio includes nearly 50 television stations and 39 radio stations, according to its website. Global News is one of its flagship brands.

Both Corus’ board of directors and executive leadership team are made up of mostly white people. Of the eight members of the company’s executive leadership team, seven appear to be white men and one is a white woman.

The executive leadership team at Corus Entertainment

The executive leadership team at Corus Entertainment. Screenshot via Corus Entertainment

On June 23, the Canadian Association of Black Journalists published an open letter detailing the negative experiences of Black Corus employees and outlining calls to action. In response, Douglas Murphy, president and CEO of Corus Entertainment, said Corus had hired the firm DiversiPro to conduct an external independent investigation on the company’s culture.

Without giving specifics, Murphy also committed to more transparency around the number of Indigenous and racialized people employed by Corus, targeted recruitment to increase those numbers, the removal of systemic barriers to promotions, and more consultation with Indigenous and racialized people about coverage.

On July 2, Global employees published an open letter calling for immediate action relating to diversity within the workplace and in sources used in stories, mandatory anti-racism training, whistleblower protection, and transparency around the DiversiPro report and how management is dealing with allegations of racism.

A follow-up email from a small group of staff to Murphy, viewed by VICE News, said some employees declined to sign the open letter “stating fear for their jobs” and expressed “a lot of internal concern over what’s happening or may happen to current employees who’ve spoken up.”

In an email response to the open letter, Murphy told staff the company would not roll out any “company-wide plans” prior to the conclusion of the DiversiPro report. Corus said Diversipro’s recommendations, to be presented in September, will be integrated into a multi-year plan.

“Global is aware they have a racism problem; they’re not stupid.”

Former and current workers said the company has been made aware of systemic issues relating to race for years and has failed to take action.

“Global is aware they have a racism problem; they’re not stupid,” said one current employee, who participated in several conversations about race with managers. “It was always us being like, ‘This is a continuous problem. How many times do we have to meet you guys to let you know that the culture here has to change?’”

Several of the most recent internal discussions around race focused on a story published May 31, “George Floyd protests: Canadians living in the U.S. say rioting causing angst and unrest.”

The story, written by Global News reporter Morganne Campbell, focused on how Canadian expats living in the U.S. felt about the ongoing protests; one said she felt “uneasy” while another opined on the “proper way” to protest. It did not include any Black voices and used “riot” and “protest” interchangeably throughout. (Disclosure: I criticized the piece on Twitter when it was published.)

After the story went up, a group of 12 Global News journalists sent an email criticizing it to three managers at Global News: Chris Bassett, national director of content and editorial standards, Kenton Boston, vice president of national and network news, and Ward Smith, senior vice president of Global News.

“This story is not balanced, it’s inaccurate, and it frankly perpetuates racism while exacerbating false narratives about what these protests are actually about in the U.S. and Canada,” the email said.

Of the 12 people who signed the letter, six were later laid off, including most of the lifestyle team, an investigative reporter, and the team behind Wait, There’s More. One quit.

The people who were laid off were among the most vocal in follow-up meetings with Bassett, Boston, and Smith, of which VICE News has obtained audio.

On a June 1 call with managers, Global News employees said unpublishing the story without thoroughly explaining why it was problematic would amount to a lack of transparency.

“There wasn’t a lot of value for us to continue to show people a mistake that our organization made.”

Although managers acknowledged that the story should never have run, Global News later unpublished the story with a note stating it would republish it “after it meets our editorial standards.” Eventually, the note was updated to include a link to a new article about anti-Black racism in Canada.

In a subsequent call on June 3, the group of employees questioned why the story had been pulled down without a fulsome apology or explanation.

“There wasn’t a lot of value for us to continue to show people a mistake that our organization made,” Boston said during the meeting.

The managers also tasked the lifestyle journalists with finding Black voices to include in an improved version of the story, rather than assigning that task to Campbell, the (white) author of the original piece.

“I didn’t get a sense that there were people jumping in to really effectively help Morganne put the story better,” Smith said on the call. “I think she’s feeling quite abandoned, unsupported.” He repeatedly said he didn’t want the fallout from the article to result in an “us and them” dynamic between managers and staff.

“We’re only going to be successful if you feel that we're moving the ball forward and to start constantly with ‘the company this’ and ‘management that,’ I have a real hard time with that,” Smith said.

Campbell told VICE News she was unhappy that her co-workers went to senior management instead of bringing their concerns to her.

“I frankly felt hurt by the actions of some of my colleagues. As you’re well aware, journalism is a team sport,” she said.

Corus told VICE News once the group raised concerns about the story, “they were immediately brought into the conversation to contribute advice or ideas, including any relevant sources, to make the story more reflective of the voices and perspectives required for such a piece.”

But one journalist on the call, who was later laid off, said Global’s response to race-related issues “always seems to be about brand protection more than holding ourselves accountable. There is this automatic defensiveness that seems to come up even when we try to fix our mistakes.”

The journalist then pointed to an incident that took place at Global B.C. in September 2019, when diversity and inclusion speaker Mo Dhaliwal overheard a Global staff member make a joke about blackface as he was preparing to be a guest on a segment about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s blackface scandal.

When Dhaliwal commented on the joke during his segment, Global decided not to air the segment. After Dhaliwal wrote about it in Vancouver weekly the Georgia Straight, Global B.C. news director Jill Krop invited him on air for a discussion, during which she said he had been “unwilling to accept our apologies” and accused him of being slow to respond to her.

Krop also asked Dhaliwal on air for suggestions to “help solve this,” and told him that an employee of colour told her they were “proud” of how Global had handled the situation.

In an October 1, 2019 email addressed to Smith and obtained by VICE News, several Global News journalists expressed concerns about the incident and Krop’s handling of it.

“We believe the interview between Jill and Mo exposed blindspots within our organization that can—and should—be addressed,” the email said. Global refused to conduct a diversity audit at the time, according to multiple former employees.

Smith replied by email at the time, saying he was “determined to address this critical matter and the ongoing handling of these incidents on the management side.”

“This entire circumstance is upsetting to me and especially that we continue to make matters worse in the eyes of our employees,” he said.

Troy Reeb’s assertion that the layoffs would allow the company to focus on “fact-based journalism” struck a nerve among both former and current employees, some of whom felt the lifestyle team had borne the brunt of race reporting in the newsroom and tried to amplify the voices of people of colour.

“That was just a blow to the work I was doing, the work my team was doing,” one former employee said of Reeb’s comments. “We worked so hard to find a diverse range of sources. We were operating by the same journalistic practices as everyone at Global News.”

Reporters Olivia Bowden, Laura Hensley, and Meghan Collie were all laid off from the lifestyle team, as was Jane Gerster, an investigative journalist on the features team.

The lifestyle team’s offerings included a series on violence against women, a story on how a lack of race-based data hurts Black Canadians, and an investigation about sexual harassment centred on a woman of colour who worked at a startup.

Khandaker and Browne, who frequently focused on race on Wait, There’s More, were also let go. An episode in June, for which I was interviewed, was about the struggles faced by journalists of colour.

“It’s almost laughable that the company said they’re committed to fact-based journalism, when they made very little attempt to improve talk radio.”

One Global News employee questioned how the company could claim to be emphasizing objectivity while leaving problematic shock jocks on air to float conspiratorial ideas about Islam and the children detained by ICE.

“It’s almost laughable that the company said they’re committed to fact-based journalism, when they made very little attempt to improve talk radio. There are hosts and on air contributors across the Corus network that regularly go off on all sorts of nonsense,” one employee said, noting that some of the longstanding radio hosts are paid six-figure salaries.

Corus told VICE News its talk radio content “is designed to be an outlet for free speech and opinion, with a wide range of perspectives.”

Two former Global employees who spoke to VICE News said they were tone-policed when they raised concerns about the workplace.

In an email to Diversipro, one said they had been “called into a meeting with HR to discuss the ways in which I am racist to white men” and was told, “My comments about Canadian media’s ongoing whiteness problem make some white men around me uncomfortable.”

“I felt ambushed and later, exhausted by it all. That’s when I stopped thinking of Global as a long-term career option,” the employee told VICE News.

Another employee, a producer and woman of colour, said she was summoned to a meeting by her boss Kevin Buffitt, then-director of online video at Global News, after a white male colleague took issue with the way she declined his offer to help her on a project. She felt her colleague was bothered by the fact that she wasn’t overly friendly with him when she said “no, thanks.”

“I just felt that it was ridiculous,” the producer said. “How do I rephrase my answer of ‘no thanks’ to make you feel better?”

The producer said she was covering a colleague’s maternity leave and was repeatedly verbally promised a job by Buffitt when her contract was up.

“I felt I was seen as an internal troublemaker.”

The producer said she had several conversations with Buffitt about feeling like she was being overworked compared to other team members. When it came time for her to interview for a position that would keep her in the newsroom—one very similar to her role at the time—she said she was told Buffitt had hired a white woman “because she had more thorough answers than you.”

Around the same time, the producer said three of her white team members were given promotions.

“I felt I was seen as an internal troublemaker. It was like she’s not worth the effort,” the producer told VICE News.

In an email to VICE News, Buffitt said the producer was the leading candidate for the job, but another woman “outperformed her in the interview and was equally experienced and qualified for the role.”

He said the producer “indicated a lack of interest in significant aspects of the position going forward.”

In a Twitter thread detailing her experiences with racism at Global News, Alley Wilson, a Black multimedia producer, alleged Buffitt yelled and belittled her at work, and hinted that she should quit when she raised concerns about the microaggressions she faced. Wilson’s thread also said an editor used the N-word around her; Corus would not say if that editor has faced discipline. (Wilson has since deactivated her Twitter account.)

Buffitt told VICE News his management style “was not ideal and there were definitely high pressure times I raised my voice”—but that he felt he had dealt with those issues years ago.

“At the time I really did not understand the role microaggressions could play in the workplace and I believe I was too dismissive of her concern at the time. I have learned a lot since then and continue to do so,” he said.

Buffitt was laid off on August 4, according to an internal company email viewed by VICE News. He told VICE News the layoff had nothing to do with the allegations about his behaviour and that he is currently still working at Global on a transition plan.

“I have been told it is possible there will be a role for me at Global News within the new structure,” he said.

Corus said it doesn’t share details about the handling of internal investigations.

The concerns about racism weren’t limited to the news division.

Joshua Grant was hired as a community manager for Corus in December 2016 and later a social media strategist for Global TV, the entertainment arm of the broadcaster’s programming. Grant said in September 2018, Nike released its “Dream Crazy” ad featuring NFL star Colin Kaepernick, who had been blackballed from the league after starting a kneeling protest to draw attention to police brutality. Grant said his boss at Global TV, Jason Giles, instructed him to make a meme of the ad, which he refused to do.

“I said we’ve never touched on anything remotely seen as political or touching on race. I don't think it makes sense for us to enter the ring where we’re making fun of something,” Grant said.

He later tweeted about the ask: “A colleague really suggested we use that Colin Kaepernick Nike ad meme for one of our brands i—.”

That night, Giles emailed Grant a screenshot of the tweet. VICE News has viewed the email. In a meeting the next day, Grant alleged Giles said, “‘Give me a reason why I shouldn't fire you on the spot right now.’”

According to Grant, Giles said that his boss, Dervla Kelly, senior vice president of marketing and so.da for Corus Entertainment, wanted Grant fired over the tweet but that he would give him a second chance.

Giles has not responded to VICE News’ request for comment.

On another occasion, Grant said Kelly wanted staff to make a meme out of Childish Gambino’s video for “This is America,” a commentary on race and gun violence in the U.S. He said she wanted to replace a gun Childish Gambino holds in the video with a bouquet of flowers and the words “This is Canada.”

Corus said it never asked Grant to make light of the Nike ad nor “This is America.” Kelly denied threatening to fire Grant over the Nike ad.

“Nike’s ad featuring Colin Kaepernick was an important stand against racism and police brutality and Corus, along with Dervla Kelly, would not condone making light of this issue nor threaten to terminate an employee who refused to do so,” the company said.

Grant said he no longer felt comfortable working at Corus after Giles threatened to fire him.

“I’ve never felt so small, so powerless,” Grant said.

Ika Wong, 35, a Black freelance correspondent with Global TV’s ET Canada, tweeted in June that she will no longer work “for a company with such little regard for Black people when they use our content, faces, and culture to make money.” Wong said she was upset that ET Canada initially said nothing about the police brutality protests following the killing of George Floyd, and only spoke up after a number of celebrities did.

“If you walk into a room and there’s only white people, you have a race issue.”

Wong told VICE News she started working with ET Canada after she was a contestant on season five of Big Brother Canada. She said almost everyone she worked with was white.

“If you walk into a room and there’s only white people, you have a race issue,” she said.

During a segment where she was meant to discuss racist incidents on Big Brother Canada, she said Corus’ public relations team showed up and told her to make sure the conversation had a “positive twist” and came across as a “teachable moment.”

“The conversation, when it comes to Corus and ET, was never going to be honest. It was more about smoothing over and making things OK,” Wong said.

Corus said it provides hosts with “communications specialists to provide media training support in order to have honest, candid conversations around important issues.” The company said ET Canada “has always been proud to provide coverage of racialized issues in the entertainment industry, and as the Black Lives Matter movement progressed ET Canada expanded its coverage of the movement.”

Wong also said she felt she was consistently underpaid. Initially her day rate to travel to L.A. was $400 to interview 16 people in one day, she said, a rate that rose to $800 for her last couple of shoots. She said she was never told she could bill for her travel days, and prep time as she did all her own hair and makeup and wardrobe.

In the middle of shooting a 10-week Big Brother Canada-related show, executive producer Sholeh Fabbri emailed Wong to say her rate was being cut nearly in half if she worked fewer than five hours in a day. In an email viewed by VICE News, Fabbri said Wong could “step down” if the reduced rate didn’t work for her. Fabbri is no longer with the company.

Wong also said she had to work for free for three episodes after she pitched her own reality TV-based recap show.

“I felt very devalued,” she said. “I couldn't believe that this network that I admired when I was growing up was doing this to me.”

Wong said eventually a colleague told her she could bill for three years’ worth of travel days and prep time. After she called out Corus and quit, she billed them for more than $21,000, which they paid. VICE News has viewed the invoice.

Corus said its rates are determined on experience, job requirements, and whether or not someone is working a full or half day.

The allegations about Corus come at a time when the Canadian media industry is facing intense scrutiny over its perceived failures on issues of race.

This week, more than 60 Toronto Star employees wrote a letter to management after columnist Rosie DiManno sent what they described as a “hateful, racist” newsroom-wide email expressing her disdain for a new ombud role at the paper, created to field concerns related to race. DiManno called the new role a “fucking abomination.”

In an essay for the Walrus based in part on her experience at CBC Radio, Toronto-based writer Pacinthe Mattar wrote about how racialized journalists are often accused of being biased when they cover stories about racism while objectivity is viewed through a white lens. Chatelaine editor Denise Balkissoon wrote that when she left the Globe and Mail she felt “convinced that no one with real power there was ever going to pursue true equity, either inside the newsroom or in its coverage.”

In Refinery29, senior writer Kathleen Newman-Bremang discussed the many racist microaggressions she endured at CTV and MuchMusic, eventually leading her to conclude that a dream job for Black women in media doesn’t exist. Refinery29, owned by VICE Media Group, has faced backlash over its alleged mistreatment of employees of colour, some of whom said they were underpaid.

After being called out, many media outlets have promised to try to increase diversity within their ranks.

In a video Corus posted to Vimeo July 21, Murphy quoted Martin Luther King Jr. and said he had signed the BlackNorth Initiative Pledge, a commitment by Canadian business leaders to remove systemic barriers affecting Black people.

Last week, he sent out an email warning his staff about potential media coverage “seemingly intent to rehash the stories about our company that were in the media… weeks ago.”

“We are doing the right things to address concerns and I encourage all of us to focus on the important steps we’ve taken to date, and the changes we will make going forward,” Murphy said.

Current and former Corus employees told VICE News that in spite of Global’s promises to do better, and the investigation being conducted by DiversiPro, they are not expecting the company culture to change.

“They express shock when we raise concerns, offer a meeting and pledge to do better, but no actual tangible steps ever appear to be taken,” said one former employee in an email to DiversiPro that was viewed by VICE News.

One employee said they want to leave Corus as soon as they find another job—and that that is a common sentiment among their colleagues. They said due to the scarcity of jobs within the media industry, they don’t doubt that Global News will find young talent to replace them. But they worry about other Black, Indigenous, and racialized journalists who end up at Corus.

“It just breaks my heart knowing what I know and that nothing has really changed and these young people are up next,” the employee said.

Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.