For the past year and a half, something has felt off with my beloved Los Angeles Times Food section. I just couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
Since its relaunch, the Food section has struggled to find its voice. While a few stories, especially by Patricia Escarcega, have stuck in my memory, I have yet to feel compelled to save or share a recipe from the Food section.
Something about many of the stories and the recipes published in the LA Times Food section felt like an outsider’s generalization of what Los Angeles food is or isn’t. Searching for a voice, experimenting with humor, but trying too hard. The example I think of most prominently are the Christmas cookies they published in 2019, which had an air of West LA, Goop-y ingredients like maca and golden milk.
I have drafts of essays in my Google Drive comparing the LA Times Food Instagram to other major publications' food accounts, but it feels petty to have written something along the lines of, “The LA Times Food Instagram is visually inconsistent.” I even have a half-baked analysis of the traffic patterns to the digital platforms of several major food publishers - NYT Cooking, LA Times Food, Serious Eats, and Food52 - sitting in my drafts, as I tried to understand what it is about LA Times Food that felt incomplete.
Were the types of recipes being produced not nationally of interest? Did they invest in a Pinterest strategy? Are there limitations with their Instagram resourcing, resulting in iPhone pics with yellow backdrops? Is there not enough budget for food stylists, freelancers, and contributors, the way NYT Cooking has consistent visual language, and features a bevy of names and faces on their social platforms and in their cooking database?
I couldn’t quite place the root of my dissatisfaction with the new LA Times Food. It felt...overarching.
After all this backseat quarterbacking, wondering and trying to connect any and all dots, the truth was there all along: It was the person at the top.
This past week, the editor of the LA Times Food section, Peter Meehan, resigned after reports abusive and inappropriate behavior in the workplace.
There’s a saying in the business world: “culture eats strategy for lunch.” This is the best example of that idiom I’ve seen.
You simply cannot do consistently great work when you’re walking on eggshells around your boss - and especially when that boss isn’t even residing in your city! You can’t do great work when you dread an 11 PM call from a higher-up, while simultaneously feeling you can’t not pick up the phone. You can’t function as a reporter when you can’t have a team dinner without fear of misconduct happening, or when timely and relevant angles, like Juneteenth, are not pursued because the guy at the top doesn’t see it as relevant coverage.
When I was a PR consultant for Microsoft, I saw this first-hand -- a culture of fear, a scarcity mindset, navel-gazing, infighting, and silos made the company its own worst enemy. Initiatives would fail because doing the work to put it together and make it happen was just impossible to accomplish within that culture.
The culture of a team is a mirror of its leader. Flaws are amplified. And what’s worse is that when a leader is failing its team, it creates a culture of fear and shame, which leads to apathy and burnout.
Thank god for brave whistleblowers - Tammie Teclemariam, the freelance food & wine writer who shared this initial report of Meehan, and who also broke the news of Adam Rapoport’s misconduct a few weeks ago. LA Times Food writers, including Ben Mims and Lucas Kwan Peterson, have since published statements further detailing the level of inappropriate behavior happening at the Times. Rachel Khong, who previously worked with Meehan at Lucky Peach, also shared her story.
Those who speak truth to power are doing the work to make the food media world a more equitable place. Unearthing horrors about people we previously admired is disillusioning and disappointing yet necessary work. We need to label the cause and identify the disease in order to cure it.
This wave of food media outings is a continuance of the #metoo era - a movement founded by Tarana Burke, a Black woman. And similar to the origins of #metoo, we are now seeing people of color - women of color specifically - risking their careers to blow the whistle, tell the truth, and call bullshit on the food media’s tendency towards centering white faces - especially white male faces - and hiring based on false pedigree.
While the 2017 crescendo of #metoo focused on the news media and entertainment industries, with some mentions of high profile chefs, it did not extend to food media. Now, publications are calling BS on themselves. A frustrating misunderstanding within the #metoo movement was the perception that it didn’t pursue justice, just that it “ruined” many men’s careers. But #metoo was invented not to dominate the headlines with stories of bad men, but rather to empower the survivors of sexual and gender-based violence. Unfortunately, the news cycles of 2017 focused on the misdeeds of powerful men, rather than the pain and trauma that survivors troughed through. And these news stories did not center the healing journeys that these people were now burdened to undergo. (Or if they did, they didn’t generate virality the way the outings did.)
Now, rather than focusing so intently on the trauma porn of the actions of Peter Meehan and other men in food media, we need to center survivors - in this case, the reporters themselves - and what they need to move forward, thrive, and be successful in their jobs and their lives. And most importantly: not worry so much about the careers of ruined men.
While the LA Times has not yet named a new editor to the Food section, this person has to be trauma-informed and hold space for the healing of the small but mighty team of LA Times Food reporters. And that is in addition to being a superstar editor, writing coach, restaurant and culture aficionado, technology strategist, and media maven.
The resiliency of the LA Times Food team will be made clear when they grow their following, outperform the competition, break news, and push the boundaries of what food journalism can be.
I’m so rooting for them to come out on top -- to hone their voice; to create recipes that feel more relatable and that people across the nation want to cook and share; to share out gorgeous photography that uplifts the cooking team’s creations; and when we can gather again, to do events and experiences that center those in the food world who don’t always get the spotlight.
And for them to share their stories of healing, reconciliation, and justice at the end of it.
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