Bleacher Report CEO resigns after being pressed by staff about diversity
By BEN STRAUSS | The Washington Post | Published: June 24, 2020
The media-wide reckoning with diversity and representation in newsrooms across the country erupted at Bleacher Report on Tuesday with the resignation of CEO Howard Mittman after staff raised concerns about a lack of diversity at the digital sports media company owned by Warner Media.
Brian Graham, a content executive, also resigned, announcing on Twitter that he was leaving the company.
"My intent was to disassociate myself from a company that has undervalued thoughtful, forward-thinking black employees for quite some time - particularly those in leadership," Graham wrote in a tweet.
In an email to staff, Lenny Daniels, president of Turner Sports, wrote that plans to overhaul Bleacher Report were already in the works but "based on the many conversations I've had with B/R colleagues over the past few weeks, candidly, it's accelerated the timeline. It's become clear to me that significant change needs to occur now."
Daniels will take over responsibility for Bleacher Report.
Mittman, whose departure was first reported by the website Outkick the Coverage, was hired last year after a stint as an executive at Condé Nast. His exit is the culmination of weeks of turmoil at Bleacher Report in which employees held virtual meetings with leadership, raising concerns about what they described as a toxic culture that valued a Black editorial voice but did not develop Black talent inside the company.
According to employees familiar with the chain of events, Mittman held an all-hands meeting for employees as protests spread across the country in the wake of the killing of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police.
Many felt the initial meeting was perfunctory, with Mittman speaking in platitudes about needing to hire more diverse candidates, referencing his own Black friends and refusing to answer more than just a few questions from staff. Afterward, staffers delivered a petition with more than 250 signatures, demanding another all-hands meeting in which Mittman would have to answer staff questions. Attended by Daniels, Mittman and a handful of other Bleacher Report executives - none of whom are Black - the meeting took place last Thursday and lasted for four hours. Staffers said the meeting was emotional at times, as employees spoke of a series of incidents that left them troubled by Mittman's leadership.
One Black woman submitted a written comment, stating that Mittman had told a room full of sales staff, "I own you." According to a transcript that was read to The Washington Post, Mittman said the phrase several times and the incident, according to the employee, was "incredibly uncomfortable and unsettling."
Among the other concerns raised were a Black History Month project this year that was scheduled to follow Black athletes as they spoke about their careers to high school students, but was abruptly canceled.
Employees also brought up the strategy of the company's desire to approximate a young, urban voice while being led by a mostly white leadership and business team.
Dave Schilling, a former writer for Bleacher Report from 2017 to 2019, said in an interview, "There's no vision for the content aside from Black appropriation. Approximating that voice was what they felt like what was going to get traffic, but they didn't have any interest in the real struggle of African Americans in sports."
Schilling described what he called several troubling instances that predated Mittman, but spoke to the company's values. The first was a directive to talk more on his podcast about the fandom of stars like Rihanna and Drake instead of Colin Kaepernick, after the quarterback knelt during the national anthem in protest of police brutality and racial injustice in 2016. Schilling also worked on a project with colleagues in 2018 that examined marijuana usage in sports and how many Black athletes were turning to the drug for pain management. They spent months working on the project and a live event was scheduled in Los Angeles to kick it off. But before it launched, the event was canceled and much of the promotion was pulled. Schilling said he was told directly that Turner Sports didn't want to be associated with something that portrayed marijuana in a positive light.
A Turner spokesman declined to comment.
The Bleacher Report shake-up comes at a moment when staffs at media companies - both in sports and beyond - are demanding their newsrooms address issues of diversity. The union of The Ringer, a website founded by Bill Simmons that was recently acquired by Spotify, has pushed its leadership to hire more minority candidates, as has the union representing Sports Illustrated.
In the memo sent Tuesday, Daniels listed several initiatives the company would undertake, including revamping the Peoples Advisory Committee, a resource to promote diversity hiring and management decisions.