Philly Mag’s “Being White in Philly” Doesn’t Make Sense as Journalism

How do you launch a frank discussion about race under a cloak of anonymity?

The March issue of Philadelphia magazine is unfortunate. I saw the issue late last week. I still have sort of a hard time believing it’s real.

Others have already made powerful arguments about what the cover story gets wrong about race. I just wanted to make a few points about why I think the story—“Being White in Philly”—doesn’t make sense as journalism. That’s my lens, and that’s how I’ve been thinking about it.

The writer, Bob Huber, is a friend of mine. He’s hugely talented and has done an impressive amount of great work, but I think he’s misguided here, and I’ve already emailed him to tell him why. The way I see it, the story is doomed before Bob has a chance to write a single sentence. The framing is that this is a story about “being white.” It’s going to explore race from a single point of view. No black people will be quoted, no Hispanic people, no Asian people. (And they’re not.) This seems fatal to me. All Bob can accomplish within the frame of “being white” is exactly what he does accomplish, which is to chronicle the racial fears of one particular group of people, moving among his sources as a kind of confessor.

I say confessor because the quotes he gathers aren’t on the record. Sources are anonymous, names are changed. I don’t like this. I don’t see how you’re going launch a frank discussion of race—the stated goal of the piece, and a worthy one—under a cloak of anonymity.

Another thing I don’t like: The thrust of the piece seems to be that white people are afraid to talk about race because black people have made them feel uncomfortable talking about race. Therefore we can’t solve problems in the city, because a conversation is impossible. The implication is that this is black people’s fault. Beyond the way this argument turns the reality of racism and segregation on its head, it just baffles me on a practical level: I don’t get why you’d devote 6,000 words or whatever (the story is really long) to explaining why it’s difficult to have a conversation when you could just go and have the conversation.

The story is well-intentioned. It’s an earnest and heartfelt attempt to do a good thing—to get people to talk about something that matters. I know Bob well enough to say that. I also have tremendous respect for Philly Mag editor Tom McGrath, who, to his credit, has given staffers this forum to speak out publicly, which I think says a lot. Part of the reason I’m upset about “Being White in Philly” is that I care about the magazine and how we’re perceived. I’ve written for Philly Mag for a decade now, and I think we’re a lot better and smarter than the caricature of us I often encounter: that we only care about white Main Liners, that we cater to the rich and powerful, and on and on. When I hear this, I always think: Bullshit. You’re not actually reading us. I’m proud of our investigative reporting and narrative writing on gun violence, the police, sex offenders, the Mafia, real estate developers, the pensions crisis, politicians, corrupt neighborhood leaders, union intimidation, and dozens of other important topics. We do good work here. That’s why I dread the moment when the full story goes online. I fear our good work is going to get lost in the criticism. And we’re going to deserve it.

READ MORE: Steve Volk’s “Why I Hope You Won’t Read ‘Being White in Philly’: This Story Is Racist.