Metro Racism

When The New York Times Company, owner of The Boston Globe, recently announced it would buy a 49 percent stake in Boston Metro, did it know it was also buying into a corporate culture of crude racism?
On April 4-6, 2003, officials of the Metro International newspaper chain held a sales conference near Rome. Top executives of all the nearly two dozen Metro newspapers were there – the managing directors (i.e. publishers), along with sales directors, editors and others. The annual corporate event, complete with lavish food, open bar and costly entertainment, is meant to celebrate sales and motivate managers for the next year.

At the Saturday night gala dinner, tradition has it that someone at each table sing a song or tell a joke before dessert, as a means of breaking the ice and helping everyone bond.

"Each table identified its top talent," one attendee remembered recently. "The idea was to provide a little entertainment."

But according to several former Metro executives who were at the gala, the festivities turned suddenly and shockingly sour when Steve Nylundh, the global newspaper chain's leading North America executive, took his turn. John Wilpers, then-editor of Boston Metro, explains.

"There were 15 or 20 tables," Wilpers recalls. "Each had put together a little presentation, and Nylund was chosen to represent his."

"I will tell a joke," Nylund announced from the front of the room.

Nylund's "joke" came in the form of a toast that centered on the length of the sexual organs of black males, whom he referred to as "niggers."

"It concerned the depth of a pool of water and the length of their penises," Wilpers says.

"Nylund began by saying, 'There were two niggers standing by a pool, and they took their dicks out,'" another participant recalls. "He went on about how one said the pool was too cold, and the other said it was too deep. I wanted to crawl under the table."

"All the Americans and the southern Europeans gasped," says Wilpers. "Someone at my table said, 'I can't believe he said that!' But the Nordics all laughed."

Wilpers says such crudely racist "humor" was common at Metro when he worked there – but usually not in public. "There were often jokes made in private by the northern Europeans. The corporate culture encouraged it. The company is run by people who are racist and ugly."

Other former Metro executives who attended the gala echo Wilpers' assessment. "I was sitting at a table with the Czechs and Hungarians," one told me. "I was shocked at what I heard. Quiet just fell over the entire room. No one knew what to say."

"I fell off my chair," another said. "The mentality there is shocking."

"When I left, I asked some of the Europeans if it had been as shocking to them as to us Americans," one attendee told me. "They said, 'Absolutely!'"

"It's bizarre and unbelievable," he concluded. "The people who run Metro are NOT stupid – you would think that even if they were that racist they wouldn't say it in public!"

Incredibly, the racist joking did not end at the dinner near Rome. A few months later, a similar incident took place at a dinner the Metro chain held on August 29th at a Hilton hotel in Stockholm. Once again the affair was attended by top Metro executives, along with others from television stations and networks owned by the Kinnevik Corporation, the multi-billion-dollar holding company behind the Metro Group.

Hans-Holger Albrecht, a member of Metro Newspapers Board of Directors, as well as president and CEO of Modern Times Group, the former corporate parent of Metro, was Master of Ceremonies for the gala evening. Perhaps in reference to Nylund's joke a few months earlier in Rome, Albrecht began the festivities by saying "Good evening, ladies, gentlemen and niggers."

Cristina Stenbeck, heir to Kinnevik founder Jan Stenbeck and a member of the Metro board of directors, was in attendance at both functions – at Rome she sat at the table directly next to Nylundh's – but had no negative reaction.

"Cristina was there and did nothing," one former Metro executive recalls. "The next day, however, the CEO did make a joke about Steve's 'affirmative action' program."

The shocking dinner 'humor' is only one indication of an apparently crude corporate culture of racism and discrimination at the Metro chain. Other employees at Boston Metro have formally charged the corporation with racist practices, and filed complaints with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. C. C. Lee, a former sales representative, charged he was the victim of a "racially motivated" salary cutback, and told me "the culture of the company" is racist.

"Racism is always an element," Lee says. "They made racist innuendo, and comments like 'Blacks smoke crack.' That's their corporate culture."

Other employees also complain that Metro is sexist as well as racist. One woman said the company was "male-dominated" and that it was difficult for women to "go anywhere in the company" – it's only men, and mostly white." She also told of an advertisement that was turned down by Philadelphia Metro because "the paper did not want it to look like its readers needed food stamps" and didn't want to send "the wrong message' to its advertisers." Instead, she said, "the paper wanted its readers to appear young, professional, upwardly mobile and white collar."

No one at either the Metro Group or The New York Times denies the story.

When I first contacted Ken Frydman, the press representative for the Metro Newspapers, for comment, he immediately told me, "Don't expect to get a response" to my questions about the events described above. Frydman's instinct proved correct. After asking more than a dozen specific questions, I was told only that "No one is going to be available to talk to you on that story."

Executives at Metro's new partner, The New York Times Company, which just paid $16.5 million in exchange for a 49 percent stake in Boston Metro, proved no more forthcoming. In response to requests to interview Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. or Boston Globe publisher Richard Gilman about the allegations of Metro-racism, company spokeswoman Catherine Mathis said only that "Ken is the right person to deal with this."

Breaking the Silence of The Times

Yesterday, when I broke the story of how The New York Times Company (see ""Metro Racism" in today's top stories) had bought into a shocking and crude corporate culture of racism when it partnered with the Metro newspaper group in Boston, no one at either The Times or Metro would deign to respond to my story.

Instead, representatives of The Times said it was up to Metro to comment, and a representative of the Metro group told me not to expect a response. Obviously, executives at both companies made the determination that simply ignoring the story – after all, it only appeared in one of those obscure 'blogs' (Media is a Plural) and on the MediaChannel, an "alternative" web site deemed by some to be far out of the "mainstream" that huge corporations like The Times and Metro float in.

The arrogance of the two "communications" companies in refusing to communicate with the public about the tasteless, racist comments made by top Metro executives could not continue, however, due to the awesome, unchecked power of blogs and the internet.

First up with a demand for a response was Dan Kennedy, media critic for the Boston Phoenix. Next Jim Romenesko, whose Poynter Institute-housed media blog is essential reading for anyone in the media business, prominently posted a link to the story on his site with the headline:

Report: NYT Co. is buying into a culture of crude racism.

Soon I began hearing from Boston's mainstream media – including several calls from The Boston Globe, The Times-owned daily that is meant to execute the proposed partnership with Metro's free daily in Boston.

Soon the wall of silence cracked, and both The Times and Metro were forced to abandon their decision not to respond. By day's end, Dan Kennedy had posted responses from both The Times Company and Metro. Rather than paraphrase them, I suggest you read the statements yourself, and see if you share my amazement.

The Times, pushed unwittingly into the fray, finally admitted it was at least "discussing" the matter with its new partners at Metro, and then pushed out some pro forma pap about how it is "committed to fair treatment of all employees based on respect, accountability and standards of excellence."

The Metro statement, on the other hand, is one of the oddest "non-denial denials" seen this side of Richard Nixon and Watergate. But in essence it confirms the particulars of my original reporting, and even contains a half-hearted sort of apology for the bizarre and offensive racist comments made by top Metro executives in the past – remarks so offensive that even The Boston Globe ran a story on the controversy today, confirming my original story but centering, of course, on the "apology" offered by Metro's top executive in North America, Steve Nylund. //

But thus far the august New York Times itself has yet to report on its new, racist partner.

Don't hold your breath!

Community Responds to Metro Racism

Outrage over the racist corporate culture at the Metro newspaper group – and at the lack of adequate response by either Metro or its new partners at The New York Times Company – continues to build, as leaders and members of minority communities in both Boston and New York are now offering their own responses to the shocking revelations from earlier this week.

The Times-owned Boston Globe, meant to be the local partner with Boston Metro, yesterday quoted Leonard Alkins, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP, as saying the MediaChannel reports are "very troublesome, and clearly [The Times Company] is buying into a newspaper whose management seems to have some questionable character problems."

The Times Company, he said, "needs to deal with the culture of the Metro first and then sit down with the community."

Massachusetts State Rep. Byron Rushing said The Times Company must have the "ability to work on changing the culture of the company. It has to be part of the deal." Otherwise, he added, "you're only profiting from a culture that allows this kind of thing to happen." And two Boston-area African-American pastors demanded a meeting with Times Company and Globe executives, saying "The Metro needs to connect with some group doing cultural and racial sensitivity training."

Meanwhile journalists' associations and academic institutes also began to weigh in. The Boston Association of Black Journalists issued a statement saying, "The crude and racist comments reportedly made by Metro executives are inexcusable and should give The New York Times a huge red flag about the insensitive culture within its new business partner. By not condemning these alleged remarks, The New York Times and its subsidiary, the Boston Globe, give the appearance that they have surrendered their once liberal values to making a quick easy buck." Boston Herald columnist Howard Manly is president of the association, which also recommended a boycott of the Metro. Manly said the statement was written as a collaborative effort by members of the association.

Rem Rieder, editor of the American Journalism Review, said, "It's very embarrassing, particularly for a company like [The Times] ... It's hard to imagine worse publicity ... I think I'd be thinking seriously about walking away."

Callie Crossley, program manager at Harvard's prestigious Nieman Foundation, told Globe reporter Mark Jurkowitz that "It is incumbent" on The Times Company "not just to say something but to do something ... . They need to take this very seriously. This is a publication aimed at young people. What's the message here?"

Meanwhile the controversy continued to spread, and has now reached the backyard of The Times Company. As reported today in the New York Post, "Black leaders in New York yesterday said they wanted to stop the presses at the free daily Metro after top executives at the newspaper made headlines for telling crude racist jokes."

Speaking of Metro executive Steve R. Nylund, City Councilman Charles Barron said, "He should be fired." Barron also said he would discuss the issue with the council's black and Latino caucus, whose members may call for a boycott, noting "It's a free paper, but if their readership goes down, it doesn't help their advertisers."

MediaChannel also received outraged responses from its readers. "Thank you for breaking the silence on this subject. In doing so I have taken action by forwarding your article along to others," Tonia Shakespeare wrote. "It also points out the need for me as an African American to participate in blogging ... something I feel not enough of us are doing. And as your site demonstrates, the need for American media to have a watchdog and an alternate viewpoint."

Another reader, Mary Ann Mills, expressed her shock and offered to join a boycott. "I just read about the racist comments made by executives of and their pathetic excuse for an apology by one of them. I am at first shocked, then dismayed, and now outraged at these executives and their company, and The New York Times, that is actively working to buy this company. I am MORE than fed up with any people, people in the public eye, and most especially people who hold public trust, be it media or government, behaving as if comments such as these do not matter and do not carry weight. It is inexcusable any way you look at it."

Meanwhile, the Boston Herald reported further evidence of racist remarks and attitudes at the free newspaper chain, amid growing signs that the entire proposed deal between The Times Company and Metro may be falling apart. Although a spokeswoman for The Times Company yesterday declined to comment on whether the organization was reconsidering its transaction with Boston Metro, the Boston Globe reported that several analysts are reflecting on the potential of the negative headlines to stall or even kill the partnership.

George Ticknor, a partner at Palmer & Dodge who heads up the firm's media and communications finance group, told the Globe bad publicity may not kill the deal, but it could give Times Co. executives pause.

"Newspaper operators like The Times [Co.] have to have their ear to the ground," he said. "The impact of negative publicity on newspapers is very significant ... Credibility with the readership and newspaper public is important."

Metro Execs Resign

Metro International executives who made racially disparaging remarks that set off a media firestorm this week have resigned, according to Pelle Tornberg, company president and CEO. Steve Nylund resigned as president of Metro US, but will maintain his position as executive vice president of Metro International, "with no operational responsibility in the company." And Hans Holger-Albrecht has resigned from the Metro International board.

A company statement noted that: "Recently, there have been stories in the news media that members of our organization have acted contrary" to the company's core values.

It also pronounced the actions "regrettable," and promised to take action on several other fronts. MediaChannel broke the story on Monday of the crude racist comments made by the executives, and of a pervasive corporate culture of discrimination.

Metro is hiring an outside firm to assess the policies and practices of Metro US with regard to employee and community relations as well as a new global director of human resources. It is also developing more training and sensitivity initiatives, and establishing citizen advisory boards in the communities in which it operates "to advise senior management on diversity issues." The company also says it will "redouble" its efforts to recruit a representative workforce of the racial and ethnic makeup of the communities in which it operates.

The Metro damage control came amidst growing speculation that The New York Times Company, which had proposed purchasing 49 percent of the Boston Metro daily for more than 16 million dollars, would try to modify its pending deal with Metro – or perhaps to pull out of it entirely, as many in both the journalism and financial communities have already begun to suggest.

Threatened boycotts in Boston and New York, coupled with bad press all over the country, were tarnishing the cherished (and valuable) Times brand. And top executives, all the way up to publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., were said to be increasingly frustrated at the furor – and at the amount of their time and attention the scandal has been demanding.

One Internet CEO who was meeting with the top Timesman earlier this week reported that Sulzberger's cell phone went off "every two minutes" during their meeting. Each call appeared to concern the Metro story, and each successively made Sulzberger's face redder than the last as he attempted to dampen a story that began on the internet but had begun spreading nationally like wildfire via outlets as varied as the Associated Press and AlterNet.

Times management obviously is hopeful that the concessions by Metro will end the controversy and allow them to move ahead with their planned partnership.

Globe Columnist Knew

But the fact that a columnist for the Times-owned Boston Globe knew of the allegations of crude racism at Metro months before the story was reported here this week may further inflame the situation and cause more problems for the troubled venture.

Although the Globe's Alex Beam learned the basic facts behind the racism scandal now making front page news in Boston, he decided not to pursue the story. Beam was told by a former Metro executive of shocking racist remarks about African Americans made by other Metro executives at company dinners in Rome and Stockholm in 2003. The executive, who attended both fests, was appalled by the remarks and said he wanted the truth about Metro's corporate culture of discrimination made public.

I know because he subsequently told me. I also know because I spoke with Beam in the course of my initial investigation. Beam confirmed over the telephone that he had been contacted by the former Metro executive, who had told him of fellow Metro executives telling "jokes" about the anatomy of African-American men, and repeatedly referred to blacks as "niggers."

It is not known if Beam told anyone else at the Globe of what he learned about the Metro-racism, or why he decided not to put it in the paper months before the Metro-Times deal was hatched – or if he did, why no one at the Globe ever mentioned the matter to Times officials as they were performing their due diligence while preparing to invest.

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This and other articles by Rory O'Connor are available on his blog.