After days of Twitter debates about whether or not Believer editor-in-chief Joshua Wolf Shenk should have had to resign from his job for accidentally exposing his genitals while in the bathtub on a work call, current and former employees have come forward with a shocking revelation: Shenk was also a shitty boss.
In an open letter on Medium, staffers criticized the Los Angeles Times’s reporting of the story, which they said falsely portrayed the incident as merely “an unfortunate accident for which Shenk graciously apologized and offered his resignation.” In reality, they said, the bathtub blunder was no “random accident” for Shenk, who was also the executive director of the Black Mountain Institute:
We see this act as the culmination of a years-long pattern of inappropriate and disrespectful behavior that belies a chronic lack of care and concern for the comfort, boundaries, and safety of the staff — not to mention that of students, fellows, and others in BMI and The Believer’s communities. This pattern of behavior resulted in a workplace culture that was difficult and at times painful to operate within. We worked, in spite of this, to create the successful programs and publications BMI and The Believer are known for — work for which Shenk is credited throughout the LA Times article.
The writers of the open letter said Shenk had also earned a reputation for “making women uncomfortable”; those women who worked for him were also paid very little, and many of them were left in limbo as independent contractors without any salary or benefits. People of color who worked for him were tokenized, the current and former staffers said, and experienced similar pay disparities at the magazine.
I joke that these accusations are “shocking” only because sadly they are so ordinary. Which is why I find it puzzling that so many people seemed eager to discount the very real possibility that Shenk might have been a bad boss before the bathtub incident. It is one of the most common things for bosses to be. And it irks me when people use workplace controversies like this as test cases for their theories and concerns—about labor rights, sexual politics, or so-called cancel culture, for example—without knowing the whole story.
A magazine editor bathing on Zoom while reportedly wearing a mesh top is too outrageous to ignore, but one must at least acknowledge there may be nuance elsewhere.