Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Two Ethical Futures for The Mighty

The Mighty is a well-funded website that publishes personal essays about disability. Narratives tend to be parent-driven or illness-driven, but they throw a huge amount of content out at the internet without much editorial oversight. The editors search through the vibrant disability-related blogosphere and ask to republish essays for free as well as publishing essays written directly for their site. As far as I know, they pay no one but the editors, but have substantial venture capital backing and of course are trying to build ad revenue.

There are lots of good pieces on the site, many of them published by authors whose work I adore. Most of it, though, falls into either the positive or negative categories of inspiration porn: feel-good or cathartic tragedy.

On 12/20 they published, "Meltdown Bingo" (cached link), a disability-shaming piece. People reacted negatively, and the editors took it down and issued this apology.
Our goal on The Mighty is to give people a platform to share their stories. It’s a simple objective that’s proven challenging for everyone on our staff because we host thousands of perspectives and opinions, from both disabled and able-bodied writers. We don’t expect everyone to agree on every post. In fact, we like when our contributors’ stories start important, respectful conversations. What we don’t want is to cause harm. Here is where I missed the mark when deciding to publish this submission.
That’s on me. I personally apologize to anyone we hurt with this post. It was not our intention, but we need to take responsibility for our actions. Our community called us on this post almost immediately. Thank you.

This isn’t the first time The Mighty has been rightfully accused of ableism.
And to deny that we’ve been ableist would be, well, ableist.
I don't actually think "give people a platform to share their stories." It's to make money while feeling good about themselves.

In their apology, the editor asked three questions:
  • What improvements do you want to see made on The Mighty?
  • Which websites and writers are covering this space the right way?
  • What are we doing right? If we know this, we can do more of it.
If you follow the hashtag #CrippingTheMighty (started by Alice Wong), you'll see lots and lots of answers to all three questions, but especially the second one. Here's my response.


If you read the "why we created The Mighty" page, the editors discuss their process:
Over the last several months, I’ve bought a lot of drinks and dinners for friends and colleagues. I wanted to pick their brains. These are talented people I respect and trust who do amazing work for the likes of ABC News, NBC News, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Yahoo, Forbes, Esquire, MTV, Disney, Google and more.
We kicked around ideas that all came back to a central question: Could we build a media company that actually helps people?
Those are an impressive list of media companies, but notice how none of those include anyone with disabilities, any disability rights organizations, or anyone from the community they are allegedly serving.

Now I know something about being relatively neurotypical and able-bodied and writing about disability. The process starts, and ends, with accountability. My mentors are Rebecca Cokley, Lawrence Carter-Long, Ari Ne'eman, Alice Wong, and so many hundreds more. I reach out to them, I talk to them. I elevate their voices in my pieces for mainstream media. I mess up. They call me on it. I try to do better. I hold myself accountable to the community I serve as a journalist.

I've never had the sense that such accountability was part of The Mighty's plan. In fact, such accountability would get in the way of publishing inspirational/tragic pieces that drive traffic. The Mighty is happy to publish good pieces about identity and lived experience, but those aren't the money makers.

I see two ethical futures for The Mighty.

One: Support the community. If the editors really want to serve the disability community, they have to center disabled voices, use their platform to signal boost in both directions, and be accountable for what they do. If you read their social media feeds, 100% of their promotions are internal - no sharing of other people's work, no using their platform to say - hey, go check out this great blog post from Non-Famous Writer, etc. It's all internal promotion.

You asked who the good writers are, you got comments on Twitter. Now go talk to those writers and get to work learning from them.

Two: Be professional. Hire disabled editors. Pay your writers a fair wage. Take editorial responsibility for every word on your site, just like a real publication. Do whatever you want, but be transparent about your professionalism and stop exploiting disabled and non-disabled bloggers alike.

Because what you're doing now is causing damage to the community you allegedly are here to support, and you can't paper those wounds over with apologies.

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