Former Editor at 'People' Magazine Files Racism Lawsuit, But Is It Indicative of Larger Problems?

We all love a bit of celebrity gossip, but the latest gossip on the mainstream entertainment magazine industry is troubling, to say the least. This week, People magazine ex-editor Tatsha Robertson filed a lawsuit alleging that the publication was riddled with racist editorial decisions, discrimination toward staff members of color, and a general refusal to cover anything that wasn't middle-class and white.

Yes, THAT People magazine. The most venerable magazine in gossip, the one that holds the real, publicist-sponsored truth, the magazine celebrities choose to reliably confirm their pregnancies, marriages, and extra-marital affairs.

The lawsuit has two parts: It alleges that People was a racist environment, with only eight non-white employees out of 110. The suit says that People staff treated Robertson unprofessionally because of her race, at one point informing her that she "wasn't at Essence anymore." Robertson adds allegations that People refused point-blank to run stories on people of color, particularly human interest stories or politically tinged editorials. (People did not respond to Bustle's request for comment.)

"When I attended the BET Awards this year, I sat next to a writer from People who had no idea who the majority of the celebrities even were"

If that's true, it's certainly eye-opening — but it's only the beginning. The People lawsuit may be causing a lot of soul-searching — or, equally likely, panic — in the gossip business. Like much of the American media and entertainment industry, it doesn't exactly have a stellar record when it comes to minorities, behind the scenes or in front of them. So let's take a look at the problem from a bigger perspective than just People and ask: Does the gossip industry have a genuine race problem?

Why Gossip Matters

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While it might seem insubstantial and ridiculous — whether Kim Kardashian fits into her dress today has no apparent relevance to our everyday lives — gossip is actually a hugely profitable industry with wide influence. Glossy gossip magazines, including People, InTouch, Us Weekly, and Hello!, are advertising bonanzas, but they're only the tip of the iceberg. The Internet has brought us gossip pioneers TMZ.com, and from that small seed has emerged a vast forest of wildly successful gossip blogs. The Daily Mail, with its infamous sidebar of shame, is one of the most-visited sites in the world.

Together with the paparazzi who supply the feed of images, celebrity publicists, and corporate sponsors (you think that celebrity wasn't paid for going to that hot new restaurant or wearing that dress?), the industry is huge, and worth billions worldwide. In 2011, the gossip industry in the U.S. alone was worth $3 billion annually — and it's only grown since.

Rather like fashion or any other hugely influential and expensive industry, if gossip has a race problem, then that race problem is skewing everything from how that $3 billion is spent to what consumers prioritize as beautiful and relevant. Gossip is actually very psychologically powerful; numerous studies, including one from 2011, have shown that negative gossip actually changes how our brain looks at the people pegged as "villains." So what E! likes and doesn't like can actively change our brains — whether we think we're absorbing it or not. If minorities are underrepresented, it follows that perhaps they would become even more marginalized in the public's mind.

Just How Bad Is The Problem?

A classic way of assessing visibility in gossip coverage is the magazine cover — and it doesn't look pretty. Vanity Fair got into hot water in 2013 for literally pushing every person of color off the cover of its annual Hollywood Issue. Vanity Fair had no comment, but pointedly made sure its 2014 cover (above) featured Idris Elba and Chiwetel Ejiofor. In 2002, a study conducted by The New York Times looked at 471 magazine covers, and determined that 20 percent — only one in five — depicted non-white people. That was an improvement from 12.8 percent in 1998.

But how do things look now? The Huffington Post surveyed a mix of gossip and fashion-related publications, including W, Elle, InStyle, Glamour and Marie Claire, in 2013, and found that only 18 percent showed a woman of color on the cover between January and December. Even taking into account their different statistical parameters, that's not a great improvement.

The Segregation of Gossip

Janeé Bolden, Deputy Editor of Bossip, a gossip site focused on covering black culture and entertainment, says that's the pervasive view at the big gossip mags. "Many of the mainstream outlets believe their audiences aren't interested in gossip about black celebrities who are not Beyoncé or Rihanna," Bolden tells Bustle. "Mainstream gossip coverage is definitely biased toward white celebrities."

It's not the case with the reverse: a story about Angelina Jolie or other famous white actresses will be reliably popular from Mumbai to Melbourne. But few celebrities of color are believed to have such wide appeal.

Bolden told Bustle that the lack of coverage of people of color in gossip is due to three things: ignorance, racism in editorial, and photo agencies. "When I attended the BET Awards this year, I sat next to a writer from People who had no idea who the majority of the celebrities even were," Bolden says. "Black celebrities are photographed less frequently than white ones. Our audience sometimes complains that we're not showcasing enough darker-skinned black couples or celebrities, but we don't always have a choice in the matter if the photo agencies we work with don't have those pictures available to license." (Again, People did not respond to Bustle's request for comment.)

Gossip being dictated by photographs seems backward — don't we choose who we want to see? But it's a two-way street. Unless a celebrity actively pays the paparazzi to take shots (and that's very common), photographers only pursue people they believe will sell. This in turn restricts the choices of gossip outlets, who can only use what they can buy — making the market a tiny, white-biased circle.

Making Gossip Inclusive

So how do you solve the discrimination crisis in the magazine industry? One solution might be its democratization. Increasingly, gossip is provided to us not just through official outlets and photographers, but via blogs and vigilant citizens with smartphones, intent on capturing celebs in the flesh. Devolving the center of gossip from the white, conservative mainstream outlets means more minority viewpoints.

Hiring more people like Robertson would definitely help, too. Robertson was at Essence before People poached her, and she was the only black senior editor in its history. But it's not easy: Surveys by Media Week have shown that media is one of the hardest places for non-white workers to break into. And even once they're in the door, according to media expert Professor Carlos Cortes, they encounter "personal isolation, difficulty in entering upper-level management, lack of influence, career hazards," and "often face the dilemma of balancing their social commitment to provide better coverage of minority communities against their fears of being 'ghettoized,' and thereby having their professional careers restricted."

Discrimination doesn't just harm media integrity, though — it also harms sales. Making a publication inclusive means more buyers. That, in the end, might prove more of a motivation for big gossip outlets. Kaiser, head writer at popular gossip website Celebitchy, said in her reporting on the lawsuit, "I tend to think People’s editors figured out a while back that they had to broaden their appeal beyond white suburban women but they are at a loss as to how to execute it."

What do we need? Less tokenism, more non-white gossip editors and writers, a bigger budget for stories on non-white celebs, and far more visibility. When are we going to get it? Who knows — but let's hope Robertson's lawsuit starts a lot of gossip industry soul-searching.

Images: People/Essence/Us Weekly/Getty.