Ariana Pekary is a former MSNBC producer, who publicly quit her job and posted an open letter that decried cable news in general as a “cancer” that “risks human lives.”
Pekary’s letter went viral Monday night, August 3, when she posted it publicly. In it, she said she had wanted to quit working at MSNBC for at least two years but was advised to “stick it out” until a number of different benchmarks. It took the coronavirus pandemic and the media’s involvement in it to inspire her to quit on July 24, she said.
Conservative media, including Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire, jumped on the story as evidence of the “far-left” bias often attributed to MSNBC by Republicans. Pekary, however, said in her letter that all of cable news was partially to blame for the state of division in the country.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Pekary Worked in Public Radio for 12 Years Before MSNBC, Where She Did Emmy-Nominated Work on The Last Word With Lawrence O’Donnell
According to her Linkedin profile, Pekary started her career as a production assistant at NPR in 2002 and worked at a number of radio stations, including as a producer at Sirius XM Satellite Radio for six years.
In 2013, she started working as a producer for Up Late with Alec Baldwin, then became a booker and segment producer for another six years.
At MSNBC, she oversaw an Emmy-nominated feature on public housing and tried to “highlight stories often found beneath the fold that help explain those above the fold,” she wrote in her profile. Pekary worked primarily on the prime time news analysis show The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, according to her website.
She won a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for the 2013 radio documentary “An ‘Occupational Hazard’: Rape in the Military.” She also won a Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi Award in 2009 for the radio documentary “Stories from Third Med: Surviving a Jungle ER” and a Radio Television Digital News Association Edward R. Murrow Award for the radio documentary “The Invisible: Children Without Homes.” She received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding News Discussion and Analysis for the “The Hidden City” segment on The Last Word, according to her website.
“Generally more comfortable behind the scenes than in front of a microphone, [Pekary] thrives on distilling essential stories for the public that get to the root of the matter,” she wrote on her website. “She was raised on a farm in the Virginia countryside, so she brings a sensible pragmatism and heartfelt dedication to each project before her and isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty.”
Pekary’s last day at MSNBC was July 24, according to her open letter.
2. A Friend Urged Pekary to Quit MSNBC 2 Years Ago, but Others Said She Was ‘Needed’ There, According to Her Letter
In her letter, Pekary said that a year and a half ago, a friend advised her to quit MSNBC after she brought up her concerns. The friend said, “You just quit. It’s that simple.”
Other friends, however, told her to first “stick it out” through the 2018 midterm elections. One told her, “Hang in there… you’re needed. I was in your shoes when I was younger but I stuck it out.”
Her letter read in part:
A year and a half ago, simply quitting my job without knowing my next step sounded pretty radical. So I stuck it out a bit longer until we were in the middle of a pandemic to make a truly radical move.
July 24th was my last day at MSNBC. I don’t know what I’m going to do next exactly but I simply couldn’t stay there anymore. My colleagues are very smart people with good intentions. The problem is the job itself. It forces skilled journalists to make bad decisions on a daily basis.
Since the pandemic started, Pekary has questioned her life choices and searched for “greater meaning and truth,” she said.
3. According to Pekary, Cable News Is a ‘Cancer’ That Threatens American Democracy & She’s Not the Only Person in the Industry Who Thinks So
Pekary said in her letter that cable news is a “cancer” on the United States with “no cure,” and with the coronavirus pandemic raging, it threatens lives. And, she said, she’s far from the only cable news insider with this view.
“All the commercial networks function the same,” she said, and that fact is well known within the industry. “We are a cancer and there is no cure,” Pekary claimed a TV veteran told her. “But, if you could find a cure, it would change the world.”
The chief problem with cable news, according to Pekary, is that it inflames existing divisions, because networks have an incentive to “amplify fringe voices and events” for the sake of ratings. That problem is bigger because of the way the networks cover coronavirus, she said, with most coverage focused on Trump’s handling of the crisis rather than actual science and safety information.
Pekary also took cable news to task for focusing on Trump rather than his opponent in the 2020 presidential election, former Vice President Joe Biden. She claimed to have also seen the topic of mail-in voting get ignored or “killed” several times.
She was not entirely pessimistic:
Again, personally, I don’t think the people need to change. I think the job itself needs to change. There is a better way to do this. I’m not so cynical to think that we are absolutely doomed (though we are on that path). I know we can find a cure. If we can figure how to send a man to the moon, if Alex Trebek can defy the odds with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, and if Harry Reid can actually overcome pancreatic cancer (he’s now cancer-free), then we can fix this, too.
Pekary said that she would soon undertake some sort of effort to change the way news is delivered. “More than ever, I’m craving a full and civil discourse,” she said.
4. Pekary Received Praise From Some Former Colleagues on Twitter, as Well as Bari Weiss, Who Recently Publicly Quit as a New York Times Columnist
Wish I was brave enough to write something like this when I left cable news. @arianapekary is spot on. While many smart & well intentioned people work in news, nuanced discourse & reporting has been sacrificed for ratings. Sowing division & hyperpartisanship is highly profitable https://t.co/W0dNZ3dxKh
— Sasha Walek (@swalek) August 3, 2020
A number of voices on Twitter amplified Pekary’s letter, both with and without comment. Healthcare communicator and former MSNBC Booking Producer Sasha Walek said Pekary was “spot on” in her letter.
“Wish I was brave enough to write something like this when I left cable news,” Walek said. “While many smart and well-intentioned people work in news, nuanced discourse and reporting has been sacrificed for ratings. Sowing division and hyperpartisanship is highly profitable.”
Former MSNBC host Krystal Ball also retweeted Pekary’s letter, quoting her sentence about cable news being a “cancer.”
"We are a cancer and there is no cure"
An MSNBC producer explains why she is leaving her job in the middle of a pandemic and presidential contest. https://t.co/mjSqEIt2iQ
— Krystal Ball (@krystalball) August 3, 2020
Journalist and author Matt Taibbi also agreed with Pekary’s take, saying it “mirrors everything I said about the news business in Hate Inc. – it’s now designed to ‘comfort’ and retain audiences, not inform them.”
— Bari Weiss (@bariweiss) August 3, 2020
Bari Weiss, who last month very publicly quit her job as a New York Times columnist, simply said, “Integrity. Eager to see what [Pekary] does next.”
5. MSNBC Defended the Network’s Coverage & Said They ‘Encourage Debate & Differences of Perspectives’ in the Newsroom
A spokesperson for MSNBC told Heavy that the network “takes the public trust granted to us very seriously, and even more so in today’s unprecedented news environment.”
“It’s our responsibility to cover stories that are critical to our viewers,” the spokesperson said. “They rely on our hosts, correspondents and contributors to go where breaking news and the facts lead, asking tough questions and digging into stories with deep analysis. We encourage debate and differences of perspectives in our newsroom because it makes the product better.”
The network is currently experiencing its best ratings since it came on-air 24 years ago and is second only to Fox News in cable news networks, the Hill reported.
The Pew Research Center did a study of where Americans get their political news in late 2019, finding Fox News as No. 1, with 16% of viewers surveyed indicating the network was their main source. MSNBC was ranked sixth on the list, with 4% of viewers pointing to the network.
The MSNBC spokesperson gave a partial list of 20 awards the network has won for its coverage in the past year, including from GLAAD (the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), the Gracie Awards from the Alliance for Women in Media and the Deadline Club, the New York City chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.