Last night, the Penske Media Corporation became the news rather than simply its conduit. Jay Penske, the CEO of the media conglomerate and son of billionaire Roger Penske, fired David Velasco, the editor in chief of one of his new properties, Artforum.
Penske axed Velasco, who has worked at Artforum for eighteen years, after the editor published a letter signed by thousands of artists calling for a cease-fire in the face of Israel’s onslaught against the Gaza Strip. Apparently publishing artists’ concerns about violence against civilians — what one might describe as an airing of those concerns in some sort of “forum” — was not actually Velasco’s job.
Artforum’s publishers wrote a statement last night saying that Velasco violated the magazine’s standard editorial process, but reporting shows that the ouster followed campaigning by advertisers and art collectors who objected to the letter. As the Intercept writes, shortly after Artforum put up the letter, “Martin Eisenberg, a high-profile collector and inheritor of the now-bankrupt Bed Bath & Beyond fortune, began contacting famous art world figures on the list whose work he had championed to express his objections.” He was aided by influential gallery owners, whose response Artforum published, as well as by another letter, which fails to mention Palestinian deaths and garnered thousands of signatures, including from tear-gas salesman and art world figure Warren Kanders. At least one Artforum staff member resigned today in response to Velasco’s firing.
“I have no regrets,” Velasco told the New York Times. “I’m disappointed that a magazine that has always stood for freedom of speech and the voices of artists has bent to outside pressure.”
It’s no mystery as to what changed at Artforum: Penske Media bought it. The long-independent magazine was acquired by Penske in December 2022, bolstering the conglomerate’s art-magazine holdings, which also include ARTnews and Art in America. At the time of the acquisition, Bookforum, Artforum’s literary counterpart, announced that it was shutting down, presumably having been deemed an unprofitable proposition by Penske. (That magazine is now back up and running after the Nation purchased it earlier this year.)
In a decidedly crowded field, Penske Media may be the most hostile of any media conglomerate to its properties’ editorial independence. For evidence, look no further than the company’s Hollywood portfolio — Variety, Deadline, and the Hollywood Reporter (THR). The trade publications have served as a mouthpiece for studio executives’ rumor-mongering, laundering Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) talking points throughout the months-long double strike in the entertainment industry. It’s not that this is necessarily new for the trades — THR was the original source of the infamous Hollywood blacklist, after all — but it is as shameless as it has ever been.
Recall that it was Deadline that published the following prognostication from an anonymous studio executive concerning the Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike back in July: “The endgame is to allow things to drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses.” The comments incensed not only the writers, but members of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), who launched their own strike three days later.
The trades are still at it, even now: on October 11, Deadline headlined an article on the breakdown of talks between SAG-AFTRA and the AMPTP “Studios Declare SAG-AFTRA Talks ‘Suspended,’ Slam Guild For Rejecting Terms Offered to WGA & DGA.” Of that same breakdown in talks, Variety tweeted, “SAG-AFTRA Talks Suspended, as Studios Say Gap Between Two Sides Is ‘Too Great.’” Just last week, Deadline published an “exclusive” about A-listers’ “plan” to help end the actors’ strike, forcing the union to have to clarify that the plan “had no bearing on this present contract or even as a subject of collective bargaining” and was “prohibited by federal labor law.”
It has become a running joke among Hollywood workers that try as the trades might to mask their sourcing with anonymity, every single rumor spread in the publications comes from the studios. After all, the unions and the AMPTP both agreed to a media blackout during negotiations, and only one of those parties has a long track record of violating that agreement.
The access model by which these publications live and die relies upon staying in the executives’ good graces, so in times of class conflict in Hollywood, that has meant becoming a propaganda arm for the bosses. In the process, the trades do a major disservice to the hundreds of thousands of entertainment industry workers who have been without their main source of income for months and are desperate for information regarding a possible resolution of the strikes.
Carrying Water for the Rich
Of course, there are exceptions — even Deadline interviews SAG-AFTRA national executive director and chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, and there are one or two admirably dogged reporters at these publications, but as a rule, Penske’s properties have offered their services to the studios, free of charge. This might seem obvious: the capitalist media is run by and for the rich, so when workers defy the employer class’s wishes, they must be brought into line.
And that’s true — it’s something I often explain when asked about the mainstream media’s inept or hostile coverage of the working class. But Penske goes above and beyond. (Plus, it must be said, the company sold a $200 million stake to Saudi Arabia’s public investment fund the same year that Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi was murdered and dismembered under orders from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. So much for opposing gruesome crimes.)
And the conglomerate continues to grow. If Penske’s desire to gain a monopoly over the trade publications of both the art world and Hollywood weren’t enough, it also owns Rolling Stone and Billboard — and boasts a majority stake in South by Southwest (SXSW), having signaled its intention to move further into live-event opportunities.
In other words, Jay Penske has veto power in the music industry, too, and sway over the decisions about which musicians make the lineup of the influential music festival. (SXSW also pays musicians a paltry rate that has not improved in a decade, making Penske a target of those who want to change that.) And if the conglomerate’s power over the culture industries weren’t already clear, IndieWire and Vibe are also Penske properties.
The culture industries have long relied on wealthy patrons, and the present is no different. When the workers who generate the art on which these industries run make demands that threaten the bottom line — be it through unions or political organizing, such as demands for a cease-fire in Gaza and renewed calls for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, which I support — those funders are quick to try to stop it. But that doesn’t mean we should accept it, nor fail to criticize the worst offenders. If the culture industry writ large had an award for the person most willing to do the wealthy’s bidding no matter how much it undermines artists, 2023’s prize would go to Jay Penske.