Boise Weekly prides itself on being an alternative newspaper. To us, that means giving our readers stories they wouldn’t find anywhere else. Another part of that is being transparent and mindful of that readership, having judgement and a strong moral compass.
It is on those last fronts that we have committed an error. In this week’s issue, we interviewed noted author Sherman Alexie, whose books have touched millions and generated important conversations about Native Americans. He has released a new chapbook of poems released by an Idaho publishing house, and we wrote about it.
There was one thing missing: much in the way of interrogation of the many accusations of sexual impropriety Alexie has faced since they began to publicly surface in 2018. I’ll go into them here. Two years ago, in the midst of the #MeToo movement, children’s book author Anne Ursu began to look into sexual harassment in the literary scene. She discovered that Alexie, among many other authors, had used the power of celebrity to seduce women. Soon afterward, dozens of women came forward, painting a picture of a man who, for decades, used his celebrity to seduce and make unwanted advances on women, and grant himself cover for inappropriate comments he made.
Those stories include accounts of unwanted sexual overtures; taking an interest in women’s literary works, only to lose interest when they declined sex; and using his popularity and influence to silence or sideline potential accusers. The fallout was immediate. The Institute of American Indian Arts renamed its Sherman Alexie Scholarship as the MFA Alumni Scholarship; Alexie delayed the publication of a memoir, and declined the Carnegie Medal for You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir; and the American Indian Library Association rescinded the Best Young Adult Book Award it bestowed on Alexie in 2008 for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.
In the instance of the interview with Alexie that ran in this week’s issue, a number of errors were made. First and foremost, it failed to afflict the comforted and comfort the afflicted. It didn’t give voice to the women who have accused him of impropriety, nor did it hold Alexie himself accountable for his behavior. There is a very discussion-worthy question of whether a story about Alexie should concern itself with his literary output at all, considering that even when discussing a gifted artist, justice (legal or social) should be paramount.
These are all conversations we at Boise Weekly have had in the past in regards to other artists, and have considered in depth since the publication of this particular story. I am sad to say it’s a conversation we also had in the leadup to it. In addition to the minutiae, my job as an editor is to ensure every story has moral integrity. I insisted that this story include some mention of the controversy surrounding Alexie, but in so doing, I neglected to address critical underlying concerns and forgot really important lessons I have learned over and over and over again. I take these failures both personally and professionally.
When it comes to the editorial contents of Boise Weekly, the proverbial buck stops with me. More specifically, it was I who stood by as a story went to press without checking essential ethical boxes. Passivity in the face of injustice makes you complicit in injustice. I take full responsibility, though that is likely cold comfort to the victims of abuse or the people who opened their copies of Boise Weekly to find something so totally at odds with their values.
Let’s talk about victims. This story came out during Domestic Violence Awareness Month, when we are collectively called upon to take extra care regarding matters of abuse. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 20 people are physically abused by an intimate partner every minute in the U.S.—that’s 10 million men and women—and while women are overwhelmingly affected by the epidemic of violence, men are not immune. For all too many people, reading about an abuser can cause true harm, and to them, I offer my sincerest apologies and a promise to do better. As an organization with a megaphone, Boise Weekly can raise the profiles of resources and the people who provide them, and acknowledge any pain, suffering and damage we cause. In Idaho, major purveyors of education and support include the Women’s and Children’s Alliance, which materially assists people in crisis with money, housing, therapy, legal assistance and much more; and the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual & Domestic Violence, which seeks to prevent, intervene in and respond to domestic and dating abuse, stalking and sexual assault amid a broader program to make Idaho communities safer and more compassionate. Throughout the month of October, it will host the Ti Novitawi Kocheukaakwe Virtual Conference, which across a dozen two-hour sessions covers a range of issues surrounding disproportionate rates of violence directed at Native American women and their communities, and features nationally recognized speakers.
What remains is the question of what we’re going to do about this. Step one is to make this note an addendum to the article. Removing the story entirely is an erasure of Boise Weekly’s error, and is a missed opportunity for us to take ownership of the problem.
Also worth noting is that this is not an isolated incident, and points to a broader problem. It will take a lot of soul-searching and education to fix; let us commit to them here and now, as well as to giving voice to the marginalized and underrepresented, taking pains to spotlight the people who do the heavy lifting when it comes to justice in Boise and the surrounding area, and being a caretaker of this city’s highest and most cherished values.
Boise Weekly prides itself on the impact of its social justice reporting, as well as its arts and culture reporting. The mistake is to treat these things as in any way separate, either in concept or in practice. Where there’s inappropriateness, injustice or malfeasance, it is this organization’s first job to confront it, period.