Discover more from Christopher F. Rufo
The Price of Dissent
A Thomson Reuters data scientist questioned the Black Lives Matter narrative—so the company fired him.
Zac Kriegman had the ideal résumé for the professional-managerial class: a bachelors in economics from Michigan and a J.D. from Harvard and years of experience with high-tech startups, a white-shoe law firm, and an econometrics research consultancy. He then spent six years at Thomson Reuters Corporation, the international media conglomerate, spearheading the company’s efforts on artificial intelligence, machine learning, and advanced software engineering. By the beginning of 2020, Kriegman had assumed the title of Director of Data Science and was leading a team tasked with implementing deep learning throughout the organization.
But within a few months, this would all collapse. A chain of events—beginning with the death of George Floyd and culminating with a statistical analysis of Black Lives Matter’s claims—would turn the 44-year-old data scientist’s life upside-down. By June 2021, Kriegman would be locked out of Reuters’s servers, denounced by his colleagues, and fired by email. Kriegman had committed an unpardonable offense: he directly criticized the Black Lives Matter movement in the company’s internal communications forum, debunked Reuters’s own biased reporting, and violated a corporate taboo. Driven by what he called a “moral obligation” to speak out, Kriegman refused to celebrate unquestioningly the BLM narrative and his company’s “diversity and inclusion” programming; to the contrary, he argued that Reuters was exhibiting significant left-wing bias in the newsroom and that the ongoing BLM protests, riots, and calls to “defund the police” would wreak havoc on minority communities. Week after week, Kriegman felt increasingly disillusioned by the Thomson Reuters line. Finally, on the first Tuesday in May 2021, he posted a long, data-intensive critique of BLM’s and his company’s hypocrisy. He was sent to Human Resources and Diversity & Inclusion for the chance to reform his thoughts.
He refused—so they fired him.
I spoke with Kriegman just before Thanksgiving via Zoom. He dialed in from a small, cluttered room in his Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts home, where he lives with his wife and three children. He described his feeling of alienation, then frustration, then moral outrage, as he watched his Reuters colleagues’ behavior following the death of George Floyd. He described the company as a “blue bubble,” where “people were constantly celebrating Black Lives Matter, where it was assumed that everyone was on board.”
Like many corporations in the United States in 2020, Reuters went through a quiet revolution in human resources and “diversity and inclusion.” The company launched a series of lectures and training programs, ranging from a study of Kimberlé Crenshaw’s intersectionality theory to an interactive panel called “Let’s Talk About Race” to a keynote presentation on “unlocking the power of diversity.” In honor of Floyd, the company asked employees to participate in a “21-Day Racial Equity Habit-Building Challenge,” which promoted race-based reparations payments, academic articles on critical race theory, and instructions on “how to be a better white person.”
Some of the materials were patronizing and outright racist. One resource told Reuters employees that their “black colleagues” are “confused and scared,” barely able to show up to work, and feel pressured to “take the personal trauma we all know to be true and tuck it away to protect white people,” who cannot understand anything beyond their own whiteness. The proper etiquette, according to a subsequent lesson, is for white employees to let themselves get “called out” by their minority colleagues and then respond with automatic contrition: “I believe you”; “I recognize that I have work to do”; “I apologize, I’m going to do better.” The ultimate solution is for whites to admit complicity in systemic racism and repent for their collective guilt. “White people built this system. White people control this system,” reads a module from self-described “wypipologist” Michael Harriot. “It is white people who have tacitly agreed to perpetuate white supremacy throughout America’s history. It is you who must confront your racist friends, coworkers, and relatives. You have to cure your country of this disease. The sickness is not ours.”
Kriegman came to believe that the company’s “blue bubble” had created a significant bias in the company’s news reporting. “Reuters is not having the internal discussions about the facts and the research, and they’re not letting that shape how they present the news to people. I think they’ve adopted a perspective and they’re unwilling to examine that perspective, even internally, and that’s shaping everything that they write,” Kriegman said. Consequently, Reuters adopted a narrative that promotes a naïve, left-wing narrative about Black Lives Matter and fails to provide accurate context—which is particularly egregious because, unlike obviously left-leaning outlets such as the New York Times, Reuters has a reputation as a source of objective news reporting.
A review of Reuters coverage over the spring and summer of 2020 confirms Kriegman’s interpretation. Though early articles covering the first days of the chaos in Minneapolis were straightforward about the violence—“Protests, looting erupt in Minneapolis over racially charged killing by police,” reads one headline—Reuters’s coverage eventually seemed like it had been processed to add ideology and euphemism. Beginning in the summer and continuing over the course of the year, the newswire’s reporting adopted the BLM narrative in substance and style. The stories framed the unrest as a “a new national reckoning about racial injustice” and described the protests as “mostly peaceful” or “largely peaceful,” despite widespread violence, looting, and crime. “More than 93% of recent demonstrations connected to Black Lives Matter were peaceful,” Reuters insisted, even as rioters caused up to $2 billion in property damage across the country. The company’s news reporters adopted the syntax of BLM activists. A May 8 story opened with the familiar “say their names” recitation, ignoring the fact that the first named individual, for example, had attacked a police officer, who was subsequently cleared of any wrongdoing: “Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Freddie Gray. Their names are seared into Americans’ memories, egregious examples of lethal police violence that stirred protests and prompted big payouts to the victims’ families.” Even as Seattle’s infamous “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone” descended into lawlessness and saw the brutal murder of two black teenagers, the newswire’s headlines downplayed the destruction, claiming that the Seattle protests were “diminished but not dismantled.”
Reuters’s data-based reporting and “fact checks” were also biased, always in favor of the BLM interpretations. One of the wire service’s “special reports” claims that “a growing body of research supports the perception that police unfairly target Black Americans. They are more likely to be stopped, searched and arrested than their white compatriots. They also are more likely to be killed by police.” In the 4,600-word story, Reuters gives only two short paragraphs to a dissenting viewpoint, then quickly dismisses it to advance the argument. In other stories, Reuters claims without evidence that Supreme Court protection of qualified immunity is “rooted in racism,” hosts an exclusively left-leaning panel on criminal-justice reform that uncritically promotes policies such as “defund the police,” and suggests that “hundreds” of unjustified police killings of black men “fail to win victims any redress,” without providing facts to substantiate the claim.
The company’s data reporting consistently re-contextualized accurate information about racial violence and policing in order to align with Black Lives Matter rhetoric. In a “fact check” of a social media post that claimed whites are more likely to be killed by blacks than blacks are to be killed by whites, Reuters concedes that this is factually accurate but labels the post “misleading”—in part because it doesn’t show that police kill black people at a higher rate than their share of the overall population, a completely unrelated claim. Likewise, when President Donald Trump accurately pointed out that police officers kill “more white people” than black people each year, Reuters immediately published a story reframing the narrative. Though the report admitted that “half of people killed by police are white,” the writers pushed the line that “Black Americans are shot at a disproportionate rate” and then used a quotation from the American Civil Liberties Union to paint the president as a “racist.”
Kriegman’s decision to question his company’s narrative wasn’t sudden or impulsive. As he watched the riots and the news coverage unfold, he found himself increasingly filled with doubt and anxiety. He decided to take two months leave from Thomson Reuters in order to grapple with the statistical and ethical implications of the company’s reporting on the riots and the Black Lives Matter movement. “I did look through Reuters’s news, and it was concerning to me that a lot of the same issues that I was seeing in other media outlets seemed to be replicated in Reuters’s news, where they were reporting favorably about Black Lives Matter protests without giving any context to the claims that were being made at those protests [and] without giving any context about the ‘Ferguson effect’ and how police pulling back on their proactive policing has been pretty clearly linked to a dramatic increase in murders,” Kriegman told me. “At a certain point, it just feels like a moral obligation to speak out when something that’s having such a devastating impact is being celebrated so widely, especially in a news company where the perspective that’s celebrated is having such a big impact externally.”
During his leave, Kriegman used his skills as a data scientist to conduct a careful statistical investigation comparing BLM’s claims on race, violence, and policing with the hard evidence from a range of academic and governmental sources. The result: a 12,000-word essay, titled “BLM is Anti-Black Systemic Racism,” that called into question the entire sequence of claims by the Black Lives Matter movement and echoed by the Reuters news team. “I believe the Black Lives Matter (‘BLM’) movement arose out of a passionate desire to protect black people from racism and to move our whole society towards healing from a legacy of centuries of brutal oppression,” Kriegman wrote in the introduction. “Unfortunately, over the past few years I have grown more and more concerned about the damage that the movement is doing to many low-income black communities. I have avidly followed the research on the movement and its impacts, which has led me, inexorably, to the conclusion that the claim at the heart of the movement, that police more readily shoot black people, is false and likely responsible for thousands of black people being murdered in the most disadvantaged communities in the country.” Thomson Reuters, Kriegman continued, has a special obligation to “resist simplistic narratives that are not based in facts and evidence, especially when those narratives are having such a profoundly negative impact on minority or marginalized groups.”
Kriegman’s essay focuses on debunking what he sees as the three key claims of BLM activists and their media supporters: that police officers kill blacks disproportionately, that law enforcement “over-polices” black neighborhoods, and that policies such as “defund the police” will reduce violence. First, Kriegman writes that the narrative about police officers systematically hunting and killing blacks is not supported by the evidence. “For instance, in 2020 there were 457 whites shot and killed by police, compared to 243 blacks. Of those, 24 of the whites killed were unarmed compared to 18 blacks,” he writes, citing the Washington Post database of police shootings. And though the number of blacks killed might be disproportionate compared with the percentage of blacks in the overall population, it is not disproportionate to the level of violent crime committed by black citizens. “Depending on the type of violent crime, whites either commit a slightly greater (non-fatal crimes) or slightly smaller (fatal, and serious non-fatal crimes) percentage of the total violent crime than blacks, but in all cases roughly in the same ballpark,” Kriegman writes. However, according to the Justice Department’s National Crime Victimization Survey data, “there are many more whites killed by police, even though whites account for a similar absolute number of violent offenders. Thus, if the number of potentially violent encounters with police reflects the violent crime rates, then the raw statistics suggest that there is actually a slight anti-white bias in police applications of lethal force.” To round out his case, Kriegman concludes with a study by Harvard’s Roland Fryer, which, according to Fryer, “didn’t find evidence for anti-Black or anti-Hispanic disparity in police use of force across all shootings, and, if anything, found anti-White disparities when controlling for race-specific crime.”
Next, Kriegman takes up “over-policing.” Black Lives Matter activists and Reuters reporters had pushed the idea that police officers focus disproportionate attention on black neighborhoods and, because of deep-seated “racial bias,” are more likely to stop, search, and arrest black Americans “than their white compatriots.” While this might be true on its face, Kriegman writes, it misses the appropriate context: black neighborhoods are significantly more violent than white neighborhoods. If police want to reduce violent crime, they must spend more time in the places where violent crime occurs. Kriegman points out to his colleagues in Thomson Reuters’s Boston office that “the reason that police have more confrontations in predominantly black neighborhoods in Boston is because that is where the great bulk of violent crime is occurring,” with nearly all the annual murders happening in predominantly black neighborhoods such as Dorchester and Roxbury—far from the homes and offices of his colleagues in the professional-managerial class at Reuters. And Boston is hardly an outlier. According to Kriegman, the most rigorous statistical analyses demonstrate that violent-crime rates and policing are, in fact, highly correlated and proportionate. He quotes a Justice Department report which “found that for nonfatal violent crimes that victims said were reported to police, whites accounted for 48% of offenders and 46% of arrestees. Blacks accounted for 35% of offenders and 33% of arrestees. Asians accounted for 2% of offenders and 1% of arrestees. None of these differences between the percentage of offenders and the percentage of arrestees of a given race were statistically significant.”
Finally, Kriegman addresses the policy implications of “de-policing.” Contrary to Reuters’s sometimes glowing coverage of the “defund the police” movement, Kriegman makes the case that de-policing, whether it occurs because of the “Ferguson Effect” or because of deliberate policy choices, has led to disaster for black communities. His argument, building on the work of City Journal’s Heather Mac Donald, follows this logic: after high-profile police-involved killings, such as Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the Black Lives Matter movement and the media have demonized police departments and caused many officers to reduce proactive policing measures and to pull back from situations out of fear that they might need to use force. The result, according to data from a range of academic literature, is an increase in crime and violence. Kriegman again cites Fryer, who concluded that the Ferguson Effect led to 900 excess murders in five cities he considered, and the University of Utah’s Paul G. Cassell, who found that the “Minneapolis Effect” led to 1,520 excess murders in the United States. Thus, BLM’s signature policy solution—“defund the police”—would likely lead to incredible carnage in black communities.
Kriegman hoped that his essay would help his colleagues move beyond “the blue bubble” and see “how devastating Black Lives Matter has been to black communities,” which would in turn help them to do more accurate and responsible journalism. Returning from leave, he was ready to share his research with his colleagues at Thomson Reuters. “I didn’t know what to expect going into it, but I expected the reaction to be intense,” Kriegman says. “And it was.” The essay dropped like a bomb on Reuters’s internal discussion forum, called The Hub. According to Kriegman, content moderators immediately took down the post and called in a “team of HR and communications professionals” to manage the situation. They told Kriegman that they were “reviewing” the document but, according to Kriegman, failed to provide specific objections to what he wrote. The essay, while challenging the dominant left-wing culture at Thomson Reuters, made a reasoned, dispassionate case based on rigorous evidence—precisely what a hard news organization should prioritize internally. Finally, after Kriegman inquired multiple times about the company’s decision to remove the post, senior human resources director Melissa Budde told him that the post was too “antagonistic” and “provocative” and that he needed to work with Cristina Juvier, head of diversity and inclusion, if he wanted to pursue the matter further.
Over the next two weeks, Kriegman went through a gauntlet of calls, meetings, and chat conversations, hoping that he could revise the essay to the satisfaction of the various parties. In all these conversations, Kriegman maintains, the human resources and diversity-and-inclusion employees never offered substantive critique of his piece; they always retreated to vague concerns about tone and the belief that it would offend BLM supporters within the company. The transcripts of the calls and emails from May 4 and May 27, 2021, show a steady escalation of hostilities. Kriegman insisted that he be allowed to repost the essay. Two of his colleagues warned him that he was potentially heading toward disaster; another, according to Kriegman, screamed that he “should fucking do [his] job” instead of spending time fighting about Black Lives Matter. (None of the Reuters employees returned a request for comment.)
On May 28, after incorporating some of the feedback on tone from human resources, Kriegman reposted his essay under a new title: “BLM Spreads Falsehoods That Have Led to the Murders of Thousands of Black People in the Most Disadvantaged Communities.” This time, the moderators at The Hub let it stay up. Kriegman considered this a victory—and then the comments started flooding in. They began politely, but soon descended into open hostility. “Wow, this is incredibly inappropriate for a professional website,” wrote commercial transactions intern Kasia Guzior. “Your premise in the ‘what about both sides’ sort of question you’re asking here is that it’s a political question. That premise is incorrect; it’s a human rights issue . . . ‘Statistics’ and ‘facts’ have been used to support racist actions for at least all of US history,” said tax analyst Abbie Gentry. “The FBI put out an article (look it up) a couple of years ago, stating that Law Enforcement organizations have been infiltrated by white supremacists the likes of the KKK. If some law enforcement officers are white supremacist Klan members, is it a surprise when they target and kill disadvantaged black people?” asked another commenter. “As a white person I am embarrassed and ashamed for you. We, as white folks, should NEVER presume to speak for people of color—which is what you’ve chosen to do,” concluded premier digital marketing strategist Joanne Fleming. “White folks trying to ‘help’ by whitesplaining how and why a movement that does not belong to us is harming people of color only does further harm.”
Five days later, Thomson Reuters made the decision permanently to remove the post from the company’s internal servers. Kriegman accused his colleagues of creating a hostile work environment and attempted to complain to that effect on the discussion board; he was then suspended from The Hub and locked out of email and other communications platforms. In a final, grand, and perhaps self-immolating gesture, Kriegman personally emailed Thomson Reuters’s top executives, complaining about the company’s bias and hostility toward his criticism of Black Lives Matter. “And then they went ahead and fired me,” Kriegman told me. “I was expecting it. It didn’t come as a great surprise that they ended up firing me.” The final email from Melissa Budde hit with a thud: “The manner in which you’ve conducted yourself in recent weeks does not align with our expectations for you as a leader within Thomson Reuters,” she wrote. It was over. Six years as a data scientist, dozens of high-profile projects—all set ablaze out of a deep frustration about the falsehoods Kriegman felt were ruining the newsroom.
More than half a year after his firing, Kriegman is reflecting. He assures me that he and his family are in a comfortable financial situation, thanks to some early investments in Bitcoin and tech stocks. “I have three kids, and I’ll be completely honest. I would not have headed down this road if I thought it was going to have a devastating impact on my family. I was expecting that this would be one of the possibilities. . . . I was hoping for a different possibility, but I certainly knew that this was a chance.” Through a Zoom window, he comes across as rational, intelligent, and mathematically minded, if somewhat lacking in social graces. Perhaps he was naïve to believe that data and evidence would convince his colleagues that they were in the grip of a false narrative; perhaps he failed to understand that politics is not a rational science and that his colleagues would perceive his essay as a flagrant transgression. When I ask him how he feels after the ordeal, he laughs: “You want me to talk about my emotions? I can’t even talk about my emotions to my wife.”
Still, Kriegman is genuine in his concern and sees a broader lesson in his experience. “I’m extremely disturbed by what’s happening in our country,” he says. “It’s absolutely clear that in our major news organizations, people are not discussing these issues openly. They can’t afford to. They’ll be fired.” He believes that critical race ideologies, adopted wholesale by the professional-managerial class, have become entrenched within American institutions. He tells me that the new racial orthodoxy is slowly creeping into every aspect of daily life, from the Reuters newsroom to his son’s elementary school classroom, which has been teaching a book called Race Cars, a story depicting a committee of white race cars that conspires to make sure no black cars win the big race. “It’s absolutely poisonous to the country,” he says.
Was it worth it? “I feel proud of what I did, but I don’t feel satisfied that I had a big impact within the company,” Kriegman says. “I don’t think that it changed anything.” He lost his job at Reuters, but more than that, he lost almost all his friends there, too. “My closest friends have abandoned our friendships,” he says. “Only two of the people that I’d actually worked with reached out to me and said, ‘How are you doing?’ And neither of them were the people that I was closest with.” Kriegman is now contemplating his next steps. He can afford to take some time away from work, but he fears that his once-golden résumé has sustained damage. “I suspect that if I’m honest about how I left my last job, it would be difficult to ever find another job,” he tells me.
Kriegman follows in the footsteps of people like James Damore, Bari Weiss, Nellie Bowles, Jodi Shaw, and Paul Rossi, who found themselves unable to live honestly within the confines of America’s elite institutions. Like those other dissenters, he has immense talents that he could apply to the cultural and political problems facing our country. I hope that he does so. I also hope that one day, his former colleagues at Reuters see that, while Kriegman might have been a little abrasive, he was ultimately right. If the wire services continue to promote myths about race, violence, and policing, they will inflict grave harm on their reputations for fairness; they will also help unleash a new wave of destruction in America’s poorest and most vulnerable neighborhoods.
Originally published in City Journal.