Vocativ, the digital news company launched four years ago by an Israeli tech billionaire, became entangled in an unwelcome controversy Wednesday over the resignation of one of its senior video producers.
Evan Engel, who has worked at the data-driven news site only since August, said he quit on Tuesday because his bosses at Vocativ wouldn’t let him speak about or publish an account of what he considered police abuse during his arrest and jailing in Washington, D.C., when protesters turned violent on the day of Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration.
“As you well know, I was arrested earlier this year while covering Inauguration Day protests for Vocativ,” Engel wrote in his letter of resignation. “During my time in jail, I witnessed police mistreat their prisoners in ways that raised significant concerns for me. Since my release, I’ve worked with Vocativ’s editorial leadership and management to bring this story to light. Vocativ has not only declined to pursue this story, but has taken the unusual step of banning me from speaking about it publicly.”
According to Engel, after a weeks-long contentious, yet “civil and mostly respectful,” editing process—including face-to-face discussions with editor in chief Ben Reininga and publisher Jordan Jayson—Vocativ’s management forbade him from appearing on a journalism panel in Boston at Suffolk University’s Ford Hall Forum and from publishing his story with the San Francisco-based Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF).
Engel acknowledged in an interview that he accepted the April 19 speaking engagement to join a panel on fake news without seeking the approval of his bosses, as in-house policy required, and suggested it was because their relationships were frayed.
“I cannot accept and will not agree to any arrangement that precludes me from speaking about this issue, and I am personally and professionally insulted that this organization — ostensibly a news publisher — expects anything less from me,” Engel continued in his resignation letter.
“The thing that blows my mind,” he told The Daily Beast in an interview, “is that if they had just let me speak and publish this thing with the Freedom of the Press Foundation, there would have been no problem.”
The 31-year-old Engel—who was swept up in a mass arrest and jailing of more than 200 people Jan. 20, and spent nearly 27 hours in police custody as he was covering the protests in downtown Washington—posted his resignation letter on Medium along with his first-person narrative on the FPF site on Wednesday.
In response, a spokesperson for Vocativ—which was founded in 2013 by Israeli tech and security tycoon Mati Kochavi—provided The Daily Beast with a non-combative statement affirming the company’s devotion to the First Amendment.
“Vocativ’s mandate is to shed light on the topics and issues that are important to our audience, even when controversial, and we remain committed to the freedom of the press that is so central to our First Amendment rights,” the statement said. “We were deeply troubled when Evan Engel was arrested and took swift action to ensure that the mistake resulting in his arrest was rectified by deploying all of our Company’s resources to defend him. We will continue to report on important events like the inauguration day protest, which we covered as it broke into violence, and we will do everything in our power to protect freedom of the press whenever and wherever it’s at risk. We wish Evan well.”
Shortly after Engel’s release from jail on Jan. 21, Vocativ engaged a legal team to defend him and law enforcement authorities ultimately decided not to prosecute him on rioting charges.
In an interview, Engel said his bosses were initially encouraging when he proposed writing an account of his experience in police custody, but became notably less enthusiastic as time wore on and the process turned agonizing as he and his bosses exchanged different edits and argued over the finer points of each successive version.
As their discussions became increasingly quarrelsome, Engel said, he made clear to his bosses that he was likely to resign and go public with his reasons if he wasn’t permitted to publish his piece elsewhere—a statement that could be interpreted as a threat.
“I said I might have to resign,” Engel recounted. “They were informed that my resignation was very much a possibility, but I wasn’t trying to twist their arm into publishing a piece. I recognized that they had the right to make that decision, but I wanted the opportunity to discuss my experience in any forum that was willing to publish the piece.”
Engel—who was hired by Vocativ as a videographer, not a writer—said the final version on the press foundation’s website was further edited and about 1,000 words shorter than his latest attempt for Vocativ. He added that he’d been in contact with several of his fellow inmates, who were holed up with him overnight in Washington’s central cell block, but their attorney advised them not to be quoted for fear of imperiling their legal status.
In his account, written in a first-person style that Vocativ generally avoids (although Engel said Reininga suggested it), Engel described how he and his handcuffed fellow prisoners were left to suffer for an extended period in the back of an overheated police van overwhelmed with the noxious aroma of pepper spray.
Characterizing the incident as deliberate, and illegal, mistreatment by the cops, Engel wrote:
“The thick, stifling air of the van quickly took on an abrasive scent. ‘Here comes the pepper spray again,’ sighed Jesse Schultz, 65, as his sweat, laden with remnants of the chemical spray, dripped into his eyes. Other prisoners said they could feel the acrid spray—emanating from our pores, hair, and clothing—in the back of their throats. As the van backed into a loading dock, I felt that the rear doors could not open soon enough.
But the doors remained closed, even after the driver killed the engine and exited the vehicle. Agitation grew with the temperature inside the van. In the rear windows, which grew moist with condensation, I could make out the blue shirts and neon yellow jackets of our drivers, and easily hear them conversing.
“‘Open the door!’ someone yelled, the first of several shouted requests.”
In his resignation letter, Engel asserted: “Vocativ has the potential to be a great newsroom. It is staffed with promising, intelligent reporters producing important, insightful work. I’m grateful to the organization for providing for my legal defense, and for speaking out on my behalf during the brief time in which I was charged with a crime. I only wish that its concern for justice extended beyond its own payroll.”