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Braving the Media Landscape

Mackenzie Mays poses for portrait

Written by April Johnston
Photographed by SALGU WISSMATH

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It was 2014, and Mackenzie Mays had just succeeded in shaking her young life loose from its mooring. She moved 3,000 miles away from her home state of West Virginia to settle in sun-drenched central California, where she planned on trading newspapers for novels, quitting her job as a reporter and enrolling in a master of fine arts program at Fresno State.

But before she could attend her first class, the Fresno Bee called with an offer. They wanted her to join the newspaper as an education reporter.


Mays, BS ’12, Journalism, had an immediate, visceral reaction: “Thank God,” she breathed.

It had been six months since she’d left the newsroom of the Charleston Gazette behind, but the longing for the newsroom still hadn’t left her.


“I needed the adrenaline, the deadlines, the dirty coffee mugs and the dusty cubicles,” she laughed.


As it turns out, journalism needed Mays just as much. Shortly after joining the Bee, Mays found herself thrust into the journalistic spotlight, unwittingly taking on the fraught — and sometimes frightening — role of media defender.


It started with “Too Young?”, Mays’ 2017, seven-part series on teen pregnancy and sex education. In it, she quotes Fresno United School Board President Brooke Ashjian on his disdain for California’s sex education law, which requires districts to offer its students medically accurate instruction, including information on same-sex relationships. The board president’s views on state law shouldn’t have come as a surprise for anyone paying attention to his prior remarks on the topic. But when public outrage ensued over Ashjian’s comments, he responded by lashing out at Mays, calling her reporting “fake news” and branding her a liar.


Then came the clash with California Republican Rep. Devin Nunes. In a 2018 article, Mays, who by that time had been promoted to investigative reporter, wrote about a lawsuit filed by an employee of Alpha Omega Winery.

The complainant claimed that a 2015 charity yacht cruise, at which she was a server and some of the winery’s top investors were guests, had turned into a drug-fueled debacle, complete with prostitution.


Nunes is a limited partner in the winery.


Though the article notes it is “unclear” whether Nunes was affiliated with the event or aware of the lawsuit, the representative decided to file a lawsuit of his own, claiming character assassination. He’s asking for $150 million.


The McClatchy Company, which owns the Bee, has been staunch in its defense of Mays’ coverage, calling Nunes’ lawsuit and subsequent criticism of the paper’s credibility “a baseless attack” on the free press and “a misuse of the judicial system.”


Both ordeals garnered national attention, having been chronicled in GQ, The New York Times, the Columbia Journalism Review and — of all places — Glamour. She was honored with the National Press Club’s John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award, which is given to journalists “who courageously manifest the principles of free expression and transparency,” according to the press club. Unsurprisingly, the stories also caught the attention of social media trolls, who attacked the Bee and its reporters with vigor. While no one in the newsroom was spared, Mays endured a special kind of vitriol.


“A lot of it was sexist,” she said. “I’m not going to pretend that me being female didn’t have something to do with how people felt like they could come for me.”


Though the attacks were personal and included threats to her family members, Mays willed herself to rise above the fray. She and the staff of the Bee decided that the only way to respond was with more journalism.


“I had to remind myself that I am a non-combatant,” she said. “I’m just here to get as much truth as possible.”


That mantra resulted in some vindication. With the aid of a public records request, Mays was able to acquire dozens of email messages written by the school board president, proving that her previous reports were not fake news and that she had not lied or taken his quotes out of context, as he claimed.


(The Nunes suit is ongoing.)


“It was a surreal lesson in journalism,” Mays said. “There were reporters [at the Bee] for as long as I’ve been alive who have never seen it play out in that way.


“I really think it’s a trickle-down effect from what we’re seeing at a high level.”


In February, Mays left the Bee to take a job at Politico, which covers politics in the U.S. and abroad. She reports on education policy in the California state house. It’s not a role she imagined taking back when she served as arts and entertainment editor at The Daily Athenaeum, but she does believe it’s a crucial one. Educational reforms in California often act as a harbinger for national change.


And Politico’s deep dive approach to its policy coverage suits Mays, who prefers to marry policy and data with the real-life stories of those affected. She splits her time between sitting in committee meetings with those crafting the laws and sitting in the homes or schools of those who must follow them.


Rather than deterring from her chosen career path, Mays says the events of the past several years have actually served to rekindle her passion for journalism. At this point, she can’t envision leaving news, even though she retains a few “dedicated” trolls and a dull, nagging desire for an MFA.


“I’m going to stay in it,” Mays said. “It’s a noble thing to want to be a journalist, to speak truth to power.”