Atlanta, GA – There’s a large, and yet not much talked about, problem in media today. White journalists take a number of racist actions, some deliberate and others by appearances not, to try and make blacks in media feel or look like second class citizens, or worse.
These actions I am about to point to, this racism, is the reason why, 50 years after the Kerner Commission, newsrooms in America still have a giant diversity problem. As of the last survey, people of color, as a whole, represented only 22 percent of all newsrooms that even bothered to respond to the American Society of News Editors Newsroom Employment Diversity Survey. And only 17 percent of the 1,700 newsrooms that were queried actually responded!
That doesn’t even start to take into account the media tech organizations like Google, Bing, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
But, I will take that a giant step further: while there have been major advances in the ranks of African Americans who own their own media companies and platforms, the number is still too small to effect a real change in the other problem at hand: stories about blacks told only from a white perspective.
I will also add that this institutional racism problem can’t survive without assistance from African Americans.
51 Years After The Kerner Commission And American Media Still Has A Diversity Problem
52 years ago, on July 28, 1967, The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission after its chair, Governor Otto Kerner, Jr. of Illinois, and that was assembled by President Lyndon Johnson’s Executive Order 11365, issued a report that read, in part, this:
In its 1968 findings, the commission, named for its chair, Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner Jr., said that “the media report and write from the standpoint of a white man’s world.” It described “a press that repeatedly, if unconsciously, reflects the biases, the paternalism, the indifference of white America.
Now, 52 years later, the problem of racism in media still persists. I argue it’s gotten worse, and for reasons borne of our Internet generation.
Today, the racism against blacks in media problem in an Internet age is worse: the constant use of online platforms and social media to send the message that anyone black in media is, in some way, substandard to their white counterpart – even to the point of openly discrediting a black media person’s view of racism in a story (“Oh, that’s not racist!”). And then, there has been the classic use of racist terms under a fake name, aimed at a black media content producer.
The New York Times Mistakes Me For Two Different Black YouTubers In Consecutive Paragraphs
In 2007, YouTube gained national recognition as the centerpiece of the “New Media” wave of the time. The CNN / YouTube Democratic Debate captured America’s attention, as the work of a number of political video-bloggers, or vloggers, was presented to the nation for the first time. I was one of them. Except, you’d never know it if you read the New York Times’ Katherine Seelye’s article.
In the work, called “New Presidential Debate Site? Clearly, YouTube”, Seelye ostensibly was to tell the story of the CNN / YouTube Democratic Debate. In her original piece, she referred to two separate black vloggers in consecutive paragraphs. There was one problem: both were me.
Owen Thomas, then editor of the Gawker blog Valleywag, decided to have fun with this massive error with a post entitled “YouTube user catches the Times in a racist pose”.
To her credit, Seelye did reach out to apologize to me, saying via email that she was tired that day. But, rather than tell the original story of how I came to be tabbed to make “sample videos” for others participating in the CNN / YouTube Democratic Debate, she and the NY Times editors just plain skipped any mention that would point to me – and removed her errors.
They also missed the story that the person who was picked to answer my question was then-Senator and later Vice President Joe Biden. Watch:
The Racist YouTube Comment System Of 2005 To 2013
YouTube is the popular video uploading platform launched in 2005 and purchased by Google in October of 2007. I have been on YouTube as Zennie62 since April of 2006 and was made “YouTube Partner” in April of 2008. From the start, and to a point where it happened an average of 52 times a month, I was called the “n-word” in comments.
I brought up the problem at a 2009 YouTube Community Roundtable, this one below (and which has far fewer video views than it did years before, which is another and perhaps related issue of how it seems YouTube picks racial winners and losers via what seems to be channel and video view statistics manipulation.)…
Anyway, I and Blacktree TV’s Jamaal Finkley, were told at the time that YouTube was working on a way to block comments, but that we also made money from comments – the more of them, the more coin we made.
In other words, we were basically encouraged to sit back and take the abuse to make money. I went with this for about several months, and then realized that if I were white, I would not have to deal with such racist online abuse as a YouTube Partner.
Then, I got mad all over again, and in 2011, took to express my outrage via blogging. Ad Age was kind enough to help me ask YouTube for a simple comment word blocking device by running (click for) this post I wrote called “YouTube Should Ban the N-Word for Brands’ Sake – Or At Least Allow Partners to Do So on Their Own Channels.”
My piece was picked up and linked to by CBS News, where Jim Edwards asked “Why Do Advertisers Tolerate Use of the N-Word on YouTube?” Edwards wrote that:
One man, Zennie Abraham of Zennie62.com, has started a crusade to persuade YouTube to give channel owners the ability to prevent commenters from using the n-word under their videos. In a column in Ad Age, he wrote:
Being a YouTube Partner is great in every way, except one: the allowed, unblocked use of the n-word in the comments section on video pages. It’s a problem YouTube must end, first, because I can’t imagine any brand wanting to have its name associated with any channel video page that’s littered with such words in its comments section, and second, because it’s just plain hurtful. I spend a lot of time banning commenters and removing comments containing that racial epithet, but it’s like trying to stamp out an army of ants.
He isn’t alone. On YouTube’s own help pages, channel owners are begging the site automated tools to ban hate speech.
Finally, in 2014, we got the comment blocking system I asked for as far back as 2009. But note that I had to go out there and tell the story, many times. It should not have taken five years of my life, but it did. And that wasn’t the only problem of racism I had to deal with. The other was from SFGate.com, where I was invited to become a City Brights blogger.
My Experience As A City Brights SFGate.com Blogger
The City Brights program was Hearst Corporation’s effort to bring in blogging as a way of capturing the traffic-generating characteristics of bloggers: we were told as a matter of policy our work would not be edited. That was in black and white text.
But what happened to me was that a lot of unknown-to-me-people, as well as some I was told were reporters with the San Francisco Chronicle, had major issues with my presence. How I came to get on the City Brights program explains why.
Richard Liberman, my friend from Skyline High School days, emailed to share that he was a City Brights Blogger. So, I had not known of the program, looked at the list of bloggers at the City Brights page on SFGate.com, and noticed that it has no blacks at all. None.
So, I called my friend SF Chronicle Opinion Page Editor John Diaz, and noted the problem. At the time, I had helped journalists make the transition to the Internet: Sports Columnist Glenn Dickey and blogger Richard Liberman, notably, and had an innovative plan for something called The Monte Poole Show, around my friend, the Oakland Tribune’s (now NBC Bay Area) noted black sports columnist.
In turn, SFGate.com’s Diaz invited me to join the City Brights ranks, but as was the case for everyone else, said he could not pay me. I said that was cool, but asked for permission to code my own video player and install it on my page. Diaz agreed.
I embarked on blogging and vlogging from my view, which was not dominated by, but did include an African American view, strictly because I’m black. That started a string of racist comments and emails, and a couple that read as death threats toward me. It was so bad, I openly blogged about it, and in response a fellow City Brights blogger named Yobi Benjamin (now a legendary venture capitalist) sent over a piece of code that recorded Internet traffic in real time. “Let’s catch the persons who are doing this,” Yobi said.
But, along the way of using the new Clicky platform, I also discovered I could immediately see how my new blog posts impacted traffic statistics. It was wild. I created a new form of blogging that was focused on developing content to meet traffic keyword demand.
With that approach, the traffic I generated was so great that, in 2010, the legendary San Francisco Chronicle Editor Phil Bronstein told me that my name came up in a meeting with what he called “The Big Boss.” The matter came up just as I was visiting Phil to interview him for the vlog below. Turns out, a guy named Steven Swartz – the head of the Hearst Corporation News Division – had questions.
Anyway, Phil said they had this spreadsheet, and my name came up at the top of it. According to Bronstein, Steven Swartz asked everyone in the room “Who’s that guy?” Bronstein told me I was their top traffic generator, even over The Daily Dish, their gossip section at the time. Phil said he recommended that SFGate.com hire me as a consultant; I wanted to run the website. They not only didn’t make me an offer, but when I sat down to then-editor Vlae Kershner, he asked me if I was using what he called “illegal code.”
Think about that.
The way I took what he said was like this: “Look, you’re black. You can’t possibly know something we don’t know, so you must be doing something against the law. It’s the only way.” And forgetting that there’s no law that prohibits writing in something different from AP Style online.
And on top of that, Steven Swartz, who was head of the Hearst Corporation News Division at the time, as I reported, told me he would take me to dinner in New York City. Considering that his report on the performance of the News Division included a specific mention of the City Brights program, I figured I was due something. After all, my work was instrumental in making Swartz look good. Well, that dinner invitation never surfaced, and Steven Swartz went on to become Hearst Corporation COO, and then President and CEO in 2013. That, even though Swartz, in his 2010 News Division Report, explained that the City Brights Program had generated 100 million page views; according to Yobi Benjamin’s traffic code, I was responsible for 26 million City Brights Program page views, or about 1/4th of the total.
Rather than react in anger to the SFGate Editor, I just brushed off the Kershner comment with a simple answer: no. But I also wasn’t at all going to tell them exactly how I was using data to produce the traffic gains. I did tell them about the code Yobi gave me and about the death threats, but that was it. Hell, they weren’t offering me anything, and the talk was more harassing of me than respectful. It left a bad taste in my mouth that lasts to this day.
I also didn’t tell them that the code I installed and where I placed it was resulting in my YouTube videos generating an average of $3,000 per month for me at the time. I was dying to run SFGate.com, just so I could make a new, more profitable, website. But that never happened.
Instead, in 2011, Vlae Kershner interviewed a woman named Alana Ngugen behind my back and made her executive editor. When I asked Vlae about her, what he said was disappointing – and I kept it to myself until now. “Well, she’s really attractive, Vlae gushed. “I think she’s half Vietnamese and half black.” Then he mentioned that she “went to Stanford”, which was where he graduated from, so I teased him about that, being a loyal Cal guy. It was four talking paragraphs later that he got to this comment: he said that Alana “was an editor at Yardbarker.” Ah, Okay. In all, a really heartbreaking exchange for me. Unfortunately, it didn’t get any better.
That year, there were persistent rumors that then Texas Governor, now Energy Secretary Rick Perry has a relationship with his (one time) Secretary of State. The search for “Is rick perry gay” returns over 11 million results. It seemed every publication was writing about this and so I made my own Zennie62 YouTube vlog, and then this blog post at SFGate.
Well, after Alana came on, and after a few weeks, but in late October, she sent an email explaining that she was putting my post in embargo stage. The only reason she gave was that no one else was reporting on what I blogged. Ms.Ngugen said “Zennie, I know you’re important to us, but I can’t run this.”
Her decision was a head-scratcher because a lot of publications were running their own takes on the Rick Perry Story that year, from the Austin Chronicles to Gawker. For her to take that stance was purely awful and puzzling. So, I took it up to Phil and Vlae’s collective attention. But at the end of the day, she made the decision to block me on Tuesday, November 8th, 2011. Election Day in San Francisco.
So, on the way out, I made this video-blog:
And I formally focused on growing what was then a loose name: Zennie62Media. As the video reports, I vowed to beat SFGate.com in Oakland. Now, Zennie62Media.com is my Delaware company, of which I own 51 percent.
What also bothered me was that during my City-Brights run, the San Francisco Chronicle never once bothered to tell the public of my traffic-producing and money-making exploits. Instead, they had no problem giving public notice to a red-headed white female City Brights blogger who literally came and went. But it was obvious that giving any publicity to an Oakland black male blogger who didn’t fit the stereotype of being a rapper or athlete or politician was something they didn’t want to do.
Recounting that makes me sad all over again. It causes me to remember the Nov 25, 2010 time I was on a United Airlines 747 coming back to San Francisco and, as the way my life works, John Diaz came back from Liberia, and sat two rows in front of me, as I say in this vlog:
But, as he got off the plane, he didn’t even bother to say goodbye. Just walked off. That was pretty bad.
In the end, of the estimated 100 million page views City Brights generated, I was personally responsible for 26 million of them between 2009 and November 8th 2011. That statistic came from the same Clicky platform Yobi Benjamin turned me on to.
The Many Racist Attacks On Zennie Abraham From The East Bay Express
Another example of personal experience with white media racism came from the East Bay Express. Going all the way back to 1994, that alternative publication has had a weird time dealing with me.
It seldom wanted to acknowledge me in a good way in the role of System Dynamics Model expert, or Economic Advisor to The Mayor of Oakland, or head of the Super Bowl Oakland effort, and as time went on, it just got worse. Of all of the writers, I can say that only Gary Rivlin treated me with full respect.
Robert Gammon never did. This vlog I made in 2016 tells the entire story:
The East Bay Express has a sad tradition of working to try and make anyone black who has a title in Oakland look bad in some way. I’ve tracked the work of that publication for several years – decades. If you’re black and mainstream, anything you might do that’s good is deliberately ignored. Fit the common stereotype, and the East Bay Express loves you.
And this vlog provides yet another example of East Bay Express white writer racism toward me:
And in my case, East Bay Express has had white writers who have institutionally racist views and have made me the focus of their ugly efforts at so-called journalism. If I write something they disagree with, or take on a client that’s not the Sierra Club, they write fake news, like about Insight Terminal Solutions. (And one of them made fun of my pointing out a race issue in that person’s personal blog in 2013 – I’m not going to link to it, because that would only give it traffic it doesn’t deserve.)
And Then There’s John Raeside, In 1994, Then The Editor of The East Bay Express.
Raeside commissioned me to build a system dynamics model of the economic relationship between the City of Berkeley and UC Berkeley. Why? Because he believed that a then-proposed 5 percent salary reduction would have an adverse impact on Berkeley’s economy.
To test that idea, I built a 959-equation system dynamics model using a software program called ITHINK (made by system dynamics expert Barry Richmond) that was one of the best I’ve ever created. I designed the model not to reflect John’s views, but to actually understand the economic relationship between the City of Berkeley and UC Berkeley.
What I discovered should have been the featured story in The East Bay Express, but it wasn’t. What I learned was that the proposed UC Berkeley 5 percent salary reduction would not have an impact on the local economy. The reason was only 23 percent of UC Berkeley employees lived in Berkeley – any salary reduction impact was spread out over the San Francisco Bay Area. But what I did learn was more shocking.
I learned that then-proposed giant increases in tuition would impact the Berkeley economy. Why? Because it would curtail the local discretionary spending of Cal Students.
Rather than be excited over that discovery from my system dynamics model, Raeside was angry and not only threatened to not run any story mentioning me or my work, or his hiring me, but threatened to not even pay me. And we were only talking about $500.
So, I called him and we had a real, giant, argument. Finally, he had to relent because of our contractual agreement. What he did was run a thin sliver of a post on one side, and gave very little mention of my real discovery – one that has giant implications for the Berkeley of today.
But what bothered me about John was that I wasn’t being held out as a true expert, but only as a puppet for his ideas. When I didn’t give him what he wanted, the idea of my being an expert was suddenly foreign to him. Had I been white, my experience is that editors like John would have been far more interested in presenting my findings than reflecting his political ideas.
I would have been seen for what I was, regardless of race or reporting: the system dynamics expert who found a news-worthy result of the run of an unconventional computer model. That was taken away from me.
White Journalists Steal Zennie Abraham’s TechCrunch Carol Bartz Video And Story In 2010
And then there’s my Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz Viral Video from TechCrunch Disrupt 2010, New York City.
As I wrote here “Zennie62 “Yahoo Carol Bartz Michael Arrington F-Off YouTube Video” Used Without Attribution A Lot”
I, Zennie Abraham, made the now very-famous “Yahoo Carol Bartz Michael Arrington F-Off Video” at TechCrunch Disrupt New York 2010. This one.
And from this one:
To set the stage, Bartz was then the much-criticized Yahoo chief executive. In fact, the barbs from TechCrunch came fast, and not even allowing the ink to dry on her contract, the blog’s co-editor Erick Schonfeld asked in 2009 “Who is this woman, and how is she going to turn Yahoo around?”
So, with that, and other no-so-nice things to say about Yahoo that came out of TechCrunch at the time, the stage was set for the much-anticipated interview between TechCrunch Founder Michael Arrington and a rather prickly Ms. Bartz.
Arrington And Bartz Promised A Viral Video Moment I Planned To Get
As one of the media at the event, I made sure I had a front row work space, strategically positioned to make a video-blog of the moment. Bartz vs. Arrington was like Godzilla vs. King Kong at that time. Sitting to my left was none other than legendary tech blogger and friend Robert Scoble.
So, I recorded the talk, and in the middle of it, Bartz got off her now famous f-bomb, and I howled – you can hear me laughing so hard in the video, even Arrington looked over for a second. I also knew I had a winner of a viral video.
So, after the interview, and as pretty much everyone else was filing out and heading to early dinner, I stuck around to edit the video down to the main segment of just over one-minute in length, then I uploaded that to YouTube, and put it on my blogs on both my (now old but still running) Zennie2005.blogspot.com Blogger.com site, and my SFGate.com CityBrights page.
I was the only press person to get that video – and did so, even though I risked almost not meeting then-Google engineer Marissa Mayer in the hallway. Even Arrington himself said I “disrupted” his TechCrunch Disrupt New York event:
Even though I was obviously part of the press corp, the media that was not there had no problem trying to rip off my work for their own use without direct attribution to me, Zennie Abraham.
And I’m not referring to names you’ve not seen before, but media brands who’s names you have seen: The Atlantic, Gawker, Inquisitor, Business Insider, Newser, and The Observer. Not one of them bothered to actually bring themselves to write “video by Zennie62 on YouTube”, or “Zennie Abraham video”. Here’s proof: just go to Google and type “yahoo ceo tells michael arrington to fuck off”, click “videos” and you get this result.
So, do you see? And, as you can see, I fight back – simply by telling my story.
It’s a sad story that would and should make a book. A giant number of white journalists have been rude to me in many ways, and the most annoying one is just simply following me on social media to steal a story idea. Or, they assume I have some right wing agenda (forgetting that I have the right to my own opinion) and then make massively stupid guesses at my business model of today.
Black media is needed more today, than ever before, but the producers of the media must not fear to establish their own organizations. On that note, there are some very exciting new media companies that have received venture capital backing, like Morgan DeBaum’s Blavity and the upcoming Black News Channel.
And we can’t forget the pioneering work of Byron Allen and his Entertainment Studios. The media mogul is involved in a U.S. Supreme Court battle against Comcast that will hopefully maintain the minority media protections the law has had in place since before the turn of the 20th Century.
In Byron Allen’s case, Comcast is alleged to have refused to sign his content up, because, well, he’s black.
In other words “You can’t possibly know something we don’t know. You’re black. That’s just not possible. You must be doing something illegal.”
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