Why is Media Matters stealing credit for the work of Black organizers?

Appropriation: It’s not just limited to hairstyles and music

Over the last few weeks, as advertisers have left The O’Reilly Factor in droves, reporters have tried to explain how activists could bring down such a Fox titan. They have in large part referred back to the demise of another Fox giant, Glenn Beck. Angelo Carusone, the president of Media Matters, has been featured in the New Yorker, Fast Company, Politico and on CNN and other news outlets, positioning himself as the person who orchestrated the successful 2009 campaign that pushed roughly 300 advertisers away from Beck’s show and got Beck off Fox for good.

Carusone tells a good story. The problem is that it’s simply not true. And it sets the stage for Media Matters to claim more credit than it’s due as the genius behind the current campaign against O’Reilly.

In reality, the snowballing of advertisers leaving Beck’s show was the result of a campaign designed and led by Color Of Change, a Black racial justice organization that I ran from 2005 to 2011. The campaign lasted for 18 months, engaged 285,000 Color Of Change members and allies, generated numerous high-profile news stories in outlets such as the New York Times, Associated Press, Politico and Reuters, and succeeded in stripping millions in revenue from Fox News and forcing Beck’s hateful show off the air.

And it helped informed strategies that have subsequently been used in Color Of Change’s successful campaigns in pulling corporate sponsors from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Republican National Convention in subsequent campaigns.

While it’s certainly frustrating to see one’s work co-opted, there’s a bigger dynamic at play here: The work of Black people, women and other groups being appropriated and then presented as the work or genius of white folks (or men). We think of this happening in entertainment, but the phenomenon permeates all spaces in our culture, and the story we’re seeing in play now shows that the space of social justice work isn’t immune to the effect. And it comes at a real cost.

Carusone and Media Matters’ rewriting of history — intentionally or not — plays into the racist myth that Black people need smart white folks to do the heavy lifting of strategy in organizing, with Black folks playing a supporting, minor role, if any. The unspoken belief holds that Black folks are good at “taking to the streets” or protesting, but that we can’t — especially on our own — engineer campaigns that create unprecedented results, especially when it comes to targeting and taking down prominent, well-funded white men. The lack of funding for groups led by Black folks, Latinos and women is one indicator. Another is the way in which the Democratic National Committee doles out money to white corporations and consultants to turn out Black voters, with Black-led organizations that have actual contact with voters getting crumbs downstream.

The ease with which a group like Media Matters or someone like Carusone can take credit for the work of a grassroots group is yet another example. When people and groups with institutional power appropriate the work of people and groups who are typically blocked from power, they are replicating systems of oppression (like racism or misogyny) that they often claim to fight.

When challenged by Van Jones, who asked rhetorically whether Color Of Change was behind the Glenn Beck effort, the author of the recent Politico story on Carusone, Peter Sterne, said that Carusone told him it was a “joint effort” and that Color Of Change actually got involved after his effort started.

https://twitter.com/petersterne/status/850471927772741632

In reality, it wasn’t a “joint effort.” Carusone’s own Twitter account, especially when juxtaposed with reporting, including that from Media Matters, shows what unfolded.

Carusone started the @StopBeck Twitter handle in early July 2009 (now renamed @GoAngelo). He spent close to a month tweeting at people asking them to call on advertisers to pull their support from Beck’s program, the strategy he now credits with toppling the Fox News host. It got no traction and no results. Just before our campaign at Color Of Change began, Carusone had only 113 Twitter followers and declared his effort to contact advertisers largely unsuccessful on his blog.

Within 48 hours after Beck called President Barack Obama a “racist” with “a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture,” we designed and launched a multi-stage campaign to organize our 600,000 members to pressure advertisers, force their departure from Beck’s program and make the show financially untenable for Fox (Media Matters played an important , but limited role in the effort: providing Color Of Change with raw data on advertising buys on Beck’s show that helped inform our targeting). Many people, including Carusone, had gone after Beck given his vitriol since Obama took office, but none had yielded real results.

Within a week of our launch, we announced the first companies to drop their support of Beck, with more than 40,000 of our members joining the campaign. While we were privately negotiating with the first companies to drop, Carusone was lamenting on Twitter about his inability to grow his following and still delivering no wins.

https://twitter.com/GoAngelo/status/2917362306
https://twitter.com/GoAngelo/status/3089462958

In the second week, Color Of Change racked up nine more companies, with a total of 125,000 members supporting the effort. Carusone tweeted to announce the victories as they happened and even credited Color Of Change (in response to someone thanking him for a victory on Twitter, Carusone wrote, “i’d say thanks but it is definitely not my doing. colorofchange has been amazing…”).

By the end of the first month of executing our strategy, 57 companies that we had directly engaged removed their ads. And as we’d planned, the financial liability for Fox due to the campaign was already becoming apparent. By early October, 81 companies had left, with over 285,000 people supporting the effort.

During that entire time, Carusone was still tweeting, announcing our victories and encouraging his followers to get engaged, while never having the backing of a constituency or a credible story to deliver any brand damage. Once the snowball effect of Color Of Change’s campaign was underway, there were exactly three companies that Carusone reported as having contacted and independently verified himself, and that remained the case until at least Dec. 11, 2009. We’re talking about three companies out of more than 90, all of which occurred after the calculus for advertisers choosing to remain on the show had radically changed as a result of our campaign.

It was never as easy, simple or quick as one person sending out a bunch of tweets, or even having hundreds of people making phone calls across a diffuse set of companies. Rather, it required a carefully thought-out strategy, executed with relentless persistence for months. It involved thousands of hours of staff time and the participation of hundreds of thousands of our members.

Here are a few factors that were core to the design and to our campaign’s success:

1. We were able to deliver a credible threat, because Beck’s show was materially harming our communities — Black communities — and we knew that big national brands could not afford to be associated with such toxic, anti-Black, race-baiting rhetoric and personalities. Color Of Change was founded to force decision makers to respond to the needs of Black people and this was a classic example of our mission meeting the moment.

2. We were able to give corporations a way out: Because we directly engaged corporate executives through private channels first, before going public, we were able to negotiate clear steps they could take to avoid becoming a target, and doing so also allowed us to learn more about the corporations we did target.

3. We were able to escalate to the required level of pressure: Because we mobilized our members to flood corporate inboxes and voicemails — tens of thousands of emails, and thousands of calls, over a period of days — and also pushed the stories into the media in strategic sequence, we became un-ignorable, and demonstrated how quickly sponsoring hate could become a problem for corporations counting on digging in their heels. Even when that didn’t work for one corporation, the overall escalation was noted by other corporations, who dropped Beck rather than risking the fight.

Our staff spent long hours carefully managing conversations with Beck’s advertisers. We would meet daily to discuss the extensive back and forth with corporate leadership and hone individual strategies for following up with each company, ratcheting up the pressure and negotiating with public relations representatives for statements from the companies.

I remember the chairman of GEICO calling me about a week into the campaign, a few hours after we put up a webpage publicly targeting them and that included transcripts of our private conversations featuring their weak excuses for not leaving Beck’s show. He asked what it would take to get the page to come down. I remember Orbitz going dark in communication with us, but then after thousands of our members shutting down their phone lines and the email addresses of key executives, they pulled their support. I remember Clorox agreeing to pull their ads after our members bombarded their lines with calls and showed up at their headquarters.

The campaign against Beck came with real costs. Van Jones, who co-founded Color Of Change with me, lost his White House job after Beck launched a retaliatory smear campaign against him. Our staff received harassing calls on their cellphones. I received a deluge of hateful and threatening emails, and right-wing groups created campaigns to slander me and our organization. Yet we continued on.

Within a few months of repeating the described approach, more than one hundred advertisers had left and all of the major national companies with recognizable brands were gone from the program. We brought on additional staff to continually monitor Beck’s show and immediately pounce on any advertiser that returned.

This is when Carusone provided significant value to the campaign. Alongside the temporary staff we hired, Carusone tracked Beck’s show and he coordinated with our staff. Together they helped ensure that any advertisers that came on were knocked back off. The maintenance phase of the campaign continued until Beck’s advertisers remained limited to the kinds of products you’d expect to see advertised at 2 a.m. Eventually, the show became financially untenable, as Fox eventually admitted, and Beck’s contract was canceled.

During the campaign, we appreciated Carusone’s work, promoted it, and even considered him a partner. We loved the idea of Twitter engagement. And once we were in touch with Carusone appreciated the opportunity to help him coordinate with our campaign, because earlier on his approach seemed to not adhere to our strategy of starting with private conversations followed by staged escalation, which could potentially undermine our negotiations and leverage with advertisers. And we then shared our methodology for carrying out the campaign.

We never expected that he would later represent the playbook we developed as his own, or present the campaign as his work to the media. To hear Carusone tell it now, Glenn Beck’s advertisers started fleeing his show a few weeks after he started using his Twitter account to target them, and he gives Color Of Change virtually no mention. Yet if you scan news coverage from that same time period it’s hard to find any mention of Carusone or his work, which is not surprising given the role his efforts actually played during the campaign.

The problem is deeper than Angelo Carusone

Media Matters, the organization Carusone now runs, has a similar history. Media Matters was very helpful at the start of our campaign — they provided critical information on the size and frequency of corporate advertiser buys on Glenn Beck’s program, on a rolling basis, which was helpful to our process for prioritizing targets. They even credited us with leading the campaign, at least at the beginning.

But about six months before Beck’s demise — long after the vast majority of advertisers had left — Media Matters hired Carusone, which seemed to accelerate changes that were already afoot. Over the course of the campaign it seemed that Media Matters had mixed feelings about Color Of Change being recognized as the key player in taking down a right-wing media figure. While on the one hand they liked what unfolded, Color Of Change being in the lead seemed to undermine the story they wanted told.

When Beck was dropped by Fox, Media Matters staff positioned themselves as the core spokespeople for the campaign when mainstream media came for an explanation of the victory, sometimes mentioning us as a player, but always with secondary billing. This was in stark contrast to partners like CREDO Action and others who mobilized their members in support of our campaign, and who, at every turn, would send major reporters our way to represent the campaign and correct the record as needed, essentially lifting up an organization led by and serving folks of color, when it wouldn’t happen by default.

This isn’t just about credit. Media Matters has one of the largest budgets on the progressive left and they have marketed themselves to donors as capable of taking on right-wing media, including Fox News and folks like Glenn Beck. If Color Of Change got its fair share of the credit for bringing Beck down, it could become hard for Media Matters to justify their level of funding. Indeed, Media Matters was extremely effective in using the story of the Beck campaign to bring in new donors and dollars.

Despite the fact that Color Of Change led the campaign work and developed a key playbook, at the time it was very difficult for the organization to raise funds on the basis of this work within the small circle of major progressive donors.

While the actions of Angelo Carusone and Media Matters are unfortunate and painful, they’re not operating in a vacuum. They’re enabled by a culture that makes it easy for them to benefit from the work of Black folks and claim it as their own. Nothing I’ve described would be possible without a culture in which the press and progressive donors wouldn’t readily go along with Media Matters’ story.

This is far from the first time a white, male organizer — or an organization led by one — has taken credit for the strategy and work of Black people, women or other people of color, and unless we speak honestly about this issue, it won’t be the last. If we’re going to strengthen the voices of underrepresented communities, we need the heads of organizations, funders and the media to look honestly at the dynamics in play and work together to fix them wherever they arise.