“We Own You.”— On The Intercept’s Problem with Black Folk
Exploring the anatomy of a smear that was spurred by the threat of an EEOC complaint.
On a a balmy Sunday evening in February, as I stood in line at a Brooklyn grocery store, a masked gunman approached the young girl who was attempting to cash me out. “Give me the money bitch,” he shouted at her. “This is a stick up!”
I made eye contact with him, and for a nanosecond I believed it was all some sort of bizarre joke. “What the fuck you looking at?”, the gunman yelled at me. At that point I noticed everyone else running to the back of the store, and so I joined them. As I raced to safety I just kept thinking, “Please god don’t let this cat shoot me in the back.”
I hid out for at least forty minutes in one of the store’s freezers and I injured my thumb as I leapt over a forklift. But while I waited — along with eight other people — for 5–0 to arrive I actually thought, “At least this isn’t as bad as working at The Intercept.”
When I first began writing for the aforementioned site in November 2014 I kept humming that line from the Temptations song: I’m doing fine, up here on cloud nine.
Only a couple of years before I had struggled to put food in my mouth, and then there I was working in a fancy New York office (with free beer no less), making a good living, and doing what I love: writing. But those capitalist crumbs blinded me to the fact that I was, to borrow a phrase from Yvette Carnell, the token negro whisperer.
On the day I was offered the job one of the company’s sites imploded in spectacular fashion. And on the day I officially started the gig the editor in chief announced he was returning to Hulk Hogan’s enemy. That first afternoon the mood inside the office was as gloomy as the cold, rainy weather outside.
No one knew what was happening, and everyone was pessimistic about the outlet’s future. I shared their surprise at how strange and incompetent the whole enterprise, led by white liberal New York’s elitist and finest, appeared to be. But the next month The Intercept hit pay dirt.
In December 2014 a couple of reporters scored an interview with the infamous Jay Wilds from the Serial podcast that was popular amongst public radio listeners. The stories about Jay got thousands of hits. But, and this is in no way to disparage the reporters behind it, it was hell getting the stories published. When the stories were put up they were replete with factual errors and typos because of a failed editorial structure.
In the new year a new editor in chief was brought on board with the task of righting the ship. The new EIC had a vision that the site would cover a few topics: national security (which is funny because there is no full time national security editor), criminal justice (no editor on this front either), surveillance (no editor here either), and technology (you guessed it).
When I was recruited I thought I would be blogging about politics because at that time the site’s purpose was still unknown. But after the new regime seized control I swiftly made my way over to criminal justice. Coming from St. Louis I was more than knowledgable about how the so-called criminal justice system screws over certain people.
For a while there things went well; a few of my stories were published and, to my great pride, I wrote a fabulous piece about infamous Chicago’s infamous Homan Square police torture site that was first broken by The Guardian. The brave man I interviewed was the first black person to talk to the national press about the heinous torture he experienced at the hands of Chicago police.
But then things fell apart.
First, the only other black person in the entire company, also a reporter, was fired. Before that he, like me, had grown exasperated by the editorial blindness and their unwillingness to publish our stories. I somewhat felt like the characters in Django — two black men being forced to compete against each other by the white overseer. In one instance an editor assigned me a story that, I felt, should have gone to the other black reporter given his seniority and equal eagerness to write. And so I walked over to his office and told him, “They gave this to me, but you should take it instead.” Another writer remarked, “You’re good a man for doing that.” But, to me, there was nothing virtuous about my actions. Where I come from we look out for each other, and attempt to build one another up, especially when white liberal elites are trying to divide and destroy.
One day that other black reporter got into an argument with an editor who yelled at him and ridiculed him; within a few days the EIC fired him. Her reason? He was too angry. The angry black person trope is a tired but persistent feature of racial supremacy, even amongst those white liberal media types who think they’re better than the oafish racists showcased on Fox News. It was a laughable cycle and everyone knew it: Step 1) attempt to push out the only black person there, 2) bring on another black person, 3) fire the first black person five months later. Every other employee who left received a going away party, but not him. Also, the white staff reporters could travel out of town for stories, but the non-white ones could not, unless we groveled like coons. And an office schedule was introduced: be in the office by 10am, and report to “supervisor”. No one followed the schedule, but this guy got bitched out about from the EIC.
The white New York liberal media makes me vomit with their arrogant, patronizing, bigotry. I now have a Korean sense of Han —unadulterated rage against bigoted bullies, in this case the white liberal media.
It’s no wonder these places have so few black faces.
After all that I began to keep a diary that catalogued my experiences (and I contemplated leaving but a culture of fear prevented me from doing so). If they would slur him as an angry black person, jeez, I thought, what would they do to me? It was also about this time that I stopped regularly reading the site (other employees there had done so long before).
To be fair they hired a former black NPR host, but within weeks she too departed. The EIC also considered heading to an NABJ convention in Minneapolis to recruit prospective black reporters, because, of course, there are no talented black writers in New York who can write about criminal justice or other issues. Of course she never did anything when it came to hiring black folk. I told her that the absence of people of color was big problem, she smugly said, “I worked at The Nation.” Plus, the EIC seemed confused, ignorant, and overwhelmed. On one hand we were told hits didn’t matter, but two weeks later they cross-published a story on Gawker. Why? For the hits! Simultaneously, sometimes weeks went by before anything I wrote was published on the site. I had no editor, and felt like Henry Tanner painting drywall because all of my excellent writing went to waste.
One late spring afternoon I was told by the managing editor that a national editor was coming on board, and that I would be working with him. “We feel as if you’re sometimes lost and forgotten,” the managing editor admitted. I agreed! The hire gave me hope that I would have a strong editor to work with me and, yes, to guide me. As a cub reporter I needed that. Fittingly, a former reporter at The Intercept warned me about the lack of editorial maturity even before The Intercept’s scurrilous story about me was published.
Unfortunately the national editor and I didn’t gel. He just didn’t understand the stories about which I wrote. On one of the first stories he and I worked together that June I changed a headline after the piece was published. The initial headline didn’t quite fit so he and I talked and he gave me permission to change it. The EIC didn’t like the new hed and when she asked who changed it the national editor barked: “Juan” — as if he hadn’t given me the okay or told me to do so. I just smiled, bitched about it to a colleague, and buckled in for the ride.
My reporting at The Intercept focused on the poorly named criminal justice system, and specifically the interaction that black people have with it. The national editor didn’t understand basic things about the black American experience and seemed offended that I wrote about St. Louis’s poor black population so often.
For example, in one draft of a story, someone had given me a quote and mentioned “The Man”. Now most people will immediately recognize “The Man” as lingo for the generic, and powerful, white male. But the national editor floored me when he actually asked, “who’s the man?”
In another instance, I was told by an editor that my writing was too intense, and that I should refrain from using terms like “white supremacy” because they were “sledgehammers” (Ha. White supremacy is most definitely a sledgehammer). And once, at a company gathering, someone actually called me, to my face and in the most positive way I was assured, a “beautiful black man” — as if I were some Mandingo on display.
And then there were the photos on the website of the editorial staff. There weren’t many faces of color and the EIC asked the photo editor for her picture just so they could construct the facade of ethnic diversity.
“This is surprising, but not completely unexpected,” I wrote in my diary that day. I knew how such institutions worked, but it was nonetheless stunning to see the gears of supremacy churn from within. In my initial euphoria I had foolishly thought, “these are the good white people.”
I was wrong.
“You want to branch out and don’t become a one trick pony,” an editor told me that summer. This, of course, was a comment directed at my reporting which focused on poor black folk that nobody, certainly not white liberal media elites, cared about. The “advice” stuck me, and I know this because I underlined the quote in my diary.
Therein lies the problem with the media establishment, particularly the sanctimonious white liberal media characters who are anything but radical. The Intercept folk loved to have Matt Drudge retweet their negative stories about the administration; they lived for his posting their stories on his racist ass site because of the inevitable hits, though many of them probably shared his some of his ratchet views.
I, on the other hand, have no problem writing all day and everyday about low income black people. This is because 1) no one else does and 2) I love us and will never apologizing for loving us.
The sharp increase in the murders of black women in St. Louis? I doubt you’ve read much about it. The young black girl brutally murdered in Baltimore? Nope. The working class black woman whose car was stolen by a corrupt police force in Michigan? Yeah right. The two murdered black women in Florida thrown off an overpass and fucking hogtied in 2014? They were written about a few times and then forgotten (their families haven’t even gotten the official autopsies).The intellectually disabled black teen [Corey Williams] sentenced to death in Shreveport by a vile, blood thirsty, racist district attorney? I didn’t think so.
Those last two stories I attempted to write and report for The Intercept, but was denied the opportunity (Slate published a piece on the Williams case four months after I submitted my first draft). “There’s a lot about all that,” the EIC told me last summer. Really? I guess I could have fetched stories from the Snowden archive, but, in a strange coincidence, I was the only reporter who didn’t have access to the trove of documents.
In the meantime I was trying to write stories and tell the tales of poor black people who never wanted to talk/distrusted the press, who were neglected by the press, and/or who I encouraged to give a pseudonym if they felt uncomfortable talking to me. I did this because traditional journalism ethics can be quite damaging in the era of the Internet. For example, one interviewee for a story I penned was subjected to multiple racist emails for a few days after being quoted in a story. The incident shook her and she told me later she would never speak to the press again.
The window of opportunity to have an editor look at such stories was small so I had to move fast. I wrote drafts of stories, inserted names of people I wanted to interview, and sought quotes afterwards. And so yes sometimes, apparently, I misattributed quotes and forgot to correct my wording. But it would make zero sense for me to attribute quotes to individuals knowing that at anytime he or she could come forward and say: “I didn’t say that!”
I certainly never fabricated anything, no more did Maureen Dowd (and a host of other white contemptible copycats and propagandists) when she misattributed quotes and passages. As The Guardian reported, “it looked like she’d simply copied and pasted Marshall’s unremarkable words, then forgot to attribute them.” Or take Gay Talese. . . his entire book was found lack credibility.
Clearly, however, there’s one glaring difference between the famed New York Times columnist and me and many of the people in the business of journalism. Despite this smear, I have notes and have been in touch with interviewees who can attest to the veracity of my quotes. An independent audit will back up this my claim.
Moreover, if my former employer had been committed to the truth they would have discovered all this. I was dealing with a serious health issue and could not respond to the three emails they sent me about their hasty review of my work. They were quick to the draw for a reason.
Which invites the following question: why was there an “investigation” in the first place?
Last December I alerted the EIC that I was unhappy with my position in the company. I had no editor (every other reporter did) and when I did reach out to editors I wouldn’t hear back for days, if ever.
I told the EIC, in an off-handed and foolish comment, that I was considering filing an EEOC complaint because I felt that I was being treated differently because of my skin color. (Another employee approached me only 30 minutes afterwards — how they knew what I said I don’t know — and told me seemingly joking, but also rather ominously it turned out, “Don’t do this, it won’t end well for you”).
The EIC later told me a copy and research editor who, according to the EIC, didn’t have much experience editing actual writing, would be working with me. The copy and research editor, to her credit, had commented before on how terrible it was that I was being ignored and how my work lay dormant for long periods of time.
As this was all happening I found out that I was referred to as a stray dog by an editor, received less pay than other reporters, and earlier in the month on a trip to DC (I reported on a ghastly Donald Trump rally) the EIC actually told me, with a weird laugh, “Don’t spend like it’s the first of month”, an obvious and insulting reference to poor black folk who receive state assistance. New atheists racists attacked me on Twitter, and the EIC confronted me instead of defending me. I was also the only reporter who was required to punch a time card. And when a new seating arrangement was constructed, I was seated the furthest from everybody. I felt like a black person in 1950s Alabama sitting in the back of the bus.
It was all strange and a colleague told me afterwards that they had expected The Intercept wouldn’t support my trip if something happened to me. In other words if I had been attacked, à la the black protester at a Trump rally in Alabama a month before, I would have been hung out to dry. Akin to what Breitbart did to their reporter allegedly assaulted by Trump’s campaign manager.
Sure enough, the EIC chastised me for my expenses on that DC trip despite my having actually saved the company money! In addition, last year, according to my diary, the EIC scolded me for using too many “highfalutin” words and that such language didn’t match the objects of my stories. It was a pellucid inference that I was some sort of zip coon writing words I didn’t fully understand.
This pattern somewhat startled me, but later two staffers at First Look Media informed me, from their experience sitting in on hiring meetings with the EIC, that she was only “comfortable around people who look like her.” In other words: blonde white people. Yes. A black candidate applied for the job of managing editor, but he, according to the EIC, didn’t “the motif.”
Further, a colleague disclosed that during an editorial meeting, which I missed, the editors and staff guffawed when a story, which I wrote, about the bigoted harassment black scholars face online was mentioned. Because, of course, there’s nothing more hilarious than an online lynching.
Back to that December — after my complaining I went on vacation a short while later. When I returned to the office January 4 I was presented with bogus emails (which I had told them about) and terminated. “We own you,” I was told. “What?”, a shocked me asked. “I mean we own your stories, that’s part of the agreement you signed.” No agreement will ever entitle white folk to own me. Never.
It is true that I forwarded two emails (WNYC and Turner) that were sent to me by a friend. They were jokes which, again, I told them about. I was doing so well and the friend pranked me like I used to prank him with telephone calls and texts. I didn’t know that at the time I forwarded them to the EIC. I apologize for that. As far as the book goes I had a contract with a small publisher that I thought was a subsidiary of Crown, and any picture on Facebook was just me flexing. Again, this was all dredged up, once agqain, when I mentioned four scary letters E-E-O-C.
Most importantly, it must be stressed that The Intercept’s clumsy “investigation” focused on just five stories written by me (Benny Johnson and Jared Keller actually plagiarized multiple stories, and they’re still kicking). Out of those five stories The Intercept retracted one. I’ve commented on the misattributed quotes and will now delve in to the Dylann Roof matter.
Simply put: the fault lies entirely with The Intercept’s piteous editorial structure.
When white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered those black churchgoers I immediately jumped on Nexis and searched for people who were connected to him. I found a “D A Roof” on Nexis at the address connected to Roof that was circulating on the web that morning. When I called the number it just rang. I next called the number of a neighbor. Nexis profiles list “possible associates” and “neighbors”. The neighbor was an older woman who said she knew, and was friendly with, the people who lived at the address.
She gave me some inconsequential details about them and I asked if she could possibly convince someone in the home to talk to me. She said she would try and 20–30 minutes later I received a blocked call from a man who said he was Roof’s cousin. He, after some hesitation, gave his name as Scott and the conversation lasted less than 3 minutes. Before he hung up on me the man asked that I not use his name.
After the conversation I wrote up the very short piece on Roof. I told the national editor that I didn’t feel comfortable with the guy and that it all seemed very sketchy. They wanted to run it anyway. I said we shouldn’t use his name. They said he asked for anonymity much too late. They ran it.
(Luckily, I maintained emails between the editors and me that indicate my hesitation about publishing the story.)
Two and a half weeks later I had a meeting with the national editor and the EIC about the Roof story. “If there was a failure it was on our part,” the EIC said. She added the research team would look into it, but they never did. None of this, by the way, was mentioned in their duplicitous story about me. I was aghast because I never wanted to run the story from the get-go. It was also in this meeting that the EIC admonished me because a story about my father’s murderous past had been published on Talking Points Memo.
“We’ve cultivated you,” the EIC condescendingly told me. It was typical: I produce labor and earn a paycheck; but Miss Ann wants to make me feel as if I should be grateful and rejoice with shouts of “Thank you massa!” ?
If one needed any further proof of the vindictive dishonesty of this all look no further than the absurd questions raised about the stories that I penned regarding my family.
I never wrote in detail about my father for The Intercept, but for some reason they were interested in that story. I was told they couldn’t find anything on “Donald Thompson”, which, in their minds, meant I must have made up the stories about him. Of course they couldn’t find details on “Donald Thompson” because I, like many, don’t carry the surname of my father.
The TPM piece I wrote about Donald Jones, and everything I ever wrote my family, is absolutely and completely true. Jones was a nasty human being who first impregnated my mother when she was 14 (he 21), murdered numerous people, and once, while he was high on PCP, attempted to push my mother out of a window to her death. I wish I could have made that horrible shit up. But the conditions that spawned me are foreign to white liberals whose biggest troubles revolved around which eating club to join at Harvard. It took me a long time to come to grips with my history, because of embarrassment and fear, and now that I have, these dreadful people, who know nothing about this life, have chosen to question its authenticity.
In all my life my mother is the only person whom I can say loved me and that I loved back. And as is often true mother knows best. Mommy admonished me that I, “shoulda never told your story to those white people. They use you and then abuse you.”
Indeed, I glanced at a headline that previous employers in Chicago, WBEZ and DNAinfo, have “repudiated” me. Typical bullshit. I went out and reported stories for DNAinfo (another company owned by a billionaire) as an intern , was told to call myself a reporter, and on the site my stories were listed under reporter. This is the news organization that told me: “We don’t do those sorts of stories here” after I had spoken with an assistant Chicago Public Schools superintendent who, I was incredulous to find, didn’t know the number of schools, mostly in black and Latino neighborhoods, that were being closed by the city. It was outrageous that the superintendent didn’t know the number, but I was alone in believing that to be news.
At WBEZ I worked as a production assistant (sure I spruced it up to assistant producer) where they, much to my surprise, gave questions to interviewees before the actual interviews. Ultimately, it’s a classic pile-on effect by media cogs equally eager to distance themselves and to see their names in the national media. Such is the life at these outlets. Indeed, the EIC at The Intercept killed a negative story (regarding nepotism) about NPR in DC, retrieved from the Sony hack, because of her connections with said NPR executive. But, I remind you dear readers, these are the people from whom I am to take lessons in journalism ethics (and whom you should trust for the facts). Welcome to big liberal media: a hypocritical, pernicious, circle jerk featuring white elites who pat themselves on the back (gee — that Coates stories made me feel good about myself), do some good stories on occasion, but who, ultimately, are mostly committed to not rocking the boat or blowing up a corrupt economic and social order. It’s reporting that has no real impact on the lives of poor black folk.
Back to my family’s stories. The Intercept never looked into any of that and never spoke with any member of my family, yet they had the chutzpah to raise doubts about those stories. Accordingly, the EIC’s allegations lack credibility; it’s all a pyramid of poppycock. But everyone may not see it that way, as my mother said, “You fucking with those white people, there’s one of you and a million of them. They hate us and we hate them.”
Further, The Intercept claimed they couldn’t track down people I interviewed in Ferguson. Oh yes — from your Manhattan ivory tower you can’t find working class black folk whose phones may be temporarily shut off or who may have moved so, naturally, their stories are untrue.
Here exists a defect of twenty-first century news media: if the white media, contained in their Manhattan cocoons, can’t find anything on the web, then it doesn’t exist. In reality, most people, even in this vast digital age, don’t live on the internet. And sometimes, wait for it, reporters have to leave their standing desks on 5th avenue, skip the $10 salads at Chopt, and actually talk to and meet people tete a tete. Manhattan’s 5th Avenue and Brooklyn’s Park Slope do not represent the people of Ferguson, for example.
Against this backdrop here I stand: fighting back against a misleading campaign orchestrated by a wealthy white media company. Indeed, I received a text from a number I didn’t recognize telling me the company had unlimited resources and that I didn’t want to ruin my life. Plus, relatives have told me that strange white men — who I presumed to be private investigators, not reporters, because they refused to identify themselves — have been asking questions about me in St. Louis. Good luck. Not for one second have I been frightened though.
I feel like Jeffrey Wigand, and, like him, I will fight on.
This smear and intimidation campaign is purely retaliation for my desire to blow the whistle on racial mistreatment (and, I think, a fear that I may disclose their monitoring of the airplane movement and cellphones of so-called “powerful people”) While the ride has been rough, I expected it. “The [white] media’s the most powerful entity on earth,” Malcolm X said, “They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power.” And Steve Harvey, when talking about how black employees expect to be treated in white work spaces, said it best: “We figure, well any day now, my ass will be out of here.”
Their guns are bigger than mine which is why I suspect they came after me with such arrogant intensity. I’m a whistleblower. But their allegations are false and misleading. I, of course, cannot force anyone to believe these words. Look at the example of Shaun King, however, where an editor screwed him over and painted him as plagiarist. Imagine if King hadn’t kept certain emails to back up his claims, many would believe him to be a plagiarist. So, if some want to continue to believe that powerful white media corporations, owned by billionaires, wouldn’t stoop to distortions, sabotage, and lies, well then, I have a great big ole arch in St. Louis that I want to sell you.
For me, stumbling is not falling. This internet lynching they’ve attempted won’t defeat me. And when one attempts to break a butterfly upon a wheel, one exposes oneself. Nothing frightens these people more than a smart, resilient, black person unafraid to speak out and expose.
I will not apologize for writing about black folk; I will not apologize for interviewing black folk who distrust the media and letting them give me pseudonyms; I will certainly not take the blame for one retracted story that I never really wanted to publish. And I will not apologize for speaking the truth about racial mistreatment. Nor will I apologize for being such an engaging and excellent writer.
Yes, I was sloppy, at times, and anxious, and for this I offer regrets, but The Intercept’s editorial structure failed miserably, and so they’ve shifted their failures to me in an attempt to conceal them, and brand me as some sort of black Herodotus.
This smear is something for which I cannot and will not stand.
Thankfully I have loving family members, friends, and mentors who’ve encouraged me to fight back and helped me obtain a prominent lawyer.
It was expected that I would curl up in a ball and cry and repent and schlep back to St. Louis with my tail between my legs; they were mistaken. I never back down from a fight. Never. Whether it be a bully on a school bus threatening to shoot me, or corrupt white liberals in the media.
One evening, when I was a kid, I was spending the night at an uncle’s apartment when the police kicked in the front door. The uncle was a crack cocaine dealer and the police forced all of us on to the ground, spread eagle, while guns were pointed at our heads. I was six.
If I can survive that sort of trauma, and many others, then I will survive this too. And whether I continue to write stories about marginalized groups, or if I do something else to keep up the struggle, freedom is as Angela Davis described it, “a constant struggle.” The path behind me is littered with the figurative corpses of drab bigots who hoped I would step aside quietly.
Liberation will never come to fruition if black folk tie ourselves to certain institutions that repeatedly demonstrate they don’t give a damn about black people (see MSNBC scrubbing away its blackness) outside of Manhattan cocktail parties — unburdened by the actual presence of people of color— and Brooklyn barbecues where they serve under-seasoned meat.
I shall reject those crumbs from now on.
“I’m from St. Louis, we strong as hell. I won’t be broken by these odious bastards,” I told someone as we discussed all this drama.
Just a short while after I uttered those words my little brother texted me: “We come from a strong stock, and all we know how to do is fight” he said.
More importantly, I’m not in this fight to make myself feel good about myself — although my writing will always better than that of many of these mediocre white people who have vast platforms. My knack for public speaking and my writing ability threatened such people.
Nevertheless, I’ve been invested in this work, since I came out of the womb, to accomplish one goal: the destruction of capitalist-racial supremacy — which, in most cases, infects America’s many“news”-rooms.