Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Verizon Dumps Loren "Tech Nigga" Feldman. Blogosphere Crys Foul

Loren Feldman and video production company 1938 Media are in the news again. The story is that Feldman recently got a video distribution deal with Verizon Wireless on their mobile VCast service, and that deal was pulled yesterday because protesters feel Feldman is a racist. This comes on the heels of a similar deal with C|NET/CBS announced several weeks ago that seems to have been put on "hiatus", which I presume is a polite way of saying canceled.

The history of this is as follows.

Almost a year ago, Loren Feldman posted a video he wrote, produced and starred in, called "Tech Nigga." In it, he questions why there aren't any black tech bloggers, and then in a supposedly satirical manner, pretends to be one, and imagines what it might be like. Feldman employs a fake black accent, dons gold jewelry, and uses every other conceivable stereotype that could be packed into three minutes including discussions of "bitches and hoes."

The video was indeed offensive, but perhaps what was more offensive is other audio clips Feldman has produced saying things like "black people are lame" and essentially breaking down how horrible black people and black culture are. It is truly amazing material that doesn't get nearly as much play as the Tech Nigga stuff, but it should.

In previous coverage, I have organized the relevant audio/video clips here.

In any case, I was offended from the day Feldman produced these pieces. But people have a right to be offensive on the Internet.

My real problem came when people started to give Feldman a really large platform. I initially wrote about this problem several months ago, when Feldman appeared on a panel here in New York, talking about mobile video. But this was small potatoes compared to when Mike Arrington, the most powerful man in the tech blogosphere, became Feldman's best friend and seemingly set up interviews with Kara Swisher from the Wall Street Journal's All Things Digital, Dan Farber from C|NET/CBS, and many other "A-List" bloggers and Internet stars.

I publicly commented to Kara about her support for Feldman and got a nasty private email from Loren. He said he was writing to gloat over his success. To me it smacked of some attempt at intimidation. But whatever, it was totally low class and inappropriate.

In any case, the blogosphere support trend was disturbing but still no big deal. But when it really starts to become a big deal is when huge corporations like C|NET/CBS or Verizon decide to start distributing content from someone who "guiltlessly" produces "entertainment" like Tech Nigga.

Thankfully, it appears that both the C|NET deal and the Verizon deal have gone away.

But that is not the interesting part of this story.

What is really fascinating to me that so many top level bloggers are supporting him. Michael Arrington at TechCrunch suggests the reaction might be some kind of conspiracy tied to another Feldman controversy related to Shel Israel. Mathew Ingram frames it as a free speech issue, and thinks "it would be nice if there were some voices on the other side." Mark 'Rizzin' Hopkins from Mashable seems to think if you have a problem with Feldman you should just not watch but shut up about it. Tom, from Toms Tech Blog agrees with Mark that if you don't like it you just shouldn't watch, but that protesting is out of bounds. More interestingly, in the comments on the TechCrunch article, Tom questions the morality of protesters, presumably black, who are petitioning Verizon. He seems unswayed by the idea that targets of racist material might be angry, or hurt, and that it might be totally within *their* rights to protest.

To me, it is amazing that all these guys seem, on one level or another to support Feldman. It is also totally clear in the comments that they are all incredibly out of touch with the vast majority of their readerships who "get" why Verizon would drop him and seem to fully support the decision.

The concept that this could be a free speech issue is bizarre. Verizon has every right to not air the content of people who they or a large part of their audience find offensive. Mathew Ingram works for Toronto's Globe and Mail, and as an example I suspect none of their reporters are (at least publicly) racist. It is certainly Globe and Mail's right not to hire such people or distribute their work. Free speech means you are free to speak anywhere that will have you, not that you are free to speak wherever you want. It is not your right to speak on Verizon's service, or on C|NET/CBS, or anywhere that thinks your presence would not reflect well on them.

And if a bunch of black people decide they don't want to be Verizon customers over an issue like this, and they choose to make that public, that is their right as well. As I see it, free speech worked perfectly in this situation. Feldman has the free speech right to be offensive. I have the free speech right to be offended, just as the constitution intended it.

The bottom line for Feldman is that it turns out that free speech doesn't mean free from the consequences of your speech. Hopefully, that, if nothing else, is a useful lesson.

32 comments:

  1. This stuff really bothers me. Free speech and censorship can only apply to governments: they can suppress your speech with guns and jail. Someone deciding not to give you access to their forum is not censorship. Boing Boing's purging of association with Violet Blue is not censorship: she has her own popular blog, for crying out loud. And Feldman can continue to be as racist as he wants, but he's not going to get sanctioned access to these companies' audiences.

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  2. You should publish his gloat email.

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  3. I do not think Feldman is a racist. The Verizon dumping him is just business, nothing personal.

    Feldman likes to Flame for attention calling it entertainment. While some of his criticism has merits he goes too far!

    Feldman hates when people criticize him and will block you as soon as you say a word to him.

    His buddies who rally around him are all A-listers aka the In crowd!

    Scoble, Arrington, Calacanis, Duncan! Please are we going to let a few Elitists dictate to us what is right or wrong!

    This boys club is nothing but cronyisms!

    Loren go wash Michael's Porsche and maybe he will let you sleep on him sofa or in his garage!

    You do not like it, Shut the F up!

    You know the deal, and stop crying.

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  4. Well written article Hank. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

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  5. Two things…

    First, I’d never seen the other two videos you quote in your post but having now watched them he didn’t say anything that Bill Cosby hasn’t said in public forums all over the world at this point. On the offensive scale I’d think the Techn**** video was more “offense worthy” if you were going to pick one.

    On the “what about the protester’s rights” point I’d say that I never said they didn’t have the right to protest. The question is whether it was morally right to protest. If a neighborhood of all white people has a black family move in and then makes their life a living hell until they’re forced out does the fact that the neighborhood had a right to do that make it morally right? I don’t think so.

    There are consequences to the freedoms we have but that doesn’t mean that others get to make up whatever consequence they feel like. Again I go back to the example I used in the Techcrunch comments: If a Barack Obama supporter walks into a John McCain rally and is beaten up would you really say that was just “a consequence” of his freedom of speech? Or would you say the McCain supporters were wrong for having done what they did?

    Finally, with all the rest of that said, lets be honest here: This has nothing to do with the rights of those protesting. They could just not watch the video. They aren't ttrying to protect themselves from harm they're trying to impose harm on Loren Feldman. Again, they may have the right to doo that but that fact certainly doesn't make it right.

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  6. Thanks for the summary Hank. Excellent response.

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  7. Tom,

    First of all, Bill Cosby has **NEVER** said anything like what Loren Feldman said. Bill Cosby has never said "Black people are lame". Nothing like it. Never. Ever.

    Second, even if he had, it is very different for a Black person (or any person within a group) to criticize itself, and another for a condescending obnoxious white person outside the culture, hell bent on defending a racially offensive video to do it.

    Third, you are equating protest speech with beating someone up. Not even in the same ball park. I believe it is right and proper for anyone to say anything. Saying something doesnt make you imoral. The question is whether *what they are saying* is right. For people to stand up and say they are offended by a piece of work and they dont think an entertainment carrier should carry that content is *exactly* proper and right. The idea that when people don't like something they should just shut up about it and be quiet is what I find offensive. In fact, such protest is the basis of civil justice in this country.

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  8. Tom - I cannot believe you are comparing peacefully protesting a business decision with physically beating people up. Are you completely out of touch with reality? By your logic, the political process in the United States is just as bad as that of Mugabe's Zimbabwe.

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  9. Whenever I see Feldman's mug looming out of a video embed I know to move swiftly on - no good can come of hitting the play button. It frankly amazes me that these deals with Verizon and CNET ever came to pass - can you imagine the other crap they must have signed up?

    I'm not surprised that Arrington & The Usual Suspects (great name for a band, BTW) have rallied to his defense. Taking something useless and selling it to the mainstream is basically their business model, and so when it all falls apart as in this case it's easier to blame the mainstream rather than believe the model is broken. Or that Feldman is useless.

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  10. Wow, Tom's response is so out of right field its almost comical. Was that satire?

    Loren is free to say what he likes.
    Loren's critics are free to criticize.
    Verizon is free to decide what they show or don't show.

    Everyone is exercising their right to expression here. Seems like its worked out as it should have.

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  11. On Bill Cosby, the term “lame” is subjective so you really can’t say what was meant by that. But as far as the message that was in those other two videos its straight out of the controversial statements that Mr. Cosby made a couple years back. In regards to Loren Feldman being white I’ll say this: I personally try to steer clear of such topics for just the reason you cite, people get easily offended. That said, I was raised to believe the color of someone’s skin doesn’t matter and the end result of that belief if that people should be free to criticize whomever they want regardless of the color of their skin. So to me your all guilty of using race against each other.

    On the “physical violence” issue I’m surprised by your opinion. As someone who has been beaten up I can tell you right now that I’d rather have that happen than to have someone take my livelihood away. Assuming the Verizon deal would have been even semi-profitable for Loren Feldman he could have easily netted $10,000 from it over the life of the deal. Now go up to your average person and ask them if they’d rather be sore for a few days or lose $10,000 and see which they choose.

    (Clearly neither is preferable I’m just saying that people’s aversion to physical violence makes them blind to the fact that other punishments have larger consequences)

    @Anonymous - If you tried responding to what I said instead of the straw man you constructed it might be easier for you to get your point across to me.

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  12. 1. lame is not subjective. It is a clear insult.


    2. "On the “physical violence” issue I’m surprised by your opinion. As someone who has been beaten up I can tell you right now that I’d rather have that happen than to have someone take my livelihood away."

    You do not have a right to make a living insulting me without me having the right to stand up and scream about it. You seem to expect that insult victims cannot complain when that complaint might cause the victimizer to lose a job or some distribution or whatever.

    Loren felt "Tech Nigga" was a good thing to do. He did it. It backfired. That is no one's fault but his own and was 100% predictable. What is shocking is that you, Loren and others seem to think that when you make statements like this, the targets will not fight back and there will not be consequences.

    The bottom line here is the victims of Loren's attacks *finally* fought back. The lesson here is don't attack people when they might be able to attack back if you cant handle the potential consequences.

    No one has the moral or otherwise right to attack a person or people without said target being able to respond. That seems to be what you wish would happen here, and it just doesn't make sense. You are promoting the idea that bullies (which is what Loren is) should be free to bully unimpeded because they have a right to make a living as a bully. That's bull.

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  13. Bravos, Hank. Thanks for the insight and your take.

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  14. 1. I think you’re reaching here. To the extent that it is an insult it is the lowest level insult in existence. I, not more than 24 hours ago, called a good friend lame for liking Celine Dion and he took no offense. At the risk of being rude I think the problem here is that you just don’t like Mr. Feldman and rather than just accept that for what it is, an emotional reaction based on your personal feelings about his character, you need to assign some decisive reason for it. You don’t like the guy, you have every reason not to, why do you feel the need to decisively justify it?

    2. The definition of “bullying” is to “frighten, intimidate or otherwise intentionally cause harm”. Now, I have to ask you, do you really think these videos did any of that. You certainly don’t seem frightened or intimidated. So the only other criteria is “to cause harm” and I don’t see how these videos did that. For that to have happened someone would have had to have been influenced by these videos enough to form a conclusion based on them and I think we both know that didn’t happen. Put it this way, if you can explain to me how these videos actually harmed anyone I’ll happily eat my words but I just don’t see it.

    All that said, here’s the problem. These protestors really did bully him in that they really did cause significant harm to him. If someone can prove to me that it was in response to harm he caused to them then fine, I’ll see your point. But otherwise it’s the protestors who are in the wrong by your own logic (e.g. the person in the wrong is the person who is being bullied and if you can’t prove Feldman was bullying them than they were the first people to be bullys)

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  15. Free speech is an interesting conundrum. We have a societal obligation to enforce social mores but often freedom of speech is at odds with propriety. Too often unacceptable and even sociopathic speech is defended as free speech, but also too often restrictions of speech are imposed to prevent needed social change.

    Another important question people need to ask is why would a company like cnet or verizon bring these people on? We naively look at the morality of the situation. Why would they support racist speech? The hard truth of internet business is that it feeds on drama. Drama creates traffic creates ad revenue.

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  16. "Black people are so f***ing lame." Yeah, not an insult at ALL, Tom. Stop being an idiot.

    - SG

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  17. "I, not more than 24 hours ago, called a good friend lame for liking Celine Dion and he took no offense."

    Wow. totally out of touch. Calling a friend lame because they like celine dion (or calling them anything) is much different than calling an entire race of people lame. This is a bizarre conversation.

    "At the risk of being rude I think the problem here is that you just don’t like Mr. Feldman and rather than just accept that for what it is, an emotional reaction based on your personal feelings about his character, you need to assign some decisive reason for it."

    I have never met Mr. Feldman. I do not like him because of what he has said about black people, which is the subject of this controversy. I am black. It really isnt that complicated.

    "The definition of “bullying” is to “frighten, intimidate or otherwise intentionally cause harm”. Now, I have to ask you, do you really think these videos did any of that."

    I may not be intimidated, though he has attempted through email to do that. But I have been insulted, as have all black people, by his words. As a white person, you may not understand the visceral hurt that is caused by such words, but it is real, I promise you. Of course Shel Israel is an even more clear example of bullying - not that it is directly relevant, but it does shed light on his character.

    "All that said, here’s the problem. These protestors really did bully him in that they really did cause significant harm to him."

    All the protesters did was bring light to Feldmans words. They exposed Feldman. If they were not offensive, damaging words, he would not have been harmed. As I see it, Feldman harmed himself. Your point of view is essentially that his words were not harmful, and I as a target of those words, beg to differ. I have been called these words before and it indeed painful. And to have smart people from my industry defend it is more painful still.

    Again you seem to wish that people had the right to target, bully or whatever you want to call it, other people, but they have no right to respond. Your view is incredibly unfair and unbalanced. Feldman's speech is moral. The responding complaint is not.

    You should read everone's comments on all of these blogs and really seriously reconsider your positions. You seem like a good guy that has somehow gotten some really wrong ideas about this in your head. Please think about this a bit. I don't think a few years from now your defense of this guy is going to be a proud moment for you.

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  18. Great post and coverage. Thanks.

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  19. Wow. Feldman's defenders have really been learning lots from Bill O'Reilly. Let's call them for what they are: a bunch of rich, white right wing bigots.

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  20. Excellent post, Hank. What's more interesting to me is not the story itself, but the reaction to the story. A lot of folks cowered. Some people chose sides today and showed their true colors. I am still waiting to see if Kara Swisher thinks calling people niggers is "innovative original material that is a key part of creating a whole new genre online."

    Maybe you should add the Guy Kawasaki video to your Feldman collection.

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  21. Hank, thanks for your pov. My sense is you play, you pay. What Feldman has done in his attempt at humor/entertainment with his "Tech N" item is nothing less than offensive, insensitive and tone deaf. Shame on Feldman.

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  22. I really should just keep my mouth shut, but...

    I'd never seen the videos before today, but it seems to me that he isn't making fun of black people, but of the cultural stereotypes that some black people create, and other black (and non-black, but mostly black) people aspire to.

    All poorly executed, surely.

    Notice though that he doesn't call black people "lame". He says "it's like black people are so fucking lame, and you just have to handle them with kid's [sic] gloves". Charitable interpretation (with context) hears that as "black people call each other 'nigger', but white people are so afraid of the word that they say 'the n-word' instead -- as if that doesn't mean exactly the same thing -- and who are these people who can't stand to hear the sound of a word once used (NOT actually derisively, but by morally corrupt people who considered black people sub-human, in addition to being common parlance at the time), now re-adopted by themselves but off limits for anyone else'?

    (And yeah, the title of the video on your blog page is "loren feldman: black people are lame". That's not what he said. That might be what you heard, but that's not what he said.

    I don't want to defend the guy, he apparently doesn't have a particularly thoughtful view of the world (maybe for a junior high school kid), but I don't think he sounds aggressively racist. Passively racist, perhaps...failing to discriminate between black humans and popular media black culture.

    "Black culture" as promoted by media etc can be genuinely embarrassing and worthy of satire. So can "American culture", and various flavors of "white culture", and these are not untouched topics in the world of comedy.

    Stereotypes don't come from nowhere, but neither are they entirely honest -- but that's the whole point, and most people/subcultures are capable of laughing at themselves. I grant that it is harder for minorities to laugh at the excesses and caricatures of their cultural stereotypes, partially because they don't have the critical mass necessary for the falseness of those stereotypes to be widely recognized by the majority, or by other minorities.

    There is an additional sensitivity in the "white-on-black" cultural stereotype, for obvious historical reasons. Feldman (jewish? he offers the word "kike" in an example of a culture that has largely left its denigration behind them) and his ancestors were very likely not a part of any of the historical reasons for that additional sensitivity, and he might have some resentment for the blind application of it to him based on his skin color.

    Or maybe he's just a jerk.

    Or maybe he's also a jerk.

    My point (and I do have one) is: fuhgeddaboutit. Dude ain't worth two shakes of a possum's whisker. He laffs at crap that can be laughed at without being an unkind person. But he doesn't do it in any way that advances the dialogue. So, let him wallow.

    Maybe VZ dropped him because he just isn't that interesting.

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  23. Hah, just watched his video attacking Guy Kawasaki for an offhand comment about Jews. Yeah, apparently he's Jewish.

    www.1938media.com /media/guy_kawasaki.mov

    Watch him get all bent out of shape about a probably-poorly-considered but offhand statement about Jews. Compare and contrast to his "entertainer" satire of TechNigga.

    Yep, he's a jerk. A boring jerk. Next.

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  24. It's amazing to me how in America we have the luxury of squandering our free speech rights on childish offensive speech.

    Bloggers in other countries are being arrested for criticizing their governments, yet some jerk who probably thinks hes down after watching too much Dave Chapelle is being treated as some first amendment hero.

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  25. If Loren thought he could insult people - a whole race, then he had to expect them to fire the ball right back at him - he didnt.

    I dont know why theres a discussion about "if" it was an insult - it is.

    The part i find amazing is the attempt to try and shoosh people who are responding to the insult. Its an insult that will never go away!

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  26. I agree with your general premise that people who speak out against Feldman are just as much an embodiment of free expression as his videos.

    But I had to comment about this groaner: "As I see it, free speech worked perfectly in this situation. Feldman has the free speech right to be offensive. I have the free speech right to be offended, just as the constitution intended it."

    The First Amendment has nothing to do with how private citizens treat the speech of other private citizens. It relates to how the government treats speech. The Constitution doesn't give a shit about Verizon dumping a provocative videoblogger.

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  27. rcade,

    Thanks for the comment. But on your complaint about my constitution reference I think it was entirely on point. No party (including the government) interfered or should have interfere with either side's right to say anything. Believe it or not, I am in a bit of a blog argument with Tom over at tomstechblog.com who just wrote that he believed that the courts had ruled that threatening boycotts was *illegal*. So while my statement might seem trite to someone like yourself, there are (apparently) people who have no idea what the constitution says or what the laws on this matter are.

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  28. Great post and subsequent comments, Hank. Feldman is a fool if he thought that there would be no repercussions for repeated offenses (and not just to black people but his entire persona of bullying people online). You want to play the game, you pay the price.

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  29. I've never seen your blog before but this was an awesome post. I can't believe that people are actually defending this jerk, but then again, I can.

    Free speech means you can say what you want, but it doesn't mean you always should. If you use this gift the Constitution has given us, be prepared for the consequences of your actions. But that should be with ALL things... for every action there is a reaction. All the jerk's defenders need to "just not listen" to the criticism if they think Blacks should "just not watch the video." And they should stop whining. If you make your boss look like a fool or a racist, you get fired. That's the way it is no matter what job or contract you hold.

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  30. Great post. If anyone is surprised by what happened here, they need to get out of the house more.

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  31. *yawn* - But I would like to note...

    Hank Williams said: "I may not be intimidated, though he has attempted through email to do that. But I have been insulted, as have all black people, by his words. As a white person, you may not understand the visceral hurt that is caused by such words, but it is real, I promise you."

    -- As a white person, you may not understand the visceral hurt that is caused by such words. - ???

    What?

    Even though I'm not offended, that was offensive by your standards. You, at least subconsciously, generalize that "white" people "may not" understand. Are you protected by using "may not"?

    What is a white person, exactly? Someone that is the opposite of black and not of Spanish or Asian descent?

    I'm so tired of the Black and White debate.

    "Black" comics are typically my favorite. But, let's see a "White" sitcom pull of stereotyping like "Black" sitcoms have - eg. Fresh Price of Bel Air - but I don't care, it is hilarious watching a "Black" person stereotype a "White" person.

    You want a culture that is stereotyped and should be offended more than Whites or Blacks? ITALIANS.

    Stop crying.

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  32. Even as a white man, I can totally understand why you would find this offensive, it is incredibly complex situation & I'm not trying to 'put a point on it', just giving my opinion.

    That opinion is that it is very hard for not only this guy, but for all comics to find the 'line' between what is funny & what is offensive... Shows like Family Guy employ stereo types of Black people & poke fun at them in a purposely ignorant way, but this is to highlight the prejudices that remain in society today... Not to cause offence to the viewer...

    I do think that the comic in question has crossed that line by a long way, but whether he was intentionally being racist is another question, I don't believe he was, I think that he was going for a cheap laugh...

    The key to all race relations in my opinion is education, this guy needs to be educated towards race & see what effects his 'comedy' has on Black people, once you are upsetting individuals like yourself, then it's time to rethink your stance on the subject...

    I only wonder, how far does Chris Rock have to go to be 'racist' to white people, I honestly don't think there is anything he could say that would be deemed as racist towards a white person, as a majority it seems that no one cares what is said about us...

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