Jamilah Lemieux| Episode 49

00:00 - 00:00

Part 1: Jamarlin talks to digital media executive, activist and author Jamilah Lemieux. They discuss her article, "The Power And Fragility Of Working In Black Media" in the Columbia Journalism Review and Lamont Hill being fired by CNN for his comments on Palestine. They also discuss whether Michelle Obama's words on Rev. Jeremiah Wright in her book "Becoming" were a false equivalence.

This is a full transcript of the conversation which has been lightly edited for clarity.

Jamarlin Martin: You're listening to GHOGH with Jamarlin Martin. We have a go hard or go home approach as we talk to the leading tech leaders, politicians and influencers. Let's GHOGH! Today we have Jamilah Lemieux, the magic maker, a writer, speaker, also an activist in our community. Welcome to the show.

Jamilah Lemieux: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Jamarlin Martin: Tell us a little bit about your background and how did you get into digital media where you've been in the game for a while?

Jamilah Lemieux: I am originally from Chicago. I went to Howard and I studied theater there, and declaring acting as my major definitely came as a surprise to my friends and family. Folks said, "You're a great writer. Why aren't you majoring in communications or PR or English, something related to that." And I was like, no, this is what I want to do. And I made a promise to my parents that I wouldn't be a starving artist, that I would teach if acting didn't happen for me immediately and before I even finished school, I got into teaching. I was like, okay, I'm not going to pursue theater. I just didn't have the courage and belief in myself. Did education and worked in and around that space for a while, my heart wasn't there. During that time I started a blog called "Beautiful Struggler", which I got serious about it, if you will, in 2007. So right before I graduated from college and within a couple months I realized I really liked writing and I liked communicating with people online because this was back in the days of MySpace and everyone's blog ended in blogspot.com and comments sections were not things to be avoided. They were treasured. It was a great opportunity to talk to other people. There were a number of us who...

Jamarlin Martin: So you were blogging before it was cool?

Jamilah Lemieux: Yeah. I was definitely an early adopter with social media in a lot of ways, relative to some of my friends and relative to some other really talented writers I know that kind of had to learn the internet after the fact, where there were some of us that had been in that space for a long time. But I think back to when I started blogging, folks like Damon Young and Panama from "Very Smart Brothas" and Demetria Lucas, and Jozen Cummings. I'd say about half of us were traditionally trained journalism graduates and the other half were people like myself that just liked writing. Just kind of found their way into it. And so from there I ended up getting a job with Ebony. I was part of the team that launched their website in 2012. I was there for almost five years and had a lot to do with the reimagining of the brand and bringing it into the modern day, before it's current set of challenges. If you will. And then after that I did a two-year stint at InteractiveOne. I was the VP of news and men's programming. And prior to having those jobs, which were both great experiences, I learned so much about digital media and I would like to think that I'm part of a group of editorial thinkers and leaders that really kind of defined how my generation and folks a little bit younger than us and a little bit older than us use the internet to talk about issues of race, gender, sexuality, identity really. And did a whole lot of freelance writing before and a bit during those two jobs and got the opportunity to speak at a lot of schools and be on a few cool TV shows and radio shows and a lot of podcasts. And last summer I was at a moment where I realized that the more my career trended upward on paper, the less happy I was in this space. Digital media as you know, is incredibly difficult. There's still a lot of questions about sustainability.

Jamarlin Martin: It's a depression. It's a super hard game right now.

Jamilah Lemieux: Yeah. And it's so much that the priority is around clicks and revenue as opposed to quality, of substance. And I really just want to make work of substance and I want to write again. And so I am now full time freelance. I'm working on a book and a television pilot and I'm also doing some communications consulting because I learned so much in that space and things that I can help or have helped brands and individuals and political campaigns with, but I's untethered in certain ways now.

Jamarlin Martin: Do you hold the duopoly of Google and Facebook who are taking of course, a massive amount of advertising revenue out of the system, a lot of the advertising of course, is going to automated systems where people like yourself who want to write about things that they're passionate about, who want to write about or critique the establishment or write about helping people or their community that can no longer be ad-supported. Of course Google and Facebook taking a lot out of the system, but offering very little. Do you hold these beasts that I would call them, these tech beast out in California, hold them accountable for taking so much value and life out of the system where to be a healthy community you're going to need quality content and ad-supported content essentially?

Jamilah Lemieux: Absolutely. Both platforms, or companies I should say, are a gift and a curse. In so many ways I think of Google as more significant in terms of the gifts that it offers and how it has. There are things about that that come from the Google universe, I think, that improve the quality of our life in ways that Facebook has not.

Jamarlin Martin: That's an important distinction. They don't necessarily deserve it the same.

Jamilah Lemieux: No. Google allows us to access so much information, valid information and misinformation, and Facebook knowingly trafficked in the spread of misinformation in some very dangerous ways considering the outcome of the last political or presidential election. And down ticket races that have happened before, during and after. So it's sad. I still use Google and Facebook, especially Google products. It's almost impossible to divorce yourself from them entirely. At least Google. I think there's so many great things about Google, but we're still figuring out what monetization looks like for content creators. And that's part of the reason that I don't want to be in the business in that way again. I didn't feel that I should continue to be in management or running sites because I'm not the person who has the gift of really understanding how to make these things make money. Now I know what good quality content is. I know how to produce it on a dime, I know how to produce it with the budget. Again, to sit in the leadership role in this space you really have to think about the money in ways that I would prefer not to.

Jamarlin Martin: Yeah. So with the rising inequality in America specifically, I think it could be explained in part where the folks like yourself and other content creators, they're creating content, let's say on Youtube. And so you create a lot of content that consumers love, but Google does not pay the content creator enough to compensate for their time to make a living. However, Google may share 30 percent with the content creator, but the real value is not in the revenue share. The real value that they're pimping off the content creators is going to the share price. So as Google's share price goes up towards $1 trillion, that's on the backs of a lot of the media partners, the content creators. And so they're getting just a very little piece of that advertising piece. But that's not necessarily the real value. The value is being shifted to the shareholders and essentially, you have a problem that we're facing. You wrote a beautiful piece that I saw online called "The Power and Fragility of Black Media". And I read a point of view, and being in the digital media industry, that's not appreciated in our culture. Meaning that you knew that there were problems in Black media in terms of hey, people getting paid late or this is out of place and this and that. But you had a certain sympathy in terms of hey, the same website, may be producing business content, they may get a $50 CPM or advertising revenue per thousand impressions, but this Black Company is getting $20 and you want to compare the Black media who has to fight these battles and get less for the same thing. You want to compare them to New York Times and compare them to other outlets, and that kind of nuance is not really out there or talked about. Can you talk a little bit about what inspired you to write that piece?

Jamilah Lemieux: Sure and thank you. I was actually approached by the Columbia Journalism Review for a package that they were doing about the lack of diversity in newsrooms and what it's like to be the only Black person in one. And I said that has not been my experience. But because I've been very deliberate throughout my career, there were certainly times especially, I was at Ebony for five years and was able to amass a certain amount of visibility in the business. This was back when NBC had black folks on every hour, and I was one of them. So other opportunities with white-owned, white-led media companies certainly came my way. But I was so committed to staying in Black media for a number of reasons. And one of them being that I didn't have to check my culture or my identity at the door and I didn't have to explain it to people either. Trayvon Martin gets killed, we're all upset, Mike Brown gets killed, we're all upset. Trump is elected. Everybody, for the most part in the office is feeling unsettled or scared. And I still would say I'm unwilling in any sort of full time capacity and have certainly done freelance and done projects for other spaces but would not, knowing what I know about the insides of Black media companies and the two that I worked for were among either the largest or the best known. Again, just like you said, advertisers do not value them even when they have the impressions or the subscribers or the circulation rates of their competitors or others similar spaces I should say that are designed for mainstream or non-Black audiences that advertisers don't treat them the same way. So beyond saying, we're not going to give you the same amount of money that we would to say Architectural Digest or Vanity Fair, which are super niche, they don't have high circulation rates. This is not just for mainstream audiences. This is for affluent audiences, right? But people want to spend a lot of money with those brands because they're reaching consumers that are high dollar, you could argue. But also because they're not doing Black content. They're not talking to Black people. But beyond the lack of money, there was also this idea that Black content was harder to manage, that it was more controversial. So anything related to sex with scary for advertisers.

Jamarlin Martin: Brand safety.

Jamilah Lemieux: Yeah. Right. Brand safety.

Jamarlin Martin: It would be policed differently, is that what you're saying?

Jamilah Lemieux: Yes. Policed very differently. I remember Jezebel years ago, back when it was part of Gawker Media Network of course, had a column called "Pot Psychology" where a young white, gay male writer and a young white female writer would get high on marijuana and answer reader advice questions. And it was hilarious. They did it on camera and there was a written portion to it, I believe. And I just remember thinking, we could never go there in our wildest dreams. Vice does a lot of content around pot. And I remember, fast forward to 2017, I did something marijuana-related for my last employer. And internally there was some serious discomfort. There were some concessions that had to be made and overwhelmingly there was a sense, I shouldn't say overwhelmingly, but there were a number of people above my pay grade and I was the VP so I wasn't a junior employee, that felt that we were doing something destructive or inappropriate in terms of the ability to sell the brand, not necessarily from a moral standpoint. But this is in the era of marijuana legalization and decriminalization measures across the country, and it's becoming a part of pop culture beyond what it was in the 70s when you would call it a punchline really. "All the hippies are smoking". It's becoming normalized, but for us and something that people are using for medicinal reasons, and this wasn't just a fun celebration of weed. This was about the social justice implications of decriminalization and legalization, the financial opportunities that exist for communities that have been targeted by the war on drugs and the medicinal properties in addition to the social enjoyment or whatever. But the idea that cannabis represents something that we need to take seriously and a lot of us need to reevaluate our attitudes about it, even if we choose never to indulge in it. And so that was not a clear, unequivocal, yeah, we need to do this because this is where the people are right now. We need to make sure that our audiences are getting that information, that there was fear that this cost us money. It just really spoke to the limitations of being in Black media spaces.

Jamarlin Martin: You're one of the few people who spoke out when CNN fired Marc Lamont Hill over his support for Palestine.

Jamilah Lemieux: Yes.

Jamarlin Martin: And it's something that I still talk about today. Why don't people understand, it seems like, that's a big issue, meaning that if we have the people who are actually courageous to speak out on these issues and we allow the mainstream media and the establishment elite forces in the society to suppress your activist such as Marc Lamont Hill, Tamika Mallory, these forces, if you allow them to crack down on your activist, the courageous folks, these forces can optimize the community in a way where you're only allowed to talk about MAGA. You're only allowed to bang against MAGA. You're only allowed to be vocal about issues that we approve of. And I feel like they have us in a box, where they want us to stop talking about foreign policy and they had that same view with Dr. King with Vietnam. But can you talk about what's so frustrating in terms of how that went down with Marc Lamont Hill?

Jamilah Lemieux: Absolutely. And full disclosure, Marc is one of my dearest friends. So I was bothered by it as a Black woman, as somebody who works in media, as somebody who has opinions that are not always in alignment with the mainstream and who knows how easily I too can be silenced. But I was also of course offended as his friend, and as someone who understood what he was saying. And it's not that I think he's incapable of saying something inappropriate or wrong, but what he said was taken out of context and used to portray him as someone who he's not. And I think it's important that we call that out when we see it because it's dangerous and it doesn't matter if this person shares your viewpoints or not. For me, it was less about what he said and defending the point that he was making, than it was saying, look at what they're doing to him and why. Marc has been radical, and a radical leftist for a long time in terms of his thinking. But this is a scholar, and an activist, but this isn't someone who was calling out for some sort of war like measures or violence. He was saying, look, we're not going to see peace in this region until certain things change. And I think we should respect the right of people to feel otherwise. But to silence him, to remove him from the largest platform. Cause Marc always had a hundred jobs, but to take away the largest platform that he has when other commentators on the network have said things that were equally as perhaps incendiary, but in the other direction opposing...

Jamarlin Martin: You mean against Palestinians and Muslims.

Jamilah Lemieux: Right. Islamophobic things, anti-Palestinian sentiment, or having relationships with people that espouse those views and then to see young Black progressives be spanked for standing with Palestine, it's unconscionable.

Jamarlin Martin: Do you believe that Tamika Mallory's situation should be in the same issue of censorship of Black voices who step out that box? Particularly as it relates to Palestine and the foreign affairs of America.

Jamilah Lemieux: I think that Linda Sarsour of the Women's March is Palestinian and has been a vocal opponent of Zionism for the entirety of her activist career. And that's something that has led the Women's March organization to be targeted for protest. And again, I'm not denouncing the opposition to the way that these three people feel. It's just that taking away or condemning them for it. Closing doors to them, closing platforms to them.

Jamarlin Martin: Cutting checks. Trying to take away their ability to take care of their families because they side with Palestinians. And the way I feel is the American establishment, they have Black America in a box where we don't care if you talk about Donald Trump, we don't care if you just keep on protesting Donald Trump. But these are the issues where if you see MAGA over in Palestine, if you see MAGA in terms of Netanyahu in the far right in Israel, the United States has a far right and Israel has a far right. And the president of Israel is on that far right. But I think there's a lot of deceit among Democrats and liberals were, hey, if you can bang against MAGA in the United States, why can't you bang against MAGA in Israel? Why are things so different? We're talking about principles, values, and white supremacy, but there's so many people who are scared to talk about MAGA when it's over there in Palestine.

Jamilah Lemieux: Right.

Jamarlin Martin: Rev. Wright. I know this is coming out of the blue. No one has been talking about Rev. Wright. However, there was a article in the Huffington Post where the writer titled This story, "Jeremiah Wright Knew What America was Becoming". The Obamas can't see what it is. And of course, Michelle Obama's book, "Becoming" came out last year. It did extremely well, but there's a passage in the book, some people are taking issue with the false equivalency where she compares Rev. Wright's statements where she says she wasn't in those sermons. Although they'd been following Rev. Wright for 20 years, and he baptized the kids and married them. Michelle Obama says, "Hey, look, we weren't at those sermons that you guys are talking about", but let me use words to make sure I don't take this out of context. "We had lived for years with the narrow mindedness of some of our elders having accepted that no one is perfect, particularly those who come of age in a time of segregation. Perhaps this had caused us to overlook the more absurd parts of Rev. Wright's spitfire preaching. Even if we hadn't been present for any of the sermons in question, seeing an extreme version of his vitriol broadcast in the news though, we were appalled. The whole affair was a reminder of how our country's distortions about race could be two sided. That the suspicion in stereotyping ran both ways." How does that make you feel, where white supremacy and Rev. Wright's statements can be put in the same box?

Jamilah Lemieux: I love Michelle Obama dearly. My relationship to her is certainly less complicated than it is to her husband. She's not a politician, but that passage which I did read, as it starts to make the rounds, really disappointed me. I think a lot of us had hoped that when they left office that she would be unfiltered in certain ways. And she has been to some extent. And there've been things that she's said off the cuff and just let her hair down and talked about some of her discomforts in the White House and some of her thoughts around the current administration, but I really would have thought that both or either of them in their memoirs would exonerate Rev. Wright and talk about why they did not feel they were able to defend him as it was happening, which was an understandable concessions in me in certain ways. But now that you're outside of that situation, there are no more races to run. You're no longer in office. I'd have hoped that she would have been, not forgiving per se, but just clear on the hypocrisy of comparing him to hate groups and racists. And I think I've come across other class mobile Black folks that achieve a certain level of success and wealth that disconnects them. And we certainly see it in celebrities, where even if it seems like in so many ways their hearts and minds are with the people, they still have a level of, I don't want to just say optimism, but maybe naivety or disconnect from what it means to be Black for the rest of us. And so even if you don't agree with the vitriol, it's hard to understand why someone is learned as she is, or as he is, would not completely at least understand and respect the sentiment.

Jamarlin Martin: From our perspective, when I hear Barack Obama speak and he started going to Wisconsin, you can go to Youtube and he starts saying, "You've been hoodwinked. You've been bamboozled." I knew then that there was something in him where, in my opinion, he was one of us when I heard him and he had a grin where it's like I'm playing on a level where a lot of these white people don't know. And then I read his book and he talked about how he liked reading "Final Call" and this and that. Some of us I think can live with Obama saying, look, for me to go to the White House, I got to distance myself from some of this stuff. Meaning that for me to be embraced by a racist country, I need to part ways with certain stock from a military strategy, political strategy perspective can live with. But the way you do that, to your point in terms of your pastor of 20 years, this is the south side before the White House. Michelle Obama looks like somebody else, or you think that's not the publisher?

Jamilah Lemieux: I don't know the ins and outs of the process of her book coming together. I wonder was that a concession, there's still that desire to hold on to, you didn't really mean this did you? Did you fight over, we can leave this in, one of these things has to go and you'd rather talk about something else that might've bothered people and to clean that up. As someone who's from Chicago and did not grow up in the church, but Rev. Wright is and was such an important figure in the community, as is Trinity Baptist Church. It was because of their college tour that I was able to go visit Howard as a junior and confirm what I thought I knew, which was that I wanted to be there more than anything else in the world when I graduated high school. The ways that he and Father Michael Pfleger and other members of the religious community in Chicago, including Mr Farrakhan have put their differences aside and rallied together in response to the violence in some of our communities and some of the terrible racism, the Midwestern racism that folks weren't really familiar with until Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson. I just think that he deserves so much better than that. And I would have rather that she didn't address it at all and had to deal with the oversight then to continue to double down on this image of him as some... I even wonder, she said she wasn't there for those sermons and it's totally possible. It's certainly a lot of Black middle class folks that come to church for holidays, they get there when they can get there, but they didn't always. But I wonder when she says that image of him on TV didn't look like what she knew. And I wonder, maybe you were there and you didn't realize that you were there.

Jamarlin Martin: I didn't read the whole passage, but she said she didn't realize she didn't catch some things, but that's hard for me to believe. Obama said in his book he used the buy the "Final Call", Obama has read in my belief, so much Malcolm X, when he went out campaigning, he's using Malcolm X's words. Some of the Republicans were right to identify Barack Obama that he had a knowledge of self. They knew that he wasn't your average Black man running for office. I think they picked up that this guy had a knowledge of self. He was one of us. I cannot reconcile that you didn't know Rev. Wright was about that life. There's multiple videos in terms of speaking out against America, speaking out against white people.

Jamilah Lemieux: Oh No. I guess what I'm saying is I don't think she realized it was a problem until someone else told her it was. She might have sat there and nodded her head, because that's how older Black folks, especially in a lot of Black folks her age speak. And she might have sat there and been nodding and understanding it and totally getting it, but through this new lens and maybe it's a new lens that she had to adapt to serve as the first lady of the United States. I would never want to hold any sort of political office. I wouldn't want to date someone who had those ambitions or who does, simply because I know I can't put aside my identity as a Black woman. There's certain concessions and things that they had to make and do and hands they had to shake and people they had to sit next to, and I could never do those things. I can never.

Jamarlin Martin: You don't think you can make the compromises?

Jamilah Lemieux: Absolutely not, no.

Jamarlin Martin: They have a $20 million check, they want you to write, hey, when Black people speak out against white people, it's just like white people speaking out against Black people trying to get the boot off our neck.

Jamilah Lemieux: I mean, as long as there' no clause in the contract that says two weeks later, I can't be like, just kidding.

Jamarlin Martin: Yeah. So I'm a fan of Michelle Obama, I'm a fan of the Obamas. However, I don't want to isolate this, but, whether it's Marc Lamont Hill or this passage, there's a sentiment in America and some of our people are picking up where if the former slave speaks out and the pain and suffering and the trauma that we've been under in the hells of North America, that when we speak out, you may hear some cuss words, you may hear some bad words, but this is a former slave speaking out who's tired of the denial of freedom, justice and equality. So if we speak out and use words like cracker or something else, it's different then a Donald Trump, a Steve king or that hiring manager at Google where they have all the power to enforce ideologies, but when Black people are speaking out in terms of activism, fighting for freedom and justice and equality, that's different, we can't be under the same law, in my opinion. In terms of this false equivalency where, hey, if you say this about a white person, that's just like the Google executive or the Wells Fargo executive saying it.

Jamilah Lemieux: Yeah. I think it's always been that way. That both sides-ism Trump of famously put a spotlight on when he said there's good people on both sides, talking about Charlottesville after a young white woman had been murdered by somebody who drove his car into a crowd of protesters with the intention of killing people. To still say there's good people on both sides. One, America is so largely hinged upon the idea that whiteness is inherently good, and so they'll identify, "Oh, we've got some bad apples, but ultimately, most of us are good and you all have to prove yourselves as individuals at best and at worst, none of us are good."

Jamarlin Martin: I'm going to leave Rev. Wright with this. When we look at MAGA, MAGA America, and you look at a lot of the darkness in America being shown to the world, it's out in public. Rev. Wright was right. Rev. Wright, I believe, was on the side of God when he was making those sermons in terms of he's telling you, "God damn America". The MAGA was here before Donald Trump exposed it and created a cult. Rev. Wright was shining that light for the people to see, and of course he was taken out for that, at least publicly. This is part one. Tune into the next episode for part two. Thanks everybody for listening to GHOGH. You can check me out @JamarlinMartin on Twitter and also come check us out at Moguldom.com. That's M O G U L D O M.com. Be sure to subscribe to our daily newsletter. You can get the latest information on crypto, tech, economic empowerment and politics. Let's GHOGH!