In this guest post author and journalist Amy Alexander "goes there" on NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous in the aftermath of the Shirley Sherrod fiasco. At very detailed length, Alexander describes her time as the "voice" of Jealous, writing his editorials, crafting his talking points and attempting to get him media ready. The key word is "attempting." Many people have remarked that Jealous' jump to erroneous conclusions on Sherrod smelled to high heaven of someone who's not media savvy (or even regular savvy). Alexander paints an even more damning portrait -- of a man in love with himself and in love with the limelight, but incapable of meeting the needs of the 101-year-old, historic civil rights organization.
And Don't Call Me Shirley....Though I Do Sport a Nice Set of NAACP-Ben Jealous Tire Marks on My Back
By Amy Alexander
I first met Benjamin T. Jealous in early May 2009.
We sat down in a back booth at Chipotle on Ellsworth Drive, in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland.
A mutual friend had connected us, though in Washington D.C. lingo, "friend" can mean a Pro contact, a Source, or an Associate. Got it?
I needed a job. Ideally one that didn't involve writing for dubious Websites or PR firms that flak for guns, booze, or the GOP.
Ben needed a Real Journalist...or so he said.
As he laid it out between the big bites of tortilla something or other and soda pop that he consumed, the NAACP was planning an Investigative Unit. In his description, this was to be a collection of staffers and volunteers throughout the association's 1,200 or so branches and chapters nationwide. The plan was to set up "investigative units" -- folks trained in the fundamentals of good old-fashioned journalism, and armed with cameras, and Internet-access -- to report on developments in their jurisdictions.
The units would be directed by a Communications manager in D.C. or Baltimore, and the "content" delivered by the units would be produced at the NAACP's soon to be redesigned main website. The Communications manager of the unit would report to the association's Vice President of Communications, based in D.C. Because I had done award-winning work in "legacy" and digital media -- at big newspapers, magazines; in broadcast journalism, including at NPR, and on the Web -- in addition to having written nonfiction books about Serious Black Stuff, whew, right? -- I was the right person for the Manager of Web Content and Special Investigations job, Jealous said.
I sipped water, and watched him from across the table. (I was too broke to buy a meal; he had offered, but I declined.) We seemed to be simpatico: He grew up in Northern California, in Monterey, a hop skip down the coast from where I grew up, in San Francisco. He had worked in newspapers, the African-American press, as a journeyman reporter and then as head of an association of black newspapers. A decade younger than I am, Ben Jealous seemed familiar to me -- passionate about improving the conditions of black Americans, and about social justice in general. "Light-skinned bourgeoise," is how one friend of mine, a black British journalist who knew Jealous socially, would later refer to Jealous and other members of his inner-circle.
But at our first meeting, I mostly saw a youngish brother who apparently wanted to bring the nation's oldest civil rights organization into the 21st Century. Sure, he seemed a bit green -- he stumbled over words from time to time, with the odd hard consonant getting stuck in his throat -- but I heard a sharp intellect there, too.
"With all this new digital technology, and given our networks across the nation, we have a great opportunity to take civil rights work to a new level," Jealous said, referring to the prospect of activating NAACP members to serve as "eyewitness reporters" in their own communities. I said I believed I could help. (And I meant it.) We also talked about mutual acquaintances in the shrinking world of major media, and our respective families. Jealous has a lovely wife and an adorable toddler daughter; I have two elementary school aged children, a great family in San Francisco....and a problematic former husband in D.C.
Jealous said he would connect me to the Vice President of Communications at the NAACP's office in D.C. (which I learned is called the "Washington Bureau.)
I-Teams? What I-Teams?
That is how I came to be the Voice of Ben Jealous for much of the summer of 2009. Not the head of the "I-unit" -- which, I soon learned, was being "temporarily" tabled -- but the writer of Jealous' op-eds, and of the Official Statements, and Press Releases for the association. But mostly, between June and August of last summer, I masqueraded as Jealous in the pages of The Nation, U.S. News and World Report, CNN.com, and on several other high-traffic websites. (Check out these enclosed links -- they take you to columns by "Ben Jealous," all reported and written by yours' truly.)
That NAACP Communications chief that Jealous hooked me up with? Oy gevalt. A truly Vampiric black woman in her late 50s. You know the type -- utterly in denial about the fading of their formerly femme fatale physique yet still committed to thigh-high skirts and Tx3s -- Too Tight Tops. In Vampira's case, sometimes on special occasions, she augmented this look with 5-inch high heels.....Lucite, see-through heels. That's right, just like those that some hookers and sex-workers delight in.
On my first day at the "Washington Bureau" of the association, Vampira essentially turned me into Ben's mouthpiece, saying she needed "help" writing. Was Ben aware that I was not, in fact, working on building the I-team that he had described at our first meeting? Good question. Wish I had the answer. Vampira said that my writing skills were needed to "help out, just for now," on a couple of campaigns that the NAACP was ramping up: Save Troy Davis (a black man on Death Row in Georgia), and advancing the big 100th Anniversary Convention of the NAACP, scheduled for the second week of July 2009.
Why not?, was my initial response, not only because I am a Team Player but also because my spider senses told me that Vampira and Jealous had a co-dependent relationship, i.e., she served his insatiable need to be in the national spotlight, and he saw to it that the association pays Vampira a tidy six figure salary. Oh, I almost forgot to mention: In short order, after I arrived to work in the association's D.C. office on NW 15th Street in early June 2009, I realized that Ben Jealous has this....thing about being in the Limelight. Yes, sadly, that is (or at least it WAS at that time) the association's entire Communications Strategy -- Get Ben in the National Press. I was new to this kind of Communications work -- which Vampira referred to as "the Dark Side" -- but the intense focus on getting Ben into the press struck me as.....extreme.
For example, not long after I started work, Ben Jealous appeared as a panelist on HBO's "Real Time, with Bill Maher." He turned up in Maher's Southern Cal studio on June 12, 2009, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan for the NAACP's "Save Troy Davis" campaign, it read "IAMTROYDAVIS.com." (Yeah, you want snappy messaging? ColorOfChange.org this ain't.) Troy Davis is a black man convicted several years ago of the shooting death of a white policeman in Georgia, and the NAACP had joined forces with Amnesty International and a few other human rights organizations to try to get a new trial for Davis. I won't go into the complicated and, frankly, ambiguous details of the Davis case here. But I will say that I dug in on writing op-ed after op-ed in support of this effort largely because I do believe America's criminal justice system often unfairly locks up black men.
Is Troy Davis truly innocent? You got me. And, as I sat in on phone calls with Vampira, the association's legal partners, and activists in Georgia, it eventually became clear to me that the NAACP couldn't be entirely positive, either, that Davis was innocent.
But that is the thing about the New Generation NAACP as I witnessed it last summer under Ben Jealous' leadership: Details are for Old Schoolers! Gray-beards who just don't get it! Deep thinking, homework, rigorous study and research takes time, is unglamorous, and usually is not captured by cable and network news cameras. And here is another problem, given the wacked-out Communications Strategy I describe above: Jealous rejected -- according to Vampira -- every opportunity to improve his on-camera performance skills. Yeah, I know -- paradoxically crazy, right?
"What're You Gonna Do?"
Because what I saw during Jealous' turn at Maher's desk in June 2009 was a handsome, passionate, articulate black man.....who has a speech impediment.
Yes, there it is, I said it.
And while it is inherently a minor thing, which millions of people world-wide experience, for Ben Jealous, it is emblematic of a larger issue, i.e., his out-sized ego and the high degree to which he is coddled by Vampira and a retinue of flunkies, sychopants, and hangers-on within and without the association.
More to the point, Jealous' unwillingness to accept expert help to overcome his stuttering is also symbolically resonant of the current state of the NAACP -- so close to the edge of greatness, yet so unable to pull back from the Olde Time Patriarchy that self-destructs on its best intentions every single time. (Remember Ben Chavis as NAACP president during the early '90s? I do, since I covered his downfall for The Miami Herald. Then there was Kweisi Mfume, who..... oh Mercy. Ben Jealous, to my knowledge, has not used association funds to pay off Women Not His Wife to keep them quiet about sexual liaisons. But the cult of President-and-CEO Hero Worship is, sadly, alive and well at the NAACP.
The association's late-breaking forays into social media and "coalition-building" with human rights organizations is mostly window-dressing. The installation several months ago of Roslyn Brock as Chairman of the NAACP may be a glimmer of hope for true progress. Still, that is not a lock. I mean, Ros is relatively young, and yes, she says she is New Jack and wants to bring the association squarely into the 21st Century.
But she is also quite Establishment, which is to say an NAACP Baby, which, in turn, is to say that Brock might be ill-equipped to kick the ass of Ben Jealous -- or at least push him away from the cameras, and pull forward the faithful Worker Bees who toil in the depths of the association. During my time there, I met some of the hardest-working, dedicated and Righteous folks I have ever known. There are a whole bunch of Shirley Sherrods working at the En-Double-A who are probably royally ticked off right about now. Because, you know? They believe in the mission....and they want (and deserve) Brave,Visionary Leadership that doesn't behave as if black women are expendable.
But, returning to how I got some Shirley Sherrod-style tire marks on my back thanks to Ben Jealous: Okay, when I walked into Vampira's office the Monday after Jealous' embarrassing turn on Maher and asked if Jealous had ever had intensive media training, this is what Vampira said:
"You're right, he doesn't do well on live television AT ALL, and I've suggested we get someone in here to help him with it. But he doesn't want to. So what're you gonna do?"
Hand to God, people. "What're you gonna do?" was Vampira's reply.
Also, during my FIRST WEEK ON THE JOB, Vampira told me she believed that Jealous had a certain mental health diagnosis. I won't repeat it here, as I have no way of knowing that what Vampira said is accurate. We were walking back from lunch at Georgia Brown's on 15th Street, when she let it fly. Honestly, I can't remember what precipitated that comment. But when she said it, I stopped walking and looked at her. She began to ramble on about how Jealous' mental health challenges should be considered in the larger context of blacks and mental health care; I assumed she Went There, at least in part, because I am a subject-matter expert on that topic. I didn't ask for details or saying anything except, "Oh. OH."
Over the next several weeks, as the Davis campaign heated up, and the Convention approached, I watched, fascinated, as Vampira and other Communications staffers wrangled Ben Jealous onto national news programs at CNN, PBS, ABC, MSNBC, CBS, and other outlets....where he stumbled and gesticulated his way through interviews about the association's "relevancy," and why this NAACP is not your Grand Pappy's NAACP.
Did the talking points that I wrote for Ben and gave to Vampira ever make it into Jealous' interviews? No. Listen, a key aspect of the enabling/co-dependent relationship between Jealous and Vampira was this: She isolated Jealous from the rest of the Comms team.(Of course, this indicates that he allowed himself to be isolated.) I saw Ben a grand total of three times between when I started work in the DC office and when I left in late summer. (Of course, you saw this coming, right? Vampira pushing me out of the association? T'yeah, sure did, and I still do not get why I didn't see it coming, especially after she inexplicably dropped that "Ben has [mental health diagnosis]" on me in early June....)
Things seriously escalated when I told Vampira that, with the Troy Davis campaign ended -- in July 2009, the US Supreme Court had agreed to consider hearing the case -- and following the close of the 100th Anniversary Convention -- where President Barack Obama had delivered a most excellent speech, and yes, I was glad to have been there -- I fully expected to turn my attention at long last to building the I-units throughout the association's branches and chapters.
You know, silly me -- the job I was hired to do?
But even before that, I knew she was gunning for me -- I'm one of those people who has a hard time making with the Happy Face when I'm in the midst of unethical goings-on and ego-driven, craptastic shenanigans. Later, I learned from other NAACP staff members that Vampira had never intended for me to set up any I-units.
Real Housewives of Atlanta -- NAACP-style
Moreover, with a distinctly COINTELPRO flair, since my first day on the job, Vampira had been methodically bad-mouthing me to other leaders in the NAACP, the Vice Presidents in Baltimore who were closest to Ben Jealous (and likely, she'd bad-mouthed me to Jealous too) even as she assigned me one op-ed after another -- all of which were published. (Did I mention that Vampira cannot write? Well, I should say, she cannot write or think about issues in a way that will truly move the association forward positively. That's where I came in. She was expert, however, at working Ben Jealous.)
And so here it is -- a Real Housewives of Atlanta style set-to that sped my departure from the Nation's Oldest Civil Rights organization. (That is how one of my colleagues, a smart Digital Media guru in California, characterized it when I shared this crazy-assed story with her during a phone talk later that summer: "Girl, that is some 'Real Housewives of Atlanta' bullshit," this colleague said. Which cracked me up, since at the time we were discussing this, I had just watched that program for the first time, agog at its stage-managed depictions of trifling women scrapping over trivial nonsense. Had my scrapes with Vampira looked like that to those who'd been on the scene?
Back to the denouement: On the day before I was scheduled to take the Acela to New York to work at the Convention in mid-July, Vampira phoned me- she was already in NYC -- and said, "Amy, I need you to take a look at the draft of Ben's speech he will give at the Convention -- it really needs work, and this is the sort of thing you're really good at. So please, you know, do your thing....but keep it quiet: Ben will be embarrassed if he finds out that anyone other than ME is helping him with this."
Sure enough, in short order I received Ben's Convention speech as an email attachment from Vampira....followed a couple of hours later by another email from Vampira in which she asked me to bring her business cards to NYC. (She had forgotten to bring them, and they were in her office in D.C.)
I phoned her cell immediately, following her second email asking me to bring her biz cards, to let her know that I had already left the NAACP office in D.C. and that I wouldn't be returning there before I headed up to New York. Therefore, I politely said to her outgoing vmail message, I will not have your biz cards when I arrive at the New York Hilton, but I will do my best to contact the Office Manager, and ask her to send them express.
Okay, apologies for getting into the weeds here, but this is instructive:
Two days into the convention, Vampira rolled up on me in the Press Room at the New York Hilton and actually began loud-talking me .....because I hadn't brought her business cards. Calmly, I reminded her that I had contacted the Office Manager back in DC, and that the cards were on their way. To which she replied, "After this convention, you are DONE. You won't be working for us anymore."
She said this at a near-shout, in a room filled with journalists who had come to the Hilton to cover the 100th Anniversary Convention and President Obama's speech. I told her I was in the midst of helping find press passes for the newcomers, and that I would follow up on finding her business cards as soon as I'd cleared the line of waiting media pros. But I was furious and humiliated -- I am in my mid-40s. I have written books, articles, and produced high-quality journalism for more than two decades, at some of the nation's best outlets, in Old and New Media.
Yet Vampira actually believed that I had taken a job at the NAACP to serve as her op-ed writing minion and business-card carrier. How about that?
When I left the press room at the Hilton following Vampira's freak-out, I immediately found Ben Jealous' personal assistant -- a highly-efficient young black woman, one of two association staffers who mind Jealous' schedule -- and told her that Vampira had, for all intents and purposes, loudly fired me in the middle of the press room. The young assistant sighed, and said, "Why don't you go get lunch, Amy. I will take care of this." Oh, and while I was at it, I also let this assistant know that I had, at Vampira's request, rewritten Jealous' convention speech....and that despite my having turned that assignment around in 24 hours, and returned it to Vampira via email, it had not come up.
Later that afternoon, Vampira phoned my cell and left a message: "I don't know why people are saying that I 'fired you' today in the press room, Amy. But, you know, there is so much going on here now, things are kind of chaotic, I just think everyone needs to do their best to keep things going smoothly, and that we should have a meeting to talk about duties, when we return to D.C. next week." I didn't return that call, and I avoided Vampira for the remainder of the confab.
But on the day, a couple of weeks after the convention closed, when Vampira phoned my cell as I headed home to Montgomery County from the association office on 15th Street in D.C., I had pretty much had enough.
She said, "Come in tomorrow at 9am, we need to have a meeting to talk about your work. "
"Fine," I said, "because, you know, it is time for me to turn my attention to the job I was hired to do...."
Vampira cut me off. "Actually, everyone doesn't always get to DO the same job that maybe they expected to at the time they're hired....given our resources, you should understand that you will do whatever work I feel we need, at any given time. And I AM the Vice President of Communications here."
Yes, an Al Haig moment. And it pushed me right over the top. "Look, I've been doing ALL of the writing since I came here. I know it, you know it, and everyone else in Comms knows it. Now, I agreed to it initially, because of the Davis campaign and the Convention. But those things are DONE now, and I need to get these reporting units set up....."
The President and CEO Regrets
Well, you can write the rest of this part of the story. Now, of course, at any point during my dealings with Vampira, I could easily have contacted Ben Jealous, in confidence, and shared my concerns about her erratic behavior.
But I did not. I lacked confidence that Jealous would have my back.
So did I have any direct dealings with Ben Jealous after Vampira pushed me out?
He emailed me later in August 2009, after I'd left the association, and said, in essence, Gee Amy, I sure am sorry that things didn't work out. It will be helpful to hear what your experience was like, if you care to share. I'm traveling for the next couple of weeks, but after I return, maybe we can sit down together...
I waited a few days after reading THAT passive-aggressive claptrap, and then wrote back saying, Sure, I'm happy to sit down with you. In the meantime, I will be needing another job really soon, since, you know, I am a divorced mother of two elementary school-aged children. So I will really could use a good reference from you.
And you know what?
I bet you DO know what. Ben Jealous didn't reply to that email.
The Investigative Units were not developed, though the main website did receive a makeover, with a spiffy Ben Jealous blog, and YouTube video snippets from Ben's speeches, and photos of Ben at various events, and links to "Ben's" op-eds......But no real-time content from NAACP "reporters" on the ground.
Fade out. The End.
Except it wasn't, was it?
This post originally appeared on Alexander's blog, Amy Alexander Community Forum.