Letters/Editor’s Note

Published in the July 2018 issue

Exactly who you are

Thank you for showing us exactly who you are and where your convictions lie with your recent article title, “Gold Diggers and White Niggers” [June 2018], as well as with the use of the quoted slur within the body of the article itself. By choosing not to even partially censor the word, nor provide any kind of warning for those of us who have lost family histories, personal freedoms, loved ones, our own safety and humanity, and the safety and humanity of our children to a system which still proclaims, in no uncertain terms, that we are the literal definition of the word “nigger,” and that as such, our lives do not matter, you have sent us a clear message.

I’m certain you will be able to produce plenty of excuses for your cavalier use of this deeply ingrained degradation. Perhaps you believed repeating the most humiliating slur in the English language in conjunction with the qualifier “white” couldn’t possibly be wrong. You are calling out privileged white people who use the slur in order to degrade other white people, so you felt emboldened to quote it in the same way Black folks have claimed and repurposed this verbal weapon of our mass destruction, fashioned to make violence against us in all its forms permissible. But you are mistaken. You are not entitled to this word.

Until a slur created to describe you exists as an expression of broadly shared, hateful assumptions and disgust at your existence, it is not your word to use. Until a slur reinforces prejudices which are statistically proven to inhibit your likelihood of finding a job and of getting paid adequately for the job you attain, your access to critical and appropriate medical care, and your right to justice or even acknowledgement in the wake of grave and obvious abuse — prejudices which promote your physical and sexual harassment, assault, disproportionate incarceration, lynching, enslavement, and genocide — it is not your word to use. It doesn’t matter who you are quoting, how you are using it, or what your intentions are. The history and impact of this word are too profound for it to be used in such an apparently flippant manner, and to be honest, I find it difficult to believe you don’t already understand this, given our current social climate.

We live in a moment of cultural chaos, fiercely battling ideologies, and inevitably dramatic shifting. Donald Trump has risen to power on the fears and frustrations of a population on the brink of losing its majority status, and his strategy of scapegoating the rest of us in order to make his circle of support impenetrable has paid off for him so far. And in the wake of his shamelessly self-serving ambition, Black and Brown humans continue to feel the freshly stoked flames of racism through attacks on our persons, both physical and verbal. Yet, in the midst of this national moral crisis, you have chosen to keep the most offensive racial slur imaginable firmly in the middle of your new headline, and I find it hard to believe this choice was a matter of thoughtlessness or lack of oversight. I believe this was a cheap and despicable ploy to lure in readers, outraged and curious alike, and you may have succeeded (like Trump) in reaching your immediate goals.

But I believe Trump’s choices and yours will have grave consequences sooner than you imagine. The support and patronage of sensationalist racism will falter as Americans and Mainers wake up to the reality of this manipulation and the unpardonable price of promoting or profiting from white supremacy. If your publication refuses to do its part, by taking responsibility for this disgusting choice of words and taking steps to rectify the mindset which led to it (steps such as educating your current staff and incorporating Black and minority editorial professionals to hold The Bollard to a higher standard of accountability and ethical representation) it will become part of the past which kind and conscious human beings leave behind. Will you excuse the inexcusable, or will you take this opportunity to rise to the mark of true progress? The choice is ultimately yours.

Samara Cole Doyon
Portland

Real harm

More than three decades ago, when I moved back to New England from a more enlightened area of the country, I experienced cultural whiplash, anticipated but still shocking. Apparently Mainers had yet to learn that racial slurs and prejudiced attitudes are socially unacceptable. I heard the n-word for the first time in a couple of decades. There was more to come.

Fast forward to this spring, and now we have a greenhouse in New Gloucester that has seen an increase in business since displaying that flag, that odious symbol of slavery, rape, treason, lynching and Jim Crow. Even more incredible, The Bollard, a publication that seems to want its readers to think it is liberal and enlightened, has chosen to use the n-word to sensationalize a headline in its most recent issue. This normalizes a racial slur that symbolizes the same things as that despicable flag. It does real harm to our friends and neighbors of color, at a time when they are already made less safe by emboldened racism around the country.

I don’t see any daylight between these two incidents. The only difference is, the flag flyer had the boldness to tell his detractors what to do with their sentiments, while The Bollard has so far been silent. Neither has seen fit to remove the offending expressions. When will we respect all people?

Jeffrey Hotchkiss
Portland

Go high

Although I applaud the investigation and critique of the racist and classist actions outlined in your recent piece on the Maine Media Collective, I was horrified to see the use of the full n-word in your paper, including in the headline. The piece does much to expose “unethical” practices by a media outlet, which is important, but I’d ask that you examine the reasons behind using this hateful racist epithet in your headline and article. Are you trying to promote readership with a kind of provocative dog whistle that is a vile slur against the very people for whom this investigation seeks greater parity? Why call out the use of a racist term and racist actions by using a racist term? (Not to mention that the use of the n-word is really a very small part of the problems the piece is covering.)

Many other newspapers and media outlets use “the N word” or “N*****” in place of actually using the full word. This seems an easy and obvious solution that avoids further generating the racist language this piece seeks to expose. The Bollard can be better than that; it can, in Michelle Obama’s words, “go high” where others go low. Please address this issue immediately and make it an editorial policy not to reprint in full this word or other hate speech in your paper.

Arielle Greenberg Bywater
Belfast

Editor’s Note

Last month, over a dozen people contacted me objecting to my decision to include a racial slur in the headline of an article about Maine Media Collective, “Gold Diggers and White Niggers.” Some also object to the word’s inclusion in the body of the article, and a few feel the word should not have appeared in Samuel James’ Racisms column, “The Maine Black,” which was also published in the June issue.

I sincerely thank those who contacted me for speaking up about what you believe to be an injustice. I certainly share your strong aversion to racism and classism and, like you, when I get pissed off about something, I write about it. The world needs more people like you, like us. Though we may disagree on tactics (such as the value of being tactful), we are comrades in the struggle against racial and economic oppression.

On the matter of publishing the slur in the body of the article or in James’ column, I cannot compromise. To ban any word from publication regardless of context is antithetical to free speech and the open exchange of ideas in a free society. Readers new to The Bollard may also benefit to know that we work in the tradition of alternative journalism, a form pioneered in the 1950s and ’60s by “alt-weeklies” like The Village Voice, in which contributors have license to use profanity, slang, and, in some situations, slurs. In other words, to write the way people talk, not in some highfalutin “news-speak” (or Orwellian newspeak) that tries to create an impression that reporters and commentators are too refined to use the common tongue. Mainstream print-media editors generally ban the use of profanity, slang and slurs in any context, though Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency has tested those limits, such as when the New York Times broke form earlier this year to print Trump’s comment about “shithole countries.”

The circumstances in which slurs are permitted in The Bollard are limited. For example, I would never allow a Bollard contributor to use a slur to demean anyone for any reason. We do not engage in hate speech, we expose those who do (see our March cover story, “Crashing the Nazi’s Dinner Party,” for a recent example). Accordingly, slurs that appear in direct quotes are allowed in this publication. The reason for this is straightforward: a journalist’s duty is to convey the truth, not conceal it. When a truth is ugly, it is all the more important that it not be whitewashed or watered down. The reader’s sensibilities may be offended, but that is the natural response to offensive speech or images.

Slurs that appear in historical or literary contexts are also permitted in The Bollard. Samuel James’ description last month of former Rep. Gerald Talbot’s successful effort in the 1970s to change offensive place names in Maine (e.g. Nigger Road) is an example of this. The handful of times the offending word has appeared in this publication over the past 13 years can be easily found by entering that word in the “Search this site…” box in the upper right-hand corner of our website, thebollard.com (note: the columns by Elizabeth Peavey that come up are those in which she used the word snigger or variations thereof).

Some have suggested that I substitute “the n-word” or “n*****” for the slur in print. To be frank, this practice — common in many publications — seems pointless to me. Upon seeing “the n-word,” the actual word immediately comes to mind, foiling what was supposedly the goal: to conceal the slur from the reader’s consciousness.

Regarding my decision to include the slur in the headline of the MMC article, I acknowledge that people may disagree with that decision for valid reasons. There is no clear-cut rule of journalism to cite in this case; it’s a judgment call. So here are my reasons for using it in the headline:

  • As noted in the beginning of the article, “white nigger” is a term used to denigrate poor or working-class white people. It has been used in America for that purpose since at least the early 1800s. The publications and events of Maine Media Collective (MMC) existed to benefit an upper class of Mainers to the exclusion of those they deemed lower class. People who could not afford to advertise in the magazines or participate in its events were effectively segregated from its pages and parties by discriminatory “pay-to-play” policies.
  • The history and economy of New England are such that those policies also effectively excluded racial minorities from MMC publications and events. So there was an inherently racist aspect to those policies, as well. The near total lack of racial diversity on MMC’s staff, in the pages of its magazines, and at its events was noted by sources inside and outside the company.
  • MMC’s director of sales, Jeff D’Amico, allegedly used the slur “nigger” or “white nigger” against other white men on at least two occasions that I was able to document. As the person responsible for generating most of the company’s revenue, D’Amico was arguably the most important MMC employee. That likely explains why he was promoted by publishers Kevin Thomas and Andrea King, rather than fired, after multiple convictions for assaulting and terrorizing the mother of his child in recent years (and why he has retained his position during the transition to new ownership; more on that below). D’Amico was also one of the company’s biggest cheerleaders, the employee who showed up and stuck around at seemingly all its social functions. In short, D’Amico embodied the company and made its existence, including its abuses, possible.
  • D’Amico’s use of this classist and racist slur reflects similar attitudes exhibited by other executives at the company and the moneyed white elites who attend MMC events like the Kennebunkport Festival. Chef David Turin, who participated in several Kennebunkport Festivals and operated a restaurant in the wealthy enclave for several years, said incidents of racial bias were so common there that he could not even attempt to count the incidents he witnessed. The headline encapsulates the dynamic described throughout the article: rich people (and wealth seekers, a.k.a. “gold diggers”) behave in their personal and professional lives in ways that denigrate and discriminate against those whom they consider socially inferior — pale complexioned and otherwise.
  • Lastly, I knew the use of the term “white nigger” in the headline would offend some readers, but again, I believe that is the natural and proper response to the offensive practices described in the article. Racism and classism are real, they are negatively affecting people in Maine every day, and shielding readers from the ugliness of this reality is antithetical to the mission of this publication, which is to inform the public about these issues in an engaging, honest and provocative way.
photo/Chris Busby

The sale

On June 13, MMC publisher Andrea King announced that the business had been sold to a group of investors and reorganized as a limited liability company called State 23 Media (Maine is the 23rd state). The group is led by Adam Japko, founder and CEO of Esteem Media, which publishes glossy lifestyle publications like New England Home and Atlanta Homes and Lifestyle, and includes Sandy Spaulding, a Maine-based wealth manager who serves as chairman of “the leading luxury yachting membership club in the United States,” according to the bio King provided.

If anything, the company’s new owners are less shy than Thomas and his crew were about flaunting their wealth and running a business that exclusively caters and panders to elites. “Since 2005, we have been acquiring best in class regional media around the country,” Japko said in the press release (emphasis added). To people like Japko, magazines are “properties” that exist to “produce meaningful results for local businesses and consumers,” the statement continues.

They also exist to make rich people feel better about themselves — less guilty, perhaps, about living an obscenely ostentatious lifestyle in this time of gaping inequality and soul-crushing poverty. In a 2016 interview with the blog Political Style, Japko said he named his company Esteem Media “because the filter I use to acquire or launch businesses leads me to opportunities with highly engaged professional communities where content sharing and human connection make people feel good about themselves. It may sound presumptuous, but I like to think our products play a role in building personal ‘esteem’ for members of our communities.”

Who knew such wealthy, successful people suffer from a lack of self-esteem? Maybe that’s why they drink so much (Japko’s two “main interests” in life are interior design and wine, he told the blog) and are compelled to acquire luxury homes and products designed to announce their exalted social status to others.

Anyway, here’s how it all shook out. Founding publisher and owner Kevin Thomas is out, though he still owns whatever’s left of the Portland Art Gallery, on Middle Street, and Art Collector Maine, the pay-to-play scheme that once promised artists exposure in MMC magazines in exchange for cash (that deal is over). On the night of June 6, a fire inside the gallery damaged “a lot” of the artwork, according to a clean-up worker on the scene a week later. The Portland Fire Department investigated the blaze and concluded it was an accidental fire caused by the malfunction of a ceiling fan.

Thomas’ longtime girlfriend, Dr. Lisa Belisle, who’d recently been named editor-in-chief of MMC publications, is also gone, as is the radio show/podcast she hosted, Love Maine Radio. Thomas’ son Sean, MMC’s staff photographer, and Sean’s girlfriend, who was the staff videographer, are no longer on the payroll. Chris Kast, who ran MMC’s in-house design and marketing firm, The Brand Company, is out of the picture, as is Brand Company art director Maureen Littlefield.

As noted earlier, twice-convicted domestic abuser Jeff D’Amico has retained his executive position as director of sales. King remains as publisher and CEO. According to Japko, neither Thomas nor Belisle has any role in State 23 Media and the terms of the sale do not include any ongoing payments to them. Thomas’ suspect circulation practices, however, will remain.

In an e-mail to The Bollard, Japko said the circulation and sales figures for State 23 Media’s publications will not be audited by an independent, third-party firm, a practice that gives advertisers some measure of how many copies actually reach people who’ve expressed an interest in the magazines. “We practice prospect based distribution,” he wrote. “We work to get the magazines into the hands of target consumers that we believe are aligned with the content and can also make advertisers spend pay off [sic?] … Unlike [magazines with wider circulations] which operate with audits, we see our small to medium sized advertisers all the time in our communities and we know if it’s working or not…based on that feedback and reader feedback.”

King said in the press release that the new company has taken three steps to address any remaining problems in its workplace. A “human resource consulting” firm has been hired to “ensure our policies and procedures are complaint and in alignment with best practices.” Two high-powered women — former Unum attorney Barbara Furey and former federal prosecutor Paula Silsby — are said to be conducting an “independent review” of State 23 Media’s “company culture and environment” and recommending changes as needed. And the company has taken the “MaineCanDo” pledge.

MaineCanDo is an initiative, formed in the wake of two recent sexual-harassment scandals (including MMC’s), intended to provide resources to workers, employers and investors concerned about issues raised by the #MeToo movement. Businesses that have joined the coalition range from small shops like Dean’s Sweets and Knack Factory to larger companies like GWI, Bangor Savings Bank, and the Bangor Daily News (which hosts our website).

The Bollard was not asked to join, but neither would we lend our name and reputation to such an effort, because you can tell just from the home page that it’s a bunch of public-relations bullshit.

In the “Who We Are” section, the entire MMC scandal is summed up as a “public incident [that] was reported in April creating real reputational challenges for a once thriving Maine business.” Until the members of MaineCanDo can acknowledge that MMC made life a living hell for dozens of people (mostly young women) on a daily basis for a dozen years — and likely would have continued to do so had we not “reported” it last April — they do not understand the problem and cannot be trusted to work in good faith to solve it. If they think the problem was that a business faced “real reputational challenges” after this private nightmare was made public, then they have it exactly backwards. Until companies’ reputations are at stake (and the money that depends on those reputations), they will not address sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. That’s the fucking problem.

More worrisome, as you dig deeper into the website you encounter materials that try to convince victims to shut up about what happened and work with the company to keep incidents out of the public’s awareness. In the “Know Your Rights” section (which was subsequently de-linked for some reason), there’s a paragraph titled “Keeping it confidential?” that reads: “In general, when you report harassment to your employer it’s best (and you will probably be asked) to not talk about it with others until the case is resolved. This helps the investigation and what comes after go forward in an orderly, fair, and credible way. Once the case is resolved, you and your employer can discuss and agree on what each of you may say to others” (emphasis added).

In a document on the site titled “Questions to Ask Before Telling Your Story” there’s a long list of “Risks” — e.g., “Will coming forward create any risks to the safety of you and your family?” — but no reference to any rewards or positive outcomes, like the satisfaction of knowing justice has been done and your actions have changed the company for the better, sparing others the torment you suffered. I’m proud to report that the brave women and men who spoke to The Bollard about Maine Media Collective have that satisfaction at last.