The Story Behind The Story Behind The Roxanne Shante Story
By Wayne Marshall and Jeff Chang
If a rapper claims to be a killer, no one cares. If she says she has an education, they send in an investigative reporter, or at least someone who purports to be.
Oh don’t we love gotcha journalism. But who’s really getting got here?
Two weeks ago, the New York Daily News ran a story in which legendary rapper Roxanne Shante says she forced Warner Bros through a contractual clause to pay for her education, earning degrees from Marymount Manhattan College and Cornell University.
Yesterday, lawyer and “pro-copyright” blogger Ben Sheffner published his piece of gotcha journalism, claiming that not only did Warner not have direct contracts with Shante, but that she hadn’t finished her coursework at Marymount Manhattan and never enrolled in Cornell.
Perhaps most annoying to Sheffner was that “the story was endlessly blogged and tweeted, heralded as an example of a heroic triumph by a girl from the projects over her evil record label.”
Commenters around the web have praised the Slate piece as a fine bit of investigative reporting by a disinterested journalist. Here’s our gotcha: he’s not disinterested, and the investigative reporting wasn’t all that investigative.
First, his “disinterest”: his Slate piece contains, at the bottom, what seems like a standard statement of disclosure: “While an attorney in private practice in the early 2000s, he represented numerous AOL Time Warner entities, including several Warner Music Group companies, on issues unrelated to Roxanne Shanté.” Yup, he was defending the “evil record labels,” even then.
And still is. His bio on his blog states that he is an attorney currently employed by NBC Universal, and his job description includes — we presume — looking sometimes at exactly the kind of artist contracts Shante would have signed.
By his own writing, he is not really a disinterested observer. The bio reads:
Ben Sheffner is a copyright/First Amendment/media/entertainment attorney and former journalist. Ben is currently working as a production attorney in the NBC Universal Television Group. Preiously [sic], he worked as an associate at O’Melveny & Myers LLP, as Senior Counsel, Content Protection Litigation at Fox, and as Litigation Counsel at NBC Universal. From July-November 2008, Ben served as Special Counsel on Senator John McCain’s presidential campaign where, among other responsibilities, he handled the campaign’s copyright, trademark, and other IP issues.
Clearly, Sheffner’s interest in this story, which motivated his questionable “investigation,” grows out of his ongoing efforts to protect the interests of his former and current (and future?) employers and, more generally, to advance the pro-copyright, pro-corporate side of the intense public conversation around the present state and future of the music industry.
Sheffner has backed the same interests in his coverage on his blog and for other online outlets, on the two cases involving the RIAA and alleged copyright-infringing filesharers that have, to date, gone to trial. He’s pretty much in the pocket, as they say.
We can imagine him looking at that piece and going, “Aw shit. Now I’m gonna have to give those kiddie actors a college clause — no way!” Then firing up his word-processing program and emailing Slate’s editors.
OK, so Shante didn’t have Warner pay for her education directly — and perhaps we’ll never know if one of the subsidiary labels made such an agreement with her because Pop Art’s contracts were supposedly lost in a flood. Cold Chillin’s file with Warner, according to Sheffner, didn’t have that level of detail. (Makes sense the file might be incomplete — they ended up at odds with each other after the big judgment against Biz Markie over his sampling case.)
Here’s what WB’s counsel wrote to Sheffner: “If Cold Chillin’ guided this artist’s compensation to education expenses that would certainly be a worthy one.” Then Sheffner makes what seems to be his main point right after that: “None of the half-dozen music industry sources contacted by Slate for this article had ever heard of a record label making an open-ended commitment to finance an artist’s education.” Gotcha!
But what of her education? Sheffner makes a big point of alleging Shante did not receive her Ph.D. and is not listed as a practicing doctor. Gotcha again! (Sheffner seems to fetishize this “Doctor” thing. Maybe he’s sharpening his knives for Dr. Dre next?) But according to her, Shante has received her BA and MA degrees. Her passionate message in her talks to hip-hop youths across the country is about the importance of education. Clearly much more of the story here is begging to be told.
Most importantly, Shante said she attended college under another assumed name — not even her birth name — because of a domestic violence situation. Sheffner didn’t follow up on, we think, a reasonable, relevant, and obvious lead here. If she was right, he must have known at that point the story might have required real investigative reporting. Yet Slate’s editors didn’t put the brakes on the story even at this point. Instead, the piece ran with Sheffner’s slander that she failed to “substantiate such claims.”
So what did we learn here? One, Warner Brothers didn’t, but perhaps someone in the industry did fund Shante’s education. Two, Shante may not have a Ph.D.
We think that’s all pretty thin for a so-called exposé.
Too bad this couldn’t be settled with battle rhymes. We all know who’d win that one.
cross-posted to cantstopwontstop