Who Gotcha?

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

21 thoughts on “Who Gotcha?

  1. The original story was exciting not for Shante’s triumphs over Warner (who REALLY cares?) but because it showed a former child-star pursuing an admirable adult life. How many other few-hit wonders could tell such a story?

    Further detail was needed not to debunk Shante’s claims but to determine if others of her generation could follow that lead! It’s a shame, but not a surprise, that this was not Sheffner’s angle.

    Biz’s doing okay on TV and Shante’s gonna survive this but what about everyone else?

  2. Jeff & Wayne,
    I am with your intentions — it’s always better to know people’s vested interest in a particular story. Was Sheffner’s debunking piece strictly necessary? Maybe, maybe not.

    Many of us were ready and quick to embrace the NYDN story as factually correct bc of how it was so narratively compelling (and we all re-posted, tweeted and FB’d about it). But that also attracted some bad juju to the story that allowed Sheffner to publish his piece in a prominent (and easily linkable, tweetable, etc.) venue. Editors are as quick (maybe even quicker) to seize on the taking down of an uppity Negro as they are in “Straight outta the ‘hood” success stories.

    All that said, does that really invalidate the Slate piece? No. Because the two core issues the NYDN piece turned on — her degrees and a major record company paying for them — are untrue. And I say this not just based on the Slate piece, but on a conversation with a reporter friend who had all this same info a while back and decided not to write about it. Why? Because, as he put it, “if she wasn’t actually in private practice, it just meant she was deluding herself more than anything else.” I know less about the veracity of ins and outs of the contracts, but yeah, it had struck me as an unusual clause for anyone to put in. The reason we believed it was because damn that’s the sort of clause that contracts with commodified young people OUGHT to have.

    I think one of the big questions, at least for me, as a former f/t member of the MSM (as a matter of fact, at the paper in question) is that representation of nonwhite, workingclass people was pretty awful in “the good times” of well-funded papers/mags. Now there’s even less space for stories (and therefore each story on an understoried population gains even more symbolic value), less old-fashioned reporting (I’m sorry, the “registering under an assumed name” for domestic violence reasons is not a practice I’ve seen at any public college I’ve worked at with several of my own students admitting domestic violence issues; said reporter friend simply called the school and there was no record of her getting any degree) and much searching for high drama, to attract re-coverage in TV, in blogs, etc. Combine that with sloppy/lazy/possibly negligent freelance reporting and bad/nonexistent editorial oversight (I’m trying to get the story on that from people at the paper), and here we are.

    You guys are right, there is something deeply offensive about how quick so many are to believe heinous things about anyone involved in hip-hop and slow to believe anything complex or good. But as a former tabloid reporter, I don’t see anything wrong with correcting the record, which, as mean as it might have been, the Slate piece did.

    There are other stories that deserve space, yes, and we need to clamor for that space or make other spaces. Setting the record straight in the broader sense…

  3. not everyone agrees with the letter or the spirit of our piece, but it has effectively moved — dare I say advanced? — the conversation. I’m not trying to absolve anyone for lying, but I am interested in putting it all into perspective.

  4. >>>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 also learned that she’s apparently practicing therapy without a license – that’s kind of a big deal! Or are you excusing that?

    (I have my own bias here: I work with Sheffner – although I work with him on this or talk to him before posting this – and I think it’s absolutely ridiculous that you’re criticizing him for exposing someone who’s lying.)

  5. I think a rapper’s false claims about having a PhD is fair game for a reporter; I don’t think Slate’s piece needs to be characterized as gotcha journalism. On that note, is all gotcha journalism bad? Was the Washington Post wrong for investigating Watergate?

    As far as Sheffner being a corporate entertainment lawyer, I don’t think that’s very relevant either – unless he’s currently representing a party who has an immediate stake in Roxanne’s claim to having a PhD. The notion that record labels are worried about education clauses is far-fetched. For one, record labels (even if they wanted to) couldn’t dictate how their artists spend their advances and royalties. Secondly, artists would in all likelihood scoff at the idea that they are being contractually obligated to get an education by their record company.

    Based on the facts outlined in the Slate piece, it looks like Roxanne simply played herself. All she has to do to kill the story and demand a retraction is to show her transcripts.

  6. Actually, @Rob, I don’t think we did learn that she’s practicing without a license. Under what name is she practicing? Under what name is the license? Those are the same questions that should be applied to her degrees as well. If her story about a serious and ongoing domestic violence case is true, it’s unclear that any of Ben’s assertions — other than her admittance that she didn’t finish the Ph.D., or Warner’s negative evidence of a contractual clause (plus, what, industry-insider hearsay?) — are necessarily true.

    Please see my previous comment, and perhaps read Hua Hsu’s post, with regard to your question about whether Ben is above criticism for publishing this piece.

    @Andre, that goes for you too. Also, I think there’s a distinction between important investigative reporting like the breaking of the Watergate scandal and what people refer to as “gotcha” journalism. Again, that’s what I mean by “in perspective” above: are you really comparing Shante’s fib about a Ph.D. with the Nixon gang’s actions? Ben Sheffner is no Bob Woodward; to overlook his investment in the story as a quintessential industry insider — indeed, as a member of a set that has become, in Eric Harvey’s words, “one of the most profitable sets of music middlemen to emerge this decade” — would be wrong, in my opinion.

  7. >>>not everyone agrees with the letter or the spirit of our piece, but it has effectively moved — dare I say advanced? — the conversation.

    No it hasn’t. Shante lied, Slate caught her and you excused her behavior. If you have a reason for doing that – and I think that, given your politics, you do, you haven’t explained it in any substantive way.

    If you want to advance the “conversation,” why not do some reporting on whether the patients of Shante’s “therapy” practice know about her situation? Or explore the feelings of those who hired her as a college speaker – http://www.sphinxmg.com/artist/roxanne.asp ?

    Are there worse things going on in the world? Certainly! Go investigate one and stop giving Ben a hard time for a great piece of journalism.

  8. Whatever you say, Rob. You’ve already admitted to being in the pocket yourself. My politics are very clear from all of my writings, especially those in reference to copyright and corporate industry. This blog is an open book; this post another page to turn.

    From what I can see, the conversation *has* moved. And Hua’s piece is part of that movement. So is the fact that rather than simply sending Ben’s article around, people are also sending around our rebuttal — and talking about it, as we are here.

    Also, Slate didn’t “catch” her; Ben Sheffner, a “pro-copyright-owner” blogger and “former journalist,” offered a bunch of negative evidence about her credentials, motivated by his own interests in the industry and legal status quo, and attempted to “shift the narrative” as they say. This is our attempt, partially successful at least, to shift it again.

  9. >>>Actually, @Rob, I don’t think we did learn that she’s practicing without a license. Under what name is she practicing? Under what name is the license?

    Why don’t you look into that? THAT would be moving the conversation forward. It’s easy for you and Hu to criticize reporting – why don’t you do some? About this? About something else? About anything?

  10. >>>Whatever you say, Rob. You’ve already admitted to being in the pocket yourself. My politics are very clear from all of my writings, especially those in reference to copyright and corporate industry. This blog is an open book; this post another page to turn.

    I’m not in ANYONE’s pocket. I’m someone’s friend. Big difference.

    You didn’t move the conversation forward – you commented on it. Big difference.

    And you didn’t do anything political – you defended a liar. Big difference.

    Journalists report on Shante. Academics just pay her to lie.

  11. Rob, you said you worked with Ben. To me that means you’re both taking money from the same employer. Sounds like the same pocket to me. (It’s a big pocket, look around.)

    Hate to break this to you, but it’s not up to you to decide whether I did something political or moved the conversation. You’re but one dude, and, as you acknowledged, a “biased” dude at that.

    I suspect that our ideological differences will prevent us from even continuing beyond these few comments. The whole point about the piece I penned with Jeff is that we don’t really CARE about investigating these allegations further. We find Sheffner’s motivations and ethics far more suspect than Shante’s.

    Your worry for Shante’s patients strikes me as totally disingenuous. The sentiment for and testimony about Shante’s positive influence, in my opinion, outweighs too literal a pursuit of her current honorific.

    Speaking of “DR Rox,” as her management company calls her, I need to thank you for pointing out that page. Did you notice that “DR” is in quotation marks (and, according to the Way Back Machine, has always looked that way) —

    Makes one wonder: has she been wink-wink about this all along? If so, the Daily News Story was indeed misguided, but Ben’s piece was too.

  12. I had a long response but I think Joe really summed it up nicely: http://www.hs.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=270149265297&id=1164473353&ref=mf

    One thing I would add though: the very tenets of intellectual freedom are premised upon the idea that our work should be free of any attacks upon it premised purely on ideological reasons. Either the methodology is rigorous or it is not. Either the facts are correctly stated – to the best of our ability – or they are not. And if those things have been done sloppily, or deceptively, then higher scrutiny is not merely warranted, it is mandated.

    If you’re saying Sheffner’s background is open game, where does that leave the rest of us whenever we want to try to do something investigative? Do I need to start worrying about how my past employment or friendships might cast a shadow on the veracity of my work? I had someone once dismiss my academic standing on the basis of me having gotten my degree from an Ethnic Studies department where a certain professor taught. In essence, I was accused of being “in his pocket.” I thought that accusation was patently absurd. I don’t see how you and Jeff going after Sheffner’s background is much different at all.

    Is that the intellectual world we should be encouraging?

    Respectfully yours, Oliver

  13. Wayne: one more thing – that “wink wink” (if indeed it was a wink) also fooled Blender: http://www.blender.com/blender-blog/43105/lifeafterrockroxanneshante.html

    I’m not saying Shante is obligated to fix all these factual inaccuracies of her background but the frequency is unsettling. And I know Jeff feels differently but to me at least, that’s a big part of the story that can’t be invalidated by whatever Sheffner’s allegedly poor ethics might suggest.

  14. @wayneandwax

    It seems to me that, for reasons I don’t understand, you simply feel the need to be Roxanne’s apologist. You’re right in pointing out that the lies involved in Watergate are on a much higher, socially relevant scale. That said, by your own reasoning, YOU would fault the Wash Post for “shifting the narrative” to Nixon’s alleged cover-up. YOU would pen a piece about Woodward’s ties to the Democratic party and call his motivations into question, arguing that Woodward’s allegiances are more important than the lies he’s uncovering. Getting back to the matter at hand, you betray your own biases when you call Roxanne’s alleged lies a “fib”. Her lies are much more than a fib because Shante has held herself out to the public as an inspirational figure: someone who beat the music industry system (which kicks low-selling artists to the curb) and – through hard work and dedication – pursued a professional degree. If these stories turn out to be lies, they dishearten and make cynics out of very people that could be very inspired by such hard work and sacrifice.

    I’ve seen the YouTube clips where Shante speaks of her accomplishments: if those accomplishments are phony ANY reporter/blogger would be totally justified to expose them as such. And as to your last comment, even if her Dr title is in quotation marks on her site, in her interviews she gave no indications about her being “wink-wink” about her PhD.

    Bottom line is that Shante’s alleged lies are an insult to all the true strong independent women that go back to school and get a degree. I know many of them; it’s tough task to go back to the books when you also have to work and raise kids. It looks like Roxanne fronted . . . don’t kill the messenger.

  15. You basically agree that she didn’t tell the truth, or am i missing something? Couldn’t you have said that at the beginning instead of wasting people’s time? I thought you actually uncovered something new (you didn’t).

  16. this defense of her is absurd

    i understand the ironies of black representation and misreprentation you’re getting at by comparing her con to the “con” of rappers who pretend to be killers and gangsters

    but the fact is that the whole gangsta identity trope has been around since the medieval era, with the wandering troubadours and minstrels who mythologized themselves as outlaws

    the gangsta ethic/aesthetic/mythology of rap music owes as much to that tradition as it does to the realities of street life and is like a pretty fundamental trope in popular music and the marketing of its personalities

    the fact that “Dr” – in quotation marks or not – Shante has been paid to dispense advice while purportedly NOT actually having a degree is a fraud far worse than simply entertaining listeners with stories of badassedness. and yes, maybe there was a wink all along, but in her bio it clearly states her credentials to dispense such advice.

    so she claims to have earned her degree under an assumed name out of fear because of a domestic violence situation – she seems to have been given every opportunity to substantiate her claims and defend herself and chose not to.

    and your reasoning or assumptions about the Slate writer’s intentions are borderline conspiratorial and highly flawed. simply because he is associated with the “pro-copyright” complex has nothing to do with this story, in spite of your conjecture that it does.

    the other story inherent to this here is, i think, the culture of credentialism that has run amok… the certifications and credentials manufactured by academic institutions is its own kind of con, especially when it limits a worldly and intelligent woman like shante from speaking to kids about really important life issues from the authority of her own experience. my great-uncle was a lawyer-turned-social worker, who helped countless runaways in the 1960s without any kind of a special certification. today, you need the rubber stamp of an academic institution before engaging in that kind of activity and i’d be wiling to believe that this whole “Dr” personae is as much an act of fraud as it is a really brilliant comment on the injustices inherent to the classist academic credentialing system.

  17. This conversation has become, quite predictably, rather contentious. I have decided to not publish comments from a couple of posters now, which is rare for me here, but I have found their tone and language to be out of step with what I attempt to achieve in the conversation on this blog. I want to remind readers that the final word here is mine. This is not a wiki or paper-of-record; this is my website — part lifestream, part work-in-progress, part art-project.

    That said, I feel I should respond to a few things here, as well as a number of threads in the discussion at Joe Schloss’s Facebook page.

    I’m not on Facebook, so I didn’t see Joe’s piece. He forwarded it to me a couple days ago, and I’ve been catching up (actually, I’ve been taking a weekend, but y’know). As expected Joe makes some very reasonable, dissenting points — as do some of the commenters, including esteemed colleagues. That said, I still stand by the piece I wrote with Jeff. And I want to point out that I have encountered — via email, Twitter, Google Reader — as much affirmation as confrontation over this (despite what this comment thread may look like).

    Let me make this clear: I don’t think that anyone should lie about their credentials. It does appear that Shante has, at the least, lied about the Ph.D., though I have also seen some evidence — both the “DR” I point out above, and in the Blender piece that Oliver mentions — which suggests that she isn’t, or hasn’t always been, so comfortable straight-up claiming a Ph.D. (Here’s the key bit of careful dissembling in the Blender piece: “I remembered a clause in my record contract that said Warner would pay for my education for life. I got a master’s from Cornell, went back to ­Marym­ount and became Dr. Roxanne Shanté.”)

    Shante is an inspiring figure regardless of which pieces of paper she holds or not. (I am totally with commenter “a” above re: credentialism run amok.) And I agree that Shante will have to deal with what does seem like, as Joe puts it, a lie that probably “got out of hand.” Indeed, I think Shante now finds herself with an opportunity to craft an even more compelling personal narrative by facing this head on.

    … which brings me to Joe’s most trenchant point:

    A lie got out of hand. Probably unintentionally. If Roxanne Shante could really talk to me about how and why that happened and what she wishes she had done differently and what I as a human being can learn from that so it doesn’t happen to me, then I would accept her into my Ph.D. program any day.

    but then I have to come back to Jeff (via the FB thread):

    …we don’t think he’s shown anything other than the fact that Warner Brothers didn’t pay Shante’s tuition, and that she says she didn’t get her Ph.D.

    This last point is serious, I agree. Does it justify crucifying her? I don’t think so. ….

    I’ve been resisting the urge to get all ideological, but I really do think it matters **where** this piece came from. I’m not really joking when I’m talking about the diff btw rappers claiming murder records vs. rappers claiming educational records.

    Shante is accountable to the community for her Ph.D claim. I hope Shante chooses to do the right thing and speak her deepest truths. But in the meantime, I have absolutely no qualms about raising questions about Ben Sheffner’s intentions and the editorial decisions of the Slate crew. That’s a key part of the truth we’re all searching for too.

    This brings me to Oliver’s point above, which I do feel the need to address. He wonders whether Sheffner’s background is enough to invalidate his reporting if his journalistic techniques can be shown to be rigorous, ethical, and fair. Oliver doesn’t want taint-by-association or ideological position, per se, to indict one’s work. And I agree. As Joe put it, we should be wary of a scenario in which “who you are should be weighted more heavily than what you do”; but that’s not what’s happening here.

    What we’re criticizing about Sheffner is NOT about WHO he is; we could debate until the cows come home, including with him, about whether he “is” a racist or an asshole or a conservative or a shill. (We all learned that from Jay Smooth, yes?) It’s PRECISELY about WHAT he’s done — not just in this particular piece but in all his writings and other work. What he’s done, for many years now, is to support major record labels and media companies and conservative campaigns at every (well paid) turn. To see his piece on Shante as apart from that work would be to overlook a great deal.

    I just want to touch on another point from Joe’s FB thread — the following note from Mark Anthony Neal: “I think we all (in the broadest sense) want to believe Shante and this story about Warner, because it alleviates our collective guilt about the practices of the recording labels–and particularly women in the industry. ”

    That helps to explain part of our sympathetic angle here. I mean, just look at the first paragraph of that Blender article for a pretty classic story of record industry done good exploitation —

    I started rapping when I was 14, when Marley Marl asked me to record ‘Roxanne’s Revenge,’ a dis on U.T.F.O.’s hit ‘Roxanne, Roxanne.’ We lived in the Queensbridge projects, and he promised me Sergio Valente jeans to record with him. I never got the jeans, but the song was an overnight hit. After that, I went on tour for three years as a naive child. I had a baby [now in his 20s] with a man 18 years my senior. I didn’t even have milk money for my baby, but I raised him. Today, I wonder where the adults were.

    But we could go on and on and on. I’m not terribly interested in continuing the debate at this point. I’m a lot more interested in what Shante has to say now. (I look forward to her appearance at Pop Montreal at the end of the month, where, incidentally, I’ll also be speaking! I only learned this a couple days ago, btw.) Instead, I’m going to leave it at this, yet another fine bit of reasonableness c/o our man Joe Twist —

    I think we all pretty much agree on the basic premises: people shouldn’t lie about their education, reporters should be responsible, we should apply critical thought to the things we read and hear, writers shouldn’t be assigned to stories that they have vested interests in.

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