Verizon has apparently dropped 1938media’s content from its Vcast service and the distribution deal is off. Some people are happy with the decision while others think it is hypocritical. What do I think? Obviously, Verizon is a private company that gets to do whatever it wants, and this kind of controversy isn’t good for business. But those who argue that this isn’t a free speech issue are making a mistake, I think. It’s easy to stand up and defend speech when we agree with it — harder to do so, but just as important, when we don’t.
A video that controversial video-blogger Loren Feldman of 1938media did almost a year ago has come back to haunt him, it seems. Several civil-rights groups and media watchdogs are protesting a decision by telecom giant Verizon to add 1938media’s video clips to its mobile Vcast service, saying Loren’s “TechNigga” clip is demeaning to black people. Project Islamic Hope, for example, has issued a statement demanding that Verizon drop its distribution arrangement with 1938media, which was just announced about a week ago, and other groups including the National Action Network and LA Humanity Foundation are also apparently calling for people to email Verizon and protest.
The video that has Islamic Hope and other groups so upset is one called “TechNigga,” which Loren put together last August. After wondering aloud why there are no black tech bloggers, Loren reappears with a skullcap and some gaudy jewelry, and claims to be the host of a show called TechNigga. He then swigs from a bottle of booze, does a lot of tongue-kissing and face-licking with his girlfriend Michelle Oshen, and then introduces a new Web app called “Ho-Trackr,” which is a mashup with Google Maps that allows prospective johns to locate prostitutes. In a statement, Islamic Hope says that the video “sends a horrible message that Verizon seeks to partner with racists.”
The TechNigga routine (which was actually a series of videos) apparently led to Loren’s distribution deal with Podtech being dissolved, and also caused problems with The Huffington Post — which 1938media was also working with — after founder Arianna Huffington was quoted as saying she was offended by the clip. Loren also said recently that a proposed deal to make videos and write columns for CNET was on hiatus, although it wasn’t clear exactly why. Was the company concerned about possible offensive content, given the TechNigga incident and the series of videos taking shots at social-media guru Shel Israel? Possibly.
On some level, I can understand the protests against Loren. Some of his content is in pretty poor taste. That said, however, a lot of it is also pretty funny. Does it cross a line sometimes, or at least come right up to the line and stick its tongue out, or give the line the finger? Yes. Lots of good comedy does. There are plenty of people who don’t think TechNigga was funny, and for the record, I am one of them. I get the point that Loren was trying to make (or at least I think I do), but to me it just didn’t work. Loren’s friend Prince Campbell — who is black, and considers Loren a friend (as I do) — has said much the same thing.
But does that mean his content shouldn’t be allowed on Verizon’s mobile service? No. I think when it comes to comedy and critical commentary of all kinds — satire or otherwise — we have to offer a lot wider latitude than we might otherwise. Freedom of speech shouldn’t be just a flag that we wave from time to time whenever it suits us. It’s an important principle. Loren should be free to make and distribute his content, and others are free not to watch it. Somehow I doubt that a mega-corporation like Verizon is going to see it that way, however.