You remembered the name the first time you heard it because it’s a name you remember the first time you hear it. It’s one of those names that just feels important. Meaningful. Cinematic. You hear it and think “I don’t know who this person is, but I do know that they matter. Somehow.”
But, even if “Bomani Jones” were “Jim Peters,” he still would have been conspicuous. You still would have followed him on Twitter, consuming his pithy thoughts about everything from racial profiling to Kyrie Irving. You still would have noticed him on ESPN’s Around the Horn, First Take, and Highly Questionable; the young (well, young-ish) Black guy sparring with professional antagonists like Skip Bayless and Dan LeBatard and usually winning. And you still would have shared, liked, retweeted, reblogged, and embedded the clip of Jones blacking out earlier this year while providing the realist take on (former LA Clippers owner) Donald Sterling anyone’s ever heard. This was King Kendrick’s “Control” verse extended to 10 minutes.
As the flame stoking our country’s Ferguson/Garner-fueled uprising continued to flicker, we spoke to Jones about Ferguson, Bill Cosby, digital media, and the concept of empathy.
EBONY: Attorney General Eric Holder recently announced that he would debut a plan to end racial profiling. But, between Ferguson, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and countless others, it feels noble but too idealistic. How much faith do you have in that happening any time soon?
BOMANI JONES: People need to stop pretending that what’s happening with law enforcement is some type of market failure and start acknowledging the fact that this is just what some people want it to be. You’re not going to have any real correction about the way police behave until there is some general empathy developed by the mass populace of the United States towards the people getting harassed by the police. Without that level of empathy, nobody cares about people getting shot in the street because they don’t empathize with them. So, Obama is having these meetings when he’s going to talk to activists and the like, and all that’s going to do is let people know that they’re not going home and that they’re not going to tolerate what’s happening. But, they’re not actually changing anything unless they get people so frustrated that they figure it’s not worth the stress of dealing with them. But that’s not real change. Until there’s some level of empathy, I don’t know if we’ll ever get that.
EBONY: So the Ferguson/Garner issues are less about policy than empathy?
BJ: The policy issues are what’s led to the frustration that has people out there protesting. But, we got out there because the DA took it to the grand jury and no one thought for a second an indictment was coming. And this is a DA who ran unopposed; this was not some rogue guy who is now in trouble because of the way he handled things. The people of St. Louis county liked what’s happened. The people who put that man in office liked the way it has gone. They like the fact that these law enforcement officers are refusing to partake in any reasonable dialogue with the protesters just to show them who’s in charge. So, if that’s what people want, I don’t know what you’re going to change short of some constitutional amendment or something.
EBONY: These conversations have spilled onto people’s personal social media accounts, resulting in mass “unfriendings” and “unfollowings.” Have you had to reconsider certain relationships because of certain opinions about these topics?
BJ: I personally have not. I’m not shocked when things like this happen. I guess, for many people, they were shocked when certain people who they thought were cool had views different from their own about race. I was never under that mistaken impression. I can see how other people have gotten there — and i guess I was there at other points in my life — but not anymore. That being said, I don’t really do a lot of seeking out other people’s opinions about this.
EBONY: Is there a value to having those types of people around?
BJ: I don’t know what the value is to have racists around.
EBONY: It feels like Ferguson is being talked about as a tipping point for change and some type of revolution, but it feels like we were saying much of the same thing a year and a half ago with Trayvon Martin. What makes Ferguson different?
BJ: It’s continuing. I mean, whatever it is that people think is going to happen — and revolution is probably too extreme of a term — it aint going to happen in a year. If you’re seeing what’s going on with Trayvon Martin and Ferguson — it has sparked nationwide protests and levels of discussion — this all runs together. The question is going to be “How long will this sustain? What will it turn into?” — because there will be another situation when someone gets shot by the cops. These things are not anomalies. They keep happening again and again and again. So, whatever’s going to happen is going to continue the momentum that builds up from case to case to case to case. It looks like we are reaching a point where there are large numbers of people who have decided that they’re no longer going to tolerate this. But, to say ‘I feel like we were talking about this a year and a half ago..and here we are right now’ well, this is a byproduct of what happened a year and a half ago. I don’t think the story of Mike Brown’s body being out there for four hours resonates the same way if Trayvon Martin doesn’t happen in 2012.
EBONY: How much of a part does social media play in this uprising? Does this happen in 2004, or would we just have found another medium to connect people the same way?
BJ: Social media has greatly decreased the cost of information. It’s much easier and cheaper to communicate now. So no, you probably don’t have this same type of uprising without social media. What it’s also done is made people platform agnostic. Before, people would say “trust the newspaper” and if Mike Brown didn’t wind up in a newspaper or on a TV station, people wouldn’t have known about it. Here, people found the information and are less concerned with where the information came from. Technology has made it much easier for us to transmit information. That to me is the bigger thing. It’s just a lot easier for people to find out about things.
EBONY: In Chris Rock’s recent interview with New York, he spoke of how much he didn’t want Cosby’s allegations to be true. He brought up losing Robin Williams, Joan Rivers, and now Cosby too.
BJ: I guess I’m not invested in comedians as much as Chris Rock is. I would hope the allegations against Bill Cosby were untrue because I’m more comfortable in a world where people make up these allegations than a world where people do the things he’s accused of. I would hope that it’s not true because that means that these women were not sexually assaulted. Past that, I guess I’m not that concerned with the idea of losing Cosby. I mean, we may be talking about the end of Cosby, but it’s not like Bill Cosby’s a contemporary comedian and a guy I was really checking for. I mean, I know he had the deals and the Netflix specials and stuff like that, but I don’t think about Bill Cosby in that way. I do think, though, that people are going to have to come to terms with the difficult balance of that comes up all the time of the separating of art and artists. Sometimes we don’t feel like doing that, and sometimes we do. People make this separation all the time for Miles Davis. Pretty much all of us have someone for whom we make an exception because of the terrible things they’ve done and the role their art plays in our lives. That’s what a lot of people are going to have to deal with with The Cosby Show. I mean, it’s not like you’re going to come up with something right now that going to happen to make The Cosby Show less important than it is in people’s lives. That’s just not how it works. People are going to have to come to terms with his art and how much they attach it to the man himself. There are going to be some people who draw a hard line and say “I’m never going to watch The Cosby Show again” and some who say they’re going to continue. But I don’t know of anyone who is perfectly consistent when it comes to what moral offenses an artist commits that will make them stop discussing or stop patronizing a certain person. Just about everybody has one person someone can point to and suddenly they look like a hypocrite. I’m not judging anybody but that seems to be the reality.
EBONY: Yeah…My person is Ben Roethlisberger. I’ve admitted to feeling a certain way about The Cosby Show now because of the allegations, but I still support the Steelers despite the allegations against Big Ben. With Cosby, though, you could argue that since he erected himself a moral arbiter — and with his show he positioned himself as America’s de facto dad — it’s more difficult to make that separation than it would be for a Miles Davis or an R. Kelly
BJ: Well, when you talk about R. Kelly vs. Cosby, for example…R. Kelly is talking about sex…all the time. It’s really difficult to separate R. Kelly from what he’s accused of. I can’t think of any artist where the separation is more difficult.. A get the idea though. Like, how much disbelieve can you suspend? Can you suspend it to the point to where you can look at Bill Cosby being loving and doting and forget the things that you know about him? Some people are going to be able to do it. Some people are not going to be able to do it.
The moral arbiter aspect is a little more interesting though, because as the moral arbiter I always felt like Cosby comported himself like a guilty man. He wagged all those fingers and kept the discussion going about what’s wrong with other people and kept the discussion off of him. And it’s not like Cosby the father had all these successes to hold up. I mean he had problems with his children also. They had all the privileges and all the advantages and, to let them tell it, they had a daddy that did all the right things and they still struggled to find their way in this world with millions behind them.
So with Cosby and the moral arbiter stuff, more and more, he seemed to be projecting the behavior of a guilty man.
EBONY: With the disbelief, there have been some pretty creative conspiracy theories about the allegations. Have you heard any that stood out to you?
BJ: No theories in particular, just the general theory that some have that this is an attempt to take a successful Black man down. And I don’t want to pretend that the idea that someone would try to take a successful Black man down is an absurd notion. These things happen. Every time it happens, somebody says “You’re crazy.” This just happens to be one of the crazy ones. Bill Cosby managed to get a point of being worth so much money to so many people that if somebody was going to try to take him down for being a successful Black man, that would have happened 25, 30 years ago. Like, it wasn’t going to happen right now. That doesn’t make any sense at all.
EBONY: You’ve been around for a decade and a half; writing, doing radio and TV. What changes have you seen in the digital landscape since 2000?
BJ: It’s more supervised and less supervised. What’s happened really is — I mean, you had some startups that made some money — but people who were making money in traditional media put their might behind making money on the internet. It’s operating basically like any other market in the economy. So, it’s going to be interesting to see the changes with who can actually hang because what it comes down to is if you can make money producing content. Because content drives everything. Now, there’s more ways to make money, but I wonder if its coming from fewer places. Because there are fewer people out here experimenting on the internet, throwing money around. At this point, you need big bank behind you to make this work.
That’s kinda the supervised part of things. The unsupervised part of things is that social media has given a voice to the consumer. The consumer does a lot more to demand what content is than was the case.
EBONY: Is that a good thing — the consumer having that much of a voice when it comes to what we consume?
BJ: Why wouldn’t it be?
EBONY: You can make the counterargument that people don’t really know what they want until you show it to them
BJ: But what kind of minority report argument is that? (Laughs) That’s so incredibly paternalistic, the idea that someone can tell people what they need to see. I mean, by some measure that is true. There is a trust that is given to the media, in many ways, to wade through stuff and figure out what it is that people should know about. But I can never make the argument that there’s something wrong with providing people what they want. You’re not going to make money selling information people strictly need. You’re going to make money selling people the information they want to know
EBONY: I’m talking more about how too many voices, too much context — and trying to appease too many needs — can bog down a story and make it too ambiguous to be understood because it’s trying to connect to too many different parts of the audience
BJ: Well, I don’t see anything wrong with more stuff being out there. I mean, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with bad stuff being out there. It’s out there, and it gives people the opportunity to determine what they want. There’s great value in the fact that the internet space allows you to explore things from so many different angles. I mean, you can make the argument that things get bogged down but you’re going to find the things you’re looking for. We have the tools that allow you to do that
EBONY: Another byproduct of the access we have as consumers is the access we have to — let’s say I’m a big fan of Beyonce. I can tweet her or follow her on Instagram and she might tweet or follow me back. For someone like you, who works in sports media, has this type of access to pro athletes allowed you to be better at your job?
BJ: Definitely. It makes you more accountable — and that’s something a lot of writers don’t like, when people can stick it to you immediately when you get something wrong. Also, I learn a lot from the people out there. The back and forth allows you to build trust not just with the people consuming the content but with the athletes I cover.
EBONY: You’ve been involved in this space since 2000. How did you get your start?:
BJ: I had a summer when I was kicking around the house and not doing much, and I ordered a lot of books. One of these was a critically acclaimed book about hip-hop from a well-known writer. And, I thought it was pretty wack…thinking that if he could do this, I can do it too. That led to me finding a website that let you self-publish columns that would pay you a nickel or dime or something every time someone read one. And I kinda bounced around until I got a level of feedback that let me know I might be able to do this professionally. So, it kinda went from a pipe dream to a legitimate money-making endeavor — and I wasn’t getting rich, but I was able to pull in checks.
EBONY: A 21-year-old you wants to be you. What do you tell him?
BJ: Don’t major in journalism. You need to know something about the world, and learning journalism is not the way to do it. You can to learn to write bunch of different ways. Don’t make that your primary thing. Because you’re going to have to be adaptable. We’re still at a place where the technology is developing at a pretty rapid rate. You’re going to have to be able to figure out where the game is going next and be there when it does. When the newspaper industry started dying, all of those guys really just had no idea what to do because all they really knew how to do was write for a newspaper. And when writing for a newspaper became less valuable of a skill, they were understandably frightened about what the future held for them. So, I would not want to focus anything I do specifically on one medium because there’s no telling how the paradigm’s going to shift again in five years.
EBONY: So be versatile?
BJ: Yeah, and the only way you’ll get yourself to be versatile is to learn a thought process you can apply to different things. You can’t get locked into one. Not today, definitely not tomorrow.