by Guest Contributor Chris Rabb
Today I learned that Michael Bullerdick, the latest managing editor of Essence Magazine–a highly influential publication whose first issue published in 1970–inadvertently outted himself on social media recently by expressing extreme right-wing beliefs that counter the history and long-standing values of the organization where he was hired last summer.
What’s notable about this story is that Mr. Bullerdick is a white man. While he is not the first white employee to make headlines–as Ellianna Placas did when she became the first white fashion director–he is the first white person and first man to be the managing editor of this publication geared to Black female readers.
According to Richard Prince at Journalisms, Bullerdick was asked to leave after his posting habits on Facebook came to light:
In one screen shot, an April 10 posting is headlined, “No Voter Fraud, Mr. Attorney General?” touting a video by James O’Keefe, the conservative activist who worked with right-wing trickster Andrew Breitbart. The same day, Bullerdick shared a photo illustration of Al Sharpton headlined, “MSNBC Race Pimp.” Bullerdick also recommends material from the conservative magazine Human Events and the right-wing website townhall.com, from which Bullerdick posted “the Frequent Bomber Program,” an article about 1960s radical Bill Ayers. Bullerdick wrote, “Obama’s mentor and friend.”
The mismatch in values not surprising to me–even though I know very little about Bullerdick, personally. What I do know, however, is that Essence was acquired in 2005 by Time, Inc.–the largest magazine publisher in the U.S.–a corporate conglomerate that well understood the cumulative spending power of Black women.
In 2000, the Black owners of Essence sold 49% of this iconic company to Time. Why just 49%, you ask? Because by retaining 51% ownership of the company, they could technically say that Essence was still Black-owned (insert air quotes here).
The owners no doubt predicted that many Black readers and non-readers alike would condemn this choice as nothing less than “selling out” at the expense of an institution that, in the field of media and journalism, has provided an important outlet for Black women to express themselves in ways that corporate media was loathe to do both before 1970–and arguably even today–in many mainstream circles, despite a few notable exceptions.
So, they pretended intentionally that Essence wasn’t actually being acquired, but that it was a strategic partnership–again, insert air quotes here. In fact, 2000 represented the beginning of the end of Black control of an enterprise that catered specifically to Black people. This is not to say that Essence no longer hired Black people or that there were no Black senior executives there. The partnership with Time represented a change in control and, thus, direction for Essence.
My grandmother used to caution me that you can always tell the real politics of an organization by its board and its budget. Apply this wisdom to Essence, and you will find Time’s fingerprints everywhere…which brings us to Mr. Bullerdick.
Without Time’s control of Essence, Mr. Bullerdick wouldn’t have even gotten a job working in the mailroom based on his clear antipathy for the organizational values of Essence.
The choice to sell Essence to a media conglomerate was a purely financial decision. The problem with that choice is that–not surprisingly–it has eroded the brand and mission of this esteemed publication. It was strategically short-sighted decision by the original owners because they chose money over mission. And, as a consequence of taking the money to walk away from control of Essence, it also meant saying goodbye to a mission in service to a once under-valued, near invisible population, but now highly prized consumer base: Black women.
The counterargument is that to scale up a respected and growing enterprise, they needed both access to sufficient capital and a market leading partner to usher them into a new era of expansion. The reality is, while not necessarily an easy fit, there are other ways to raise capital without potentially bankrupting one’s brand and risking long-cultivated customer loyalty. They chose the most traditional and lucrative route. While the owners knew that this was not an ideal situation, they also realized they may never acquire the type of wealth they sought in the foreseeable future through other means–especially without bringing in outside investment of some kind.
I do not begrudge any business owner to do what they feel they must do legally and ethically to financially benefit from their efforts. However, when the choice one makes to do so flies in the face of decades of work they’ve done to get to that decision point, then all bets are off–particularly when the product of that company is a community asset.
Community assets are those tangible and intangible things that improve society as a whole–things that build communal wealth. Things like a health/wellness, public safety, education, arts and culture, journalistic and civic engagement, and the stewardship of our environment, youth, elderly, disabled, displaced, infirmed and marginalized communities.
Enterprises whose offerings and operations are directly tied to creating or bolstering community assets are what I call “commonwealth enterprises,” and leaders of such enterprises are people who understand the salient differences between ownership vs. control, customers vs. stakeholders, markets v.s communities.
To restore Essence‘s brand and its mission in the aftermath of this unfortunate scandal, it goes far beyond what ultimately Time chooses to do to (and with) Mr. Bullerdick. It requires Essence’s most trusted stakeholders to identify themselves and restore control in such a way that it is realigned with the communal will of those who it once served with integrity.
In short, it must restore the essence of why this publication was founded–to create an invaluable form of non-market wealth that Black women benefited from in the wake of the Civil Rights movement and still deserve today.
Chris Rabb is a writer, lecturer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the book, Invisible Capital: How Unseen Forces Shape Entrepreneurial Opportunity, and teaches social entrepreneurship at Temple University Fox School of Business and the Masters Program in Sustainable Design at Philadelphia University.