Dissecting Outside's smear of Lazarus Lake
When your villain's not as racist or dumb as you hope, promote that idea anyway.
The short version of this story is that any person or entity wanting to to be at the forefront of equality in sport or anywhere else would do well to avoid deception, bully tactics, and the exploitation of free labor to get there. (Come to think of it, that would be a poor way to run even an openly discriminatory business; mean people still like to get paid.) In the end, someone ostensibly on your side will notice and report on the mismatch between your mission statement and your behaviors, and suggest that you don’t prod others in the direction of more humanistic value systems while exposing the active corrosion in your own.
On September 11, Outside Online ran a hit piece under the guise of asking its object, someone the article called the “noted” race director of a virtual ultramarathon, why he had banned entrants from using the term Black Lives Matter as a team name in the event, an act that inspired swift social-media reprisals against the RD, Gary Cantrell, whose nom de plume is Lazarus Lake. It was a textbook example of beginning with a conclusion and fighting off every logical exit-ramp to ensure getting to the holy grail of highlighting a far-flung and consequential injustice permeating all of running. Actually, the story and its framing were only part of the smear job; the way its editor, Molly Mirhashem, promoted it on social media was the clincher.
The piece, written by Mirhashem’s de facto male mouthpiece for these kinds of “bad man” stories, Martin Fritz Huber, carries the headline “Why Did a Virtual Ultra Ban ‘Black Lives Matter’?” it’s a fair question, although “Why Did a Virtual Ultra Ban Political Messages?” seems more accurate. But the subtitle, “The infamous race director Lazarus Lake and runner Ben Chan disagree on whether the running community is a place for serious debate,” requires some radical leaps that the content fails to support.
I can certainly understand Chan’s eagerness to post his result along with the accompanying picture and commentary, but when Lake told Chan “I am 1000% in agreement, but this is not a political site,” that really should have ended it. But Chan took to Instagram, declaring the issue to be one rooted in white privilege. In his defense, some Blue Lives Matter pictures had evidently survived the deletion process; Lake, despite his itchy and vigilant trigger-finger, says he didn’t see those.
Nevertheless, Chan was employing the same tactics Chris Chavez: Summoning the mob to pile on someone for refusing to actively be on the train, in this case after the RD had gone to some lengths to establish that he had no specific animus against BLM.(There are many substantive differences between the genesis of the two eruptions, which I’ll get into in a subscriber post later this week, but for now suffice it to say that I empathize far more with Chan’s actions, whom I don’t see as any sort of villain here, than with Chavez’s.)
Huber goes on to make a great point that he seems to ignore in organizing his ideas: “BLM” means different things to different people. If you watch one screen, it’s Black people rioting; on another, it’s white cops attacking unarmed Black protesters. Even apart from whether a given RD wants to play host to the volatility that arises when permitting any kind of political talk, it seems more sensible to ask someone like Lake what his organic position on human rights are, rather than asking him what he thinks of a slogan. And that assumes that it’s important for the world to know. Why not quiz every race director on this, not just the ones from Appalachia with big-ass beards who might have, you know, funny ideas about BLM?
This is probably obvious, but Lake is not the only event organizer who prefers to avoid overt political displays at his events. At last notice, the 9/11 Heroes run was one of them. One can argue with the decision of an RD to operate this way without assuming he’s unsympathetic, especially when he says he’s 1000% in agreement with you in principle.
Also, at some point, the fact that this was a virtual event has to enter the picture, because it means that the locus of the conflict was not the site of a gathering of human beings preparing or or engaging in a running contest, but the Internet and the cystic acne known as social media that began disfiguring its face a dozen or so years ago. It was basically a flame war. That doesn’t make the issues at hand any less important, but it clearly alters the dynamic of these kinds of disagreements.
Huber goes on, ”I pressed Cantrell about his specific aversion to Black Lives Matter.” What? To this point, Huber had gone to some pains to establish the exact opposite — that Cantrell’s aversion to potentially (and provably) inflammatory messages was as apolitical as possible, with the ban-hammer dropping on everything from MAGA to BLM. It’s not fair to suggest that BLM’s standing as the eminent social issue of the day implies that race directors seeking to play Switzerland should feel any urgency to treat it differently — in fact, that would defeat the purpose of wanting to create a “refuge,” however Cantrell or anyone wishes to define this.
Huber, within the constraints of his editorial direction, does a good job with the story He points out that Chan “is adamant that he doesn’t think that Cantrell is a racist person,” which is kind of important, but it gets buried well below all of the damnation. In the end, it’s an adequate exploration of one businessman’s aversion to moving his event on board with a cultural zeitgeist.
The biggest problem I found with the story was with the way its editor presented it on Twitter.
new from @fritzvsfritz, on a dispute between a runner and a race director over a team named "Black Lives Matter," and what it means when white runners insist that the running community should be a "refuge" from difficult conversations:
It is not a minor point that Mirhashem decided to not only make this specifically about race, but also suggest that Lake didn’t think “the running community” as a whole should host such conversations. This is two unsupported charges in one.
Perhaps it doesn’t look that way if your politics are aligned with mine or the staff at Outside. But imagine a piece about a Black RD that doggedly insisted she was racist for not wanting MAGA hats at her events (or on her virtual race web pages). Every Cletus who had his MAGA or TRUMP/PENCE or GO JESUS! or for fuckssake MEN HAVE RIGHTS TOO photos deleted, even if the RD is quoted as saying that she also deleted BLM and Planned Parenthood photos. The RD could tell you exactly what event she wanted to create, and you could go ahead and release the article with the subhead, "When Black female race directors think the running community is no place for difficult issues," and then, with the clickbait thus armed, frame the story so that the specific RD in it appears to really only want MAGA and aggrieved white guys gone, despite saying otherwise. But add somewhere in paragraph five that Cletus doesn't think the RD is actually racist against white folks, or anti-cop, no way.
If you want, you can use Runner’s World’s article about the same “incident” as a baseline. It shows the photo of Chan, looking appropriately happy after his event finish and putting up with typical targeted taunts from the shitbird streetside rabble. It stresses that Cantrell was speaking only for his own enterprise: “[The GVRAT Facebook group] is not a place for political posts or human rights matters —it is just about a run.” However, the author also asks, “Where does this leave the BIPOC who don’t have a safe space to seek refuge from their lived experiences?” I shouldn’t feel guilty saying this, but I kind of want to: What about other websites, maybe even running ones?
As an aside, this podcast featuring Columbia professor John McWhorter delves into the general topic of policing race relations from the perspective of a Black academic liberal. I found it compelling; I also find it impossible to dismiss him as a sellout or any of the other terms his detractors have thrown at him for recommending a modicum of rhetorical restraint when it comes to these things — at a minimum, not making enemies of people who aren’t your philosophical enemies.
Because of my own disgust with the current president and his lackeys, I’ve surely been guilty along with lots of Trump-haters of overly liberal use of the “racist” label. But it seems less insidious to bellow that anyone who votes Republican is a white supremacist than to introduce the idea that a specific person is racist using the Trojan horse of supporting a broader social concern.
Perhaps this ethos — championing a human-rights issue while manifesting little concern for individual people from the wrong group — cannot be proven to exist at Outside on the basis of this one example. But Outside has established the kind of editorial map that was bound to cause problems.
"The editors of Outside Online’s verticals have set quotas for bringing in new writers; every editor is expected to bring new writer names to weekly story meetings, and the male/female byline breakdown is tracked in a team-wide spreadsheet. When the 50/50 ratio gets off track, the team figures out why. “We’ll say, ‘Oh, Adventure lagged this week. Why was that? Did we have too many male columnists? Do we have so many of this type of story coming through that it’s not leaving enough room to edit other types of stories?” Although it can be harder to quantify, the site is also pushing for increased racial, body type, and socioeconomic diversity in its content."
Okay, so they have a quota system. That’s probably legal. Too many white male columnists are an issue. No worries, because at any given time, the ratio of people wanting to write about given topics obviously conforms to whatever ratios the higher-ups have decided must work in order to supply a quality publication.
If that’s the deal, my pitch to Outside from 2018, which turned into a ten-month-long carnival of obfuscation and nonsense before I yanked the story and published it on my blog, never should have been accepted in the first place. Its greatest fault, not that I knew it, was its being the story of a bunch of white men (comically, I think the story was literally all about the doings of white males, albeit ones doing great things for running kids for free). I didn’t care in the end that I lost out on a little money, but I was pretty pissed off to have kept multiple people on the phone for hours in the assurance it was for a piece in a respected outlet. Maybe, in the end, "this one got a little stalled” for reasons of basic quality. Maybe it got bumped in favor of this. But if you read the entire e-mail exchange with Ms. Mirhashem, it’s pretty plain there was something she wasn’t telling me, and probably couldn’t, about the reasons the story was clearly going to sit in editorial purgatory indefinitely.
I’m not quite done.
Earlier this year, freelancers from around the world who hadn’t been paid for work used by Outside started to figure out that they were part of an unofficial club. Perhaps this video by Mark Remy, aka “Dumb Runner,” helped this restive project along. In May, Outside agreed to pay over $150,000 in overdue invoices to freelancers. I have no idea how many actual people were fucked here, but Outside was going to pay me $600 for the standard 800-word piece I supplied, so if you use that as an average, that’s 250 invoices, and probably close to that many individual writers. This may not surprise you, but freelance writers tend to be a powerless bunch. By definition, you’re working solo and no one but you can cajole an editor or an accounts payable person or anyone else to fulfill any obligations they might be crapping on. (As a general industry reference, RW and Podium Runner both pay within 30 days of invoice receipt, with RW offering an electronic deposit option.) Whoever was ultimately responsible for the purposeful backlog was undoubtedly counting on a significant number of the stiffed contributors simply not making enough of a fuss about it to make a difference.
This is a bad way to run a magazine, independent of any editorial shortcomings it might have. But when you promote yourself as a champion of the underclass and pull this shit, your operation deserves to go under. This is no different from foodmakers who sell pricey organic products despite no underlying aversion to the things people seeking such foods supposedly want, or “greenwashing.”
On the whole, I suggest fuss, properly designed and delivered.
My next post will be only for subscribers and is apt to be less polite that this one, not that I’m trying to sell you on it because I’ll probably wind up tweeting out the whole thing anyway. (I like to make fun of “wokes,” but I do so with intentional irony as I’m in the thrall of wokeness myself thanks to Matt Taibbi’s solo columns.) It will deal mainly with what this post did, including a few weird reactions it inspired. Actually, that will probably define the rhythm of this site: The only posts limited to subscribers will be follow-ups to topics already presented. That if nothing else will allow me to keep alive the idea that some of my blather somehow matters more than others, or allows for different possibilities. We’ll see.