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#NPRreads: The Power Of Nicki Minaj And The Failure Of ESPN's 'Black Grantland'

#NPRreads is a weekly feature on Twitter and on The Two-Way. The premise is simple: Correspondents, editors and producers from our newsroom share the pieces that have kept them reading, using the #NPRreads hashtag. On Fridays, we highlight some of the best stories.

This week, we bring you three items.

From Sam Sanders, a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk:


Nicki Minaj is infinitely interesting. A Technicolor hip-hop wordsmith wrapped in neon wigs and profanity, and sex-positivity and Barbie metaphors. The profile of Minaj in this week's New York Times Magazine gets at all of that: Minaj's bold, refreshing take on what it means to be a woman in hip-hop, and what it means to be a black celebrity covered by mostly white media — the article goes there.

And then it goes further. Toward the end of the piece, the author talks about asking Nicki a question she didn't like, probing her about some very public feuds that men around her (rappers Meek Mill, Drake, Lil Wayne and Birdman) have found themselves in recently. Then Nicki flips the script. After saying it was wrong of the writer to "put down a woman for something that men do, as if they're children and I'm responsible," Minaj tells the author, "I don't care to speak to you anymore," and then ejects the writer from her hotel room.

It was peak Nicki — always in control, always winning. The author, Vanessa Grigoriadis, wrote:

"Minaj's actions made sense, in some ways: Even though I had no intention of putting her down as a small-minded or silly woman, she was right to call me out. She had the mike and used it to her advantage, hitting the notes that we want stars like her to address right now, particularly those of misogyny and standing up for yourself, even if it involves standing up for yourself against another woman."

It captured all the contradictions in being Nicki Minaj, and all the contradictions present in even talking about her: Is she uplifting women or putting them down? Is she in control of her sexuality or bound by it? Is she strategic or just mercurial? The author really doesn't figure it out, but it's nice to read about her journey and have her reveal so candidly where she might have failed in her quest.

From Laura Wagner, a blogger for NPR's The Two-Way:


When ESPN announced the establishment of a new website, billed as "Black Grantland," in the summer of 2013, I was excited. With its coverage of sports and pop culture, Grantland embodies part of what I've long believed: Sports don't happen in a vacuum. The intersection of sports, culture, politics and economics can be even more compelling than one of Odell Beckham's specialty catches or Jake Arrieta's sublime pitching. I like a highlight reel as much as the next fan, but the real power of sports stems from consideration of their position within our society.

So, I thought, a website dedicated to sports and to race — one of the most defining social topics of our time — would be huge. But weeks turned to months and months turned to years, and today, the much touted site, The Undefeated, is no more than a single webpage with a collection of articles from contributors. In the article "How ESPN's Fear Of The Truth Defeated 'Black Grantland,' " Deadspin's Greg Howard writes in depth on what went wrong.

Howard points to several decisions made by ESPN brass that hamstrung the site's progress, but none, he says, was more damaging than initially naming Jason Whitlock editor-in-chief.

"Whitlock is an unsophisticated thinker on race who wrote his belief in black pathology into the The Undefeated's DNA, and whose ideas about respectability politics bled into each piece he edited before he was tossed aside. His ideology was formed over 20 years of writing opinions on race that were largely inaccurate, but, more importantly, firmly aligned with the opinions of many whites. Though he'd alienated many blacks along the way, including talented ESPN colleagues, his readings of American history were agreeable to an enormous portion of ESPN's audience. He was decidedly safe and unchallenging. Through this lens, Whitlock was, in theory at least, the perfect choice to run the site."

Whitlock didn't last at the helm, possible replacements have been floated and forgotten, and the grand vision for the site has faded. Still, Howard says, "if ESPN wanted to, it could easily put together the greatest black publication of all time right now."

"The money, the prestige, and the audience were and are there. That they entrusted such an opportunity to Jason Whitlock, though, and that they've done nothing much after years of continual failure, is really all you need to know about what ESPN wants its black-interest site to be, and about what's possible at a company that could, if it wanted to, do absolutely anything at all."

From Jessica Taylor, a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk:

The biggest question in Washington right now is what Joe Biden is going to do. The vice president has been deciding for months whether he wants to make a third run for president, very publicly displaying how torn he is after the death of his son Beau from brain cancer in May.

One of the most striking accounts was from New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd this summer, recounting a deathbed conversation in which Beau urged his father to run for president. It showed a deeply conflicted, grieving father struggling to balance family concerns and his own political future. It's one Biden has had on display many times before, including an emotional interview with Stephen Colbert last month.

But the Politico story alleges it was the vice president himself who leaked this information and intimate conversation to Dowd. In a way, it makes sense — the way her story is written, it sounds like an account that could have only come from someone who was there in the moment. But if it's true, it presents a much different picture of Biden than the one that shows why people are clamoring for him to get in the race for the White House — because his raw authenticity stands in stark contrast to Hillary Clinton. The article reads:

"Before that moment and since, Biden has told the Beau story to others. Sometimes details change — the setting, the exact words. The version he gave Dowd delivered the strongest punch to the gut, making the clearest swipe at Clinton by enshrining the idea of a campaign against her in the words of a son so beloved nationally that his advice is now beyond politics. This campaign wouldn't be about her or her email controversy, the story suggests, but connected to righteousness on some higher plane."

Biden's office later vehemently denied the allegations he was the one who leaked to Dowd. But the story still illustrates what's at the nature of such a decision itself — a desire has to come from a place of emotional certitude, but there are also purely political calculations that simply can't be dismissed, no matter how much above the fray you try to stay.

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