Twitter users on Tuesday opened the app to see the #BloombergIsARacist hashtag trending as people shared an audio clip of former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg explaining his "stop-and-frisk" policy in starkly racist terms.
The ensuing controversy highlighted a blind spot in mainstream news coverage of his big-spending presidential campaign, and the recurring power of social-media outsiders to disrupt the political debate.
Benjamin Dixon, a podcaster in Atlanta whose self-named show is funded by individual donors, started the Twitter trend by posting a link to his podcast that criticized Bloomberg for his "racist, classist past." Dixon's podcast even caught the attention of President Trump, who tweeted, "Wow, Bloomberg is a total racist," in all-caps before deleting the post.
Dixon's podcast gained attention by including an audio clip of Bloomberg from 2015, when the former mayor appeared in a Q-and-A session at an annual conference hosted by the Aspen Institute, a nonprofit based in the tony Colorado ski resort.
During the interview, Bloomberg shared his opinions about various issues, including gun control, education, climate change and marijuana legalization. The former mayor also defended the controversial policing practice of temporarily detaining, questioning and searching civilians for weapons and other contraband.
He said police intentionally targeted young male minorities because they commit most of the violent crimes in urban areas, a controversial remark that has since been repeated in news coverage following Dixon's podcast.
Bloomberg's representatives had asked the Aspen Institute to not distribute video footage of the event, Karl Herchenroder reported for The Aspen Times. Herchenroder also posted an audio recording of the event on his personal YouTube channel, where it occasionally gained attention as Bloomberg flirted with the idea of running for president.
Most recently, every major media outlet ignored the recording, a possible sign that no one considered Bloomberg a viable candidate amid low rankings in the polls.
The press paid attention this week when Dixon included an audio snippet of Bloomberg's most damning remarks in a podcast. He had found the recording on YouTube after researching Bloomberg's stop-and-frisk policy.
“It was hiding in plain sight," he said in a phone interview. "It took some digging, but it was there.”
Several press reports about Dixon have described him as a supporter of Bernie Sanders, a characterization that he said is somewhat unfair. He said his podcasts have included criticism of Sanders, and that he first expressed support for Sanders two and a half weeks ago.
Unfortunately, some of the press coverage of Dixon's work was too dismissive and too eager to pigeon-hole him as a Sanders operative who's "anti-Bloomberg." Instead, Dixon should be celebrated for highlighting a key issue that's important to the many African American and Hispanic men who suffered disproportionately during Bloomberg's mayoralty.
Their stories have mostly gone untold, and Dixon is working to change that by urging others to speak up. He's pointing out uncomfortable truths that other media outlets have ignored, and his work deserves greater financial support.
Dixon has had to maintain his show through Patreon, the crowd-funding platform for journalists, artists and musicians. He also scrapes together income from other freelance projects, he said.
The publicity from his reporting on Bloomberg's racially charged remarks has helped to boost paid subscriptions to his podcast. Dixon received support from 115 new patrons this week, he said, bringing the total to more than 600.
I hope Dixon picks up more financial support to sustain his work, because voices like his too frequently are drowned out.