My hope was that I'd never have to address the legitimacy or even the existence of "Angela Cheng." But I got a call today from a BuzzFeed editor who led me to believe that they were moving ahead with a story about “Cheng” that included me, with or without my participation. I always refrained from engaging with this issue because I didn’t want to bring it more attention. But since it appears that will be happening now anyway, I’ll reluctantly post what I know. My hope is that, to the extent people will talk about this bizarre little tempest in a music industry teapot, this post will provide some facts to color the discussion.
I’m not sure when I first became aware of “Cheng.” It was sometime last year, when I was still working as the Editorial Director of Billboard. I’m reasonably certain “Cheng” first crossed my radar because of a small handful of folks on Twitter, asking me if I’d seen articles she was publishing on the user-generated “news” site, Examiner.com.
At that time, it seemed to me, almost all of the articles under the Cheng byline, as well as those by another “reporter,” “Sabrina O’Connor,” had two things in common: they seemed to me to be laser-focused on disparaging Lady Gaga, and they seemed to me to regularly misrepresent facts and details. Occasionally they would pull in Billboard or even me, personally, with ungrounded and wholly untrue accusations that somehow Billboard or I was receiving favor from Gaga’s camp to better represent her or her chart positions. From my perspective, the notion was so ridiculous and the source so not credible that I ignored it.
Eventually, however, as Twitter questions persisted, and as other media outlets started repeating certain details from the Examiner.com stories - more on that in a bit - I reached out to some friends at Examiner.com’s parent company, AEG (the giant tour promoter). I explained that many of these stories appeared to contain libel and/or defamation, and gave them a handful of offending examples. AEG said they’d have someone look into the matter, and very shortly thereafter—and very much to AEG’s and the Examiner’s credit—the stories disappeared from the site. At some time after that, “Cheng” appeared to stop contributing to Examiner.com.
All of this would be fine and well and water under the bridge, except for two nagging problems.
One was that the “work” of “Cheng” and “O’Connor” appeared to me to create a lasting, negative smear on the campaign for Lady Gaga’s current album, Artpop.
On November 17, 2013, "Sabrina O'Connor" posted a story on Examiner.com that claimed Lady Gaga's Interscope label had spent $25 million to promote her album Artpop which had been released 11 days earlier.
Within days that number had been repeated in seemingly any outlet that could credibly cover such a matter: Business Week. New York magazine. Business Insider. A couple of weeks later, the New York Post published a razor-sharp hatchet job on Gaga, once again, floating the $25 million figure.
(Credit where it's due: the only outlet I could find that called bullshit, and did it the very next day, was Roger Friedman at Showbiz 411.)
This appears to be echo chamber reporting at its worst. I have to wonder if any of the aforementioned outlets could provide independent reporting or confirmation of this $25 million figure. Most of them appeared to simply use the sensational $25 million as click bait, while disclaiming in the fine print that it was "according to examiner.com", and linking to the source. It's an ugly gut check for a content farming industry that was once known as journalism. But the truth is, for many outlets and at some times, it doesn't seem to matter what's verifiable. If it's sexy and you can blame it on a different media outlet if it turns out not to be true, fire up the CMS! New York mag, seemingly warned about the tenuous original sourcing after its story was live, went so far as to append an update to their initial post, noting that "This news was originally reported by a source that is not verifiable, so file this news under ‘quite possibly fictional gossip.’ In fact, disregard it entirely" - but left the $25 million figure in their headline. It seemed to me that the number became an albatross of Gaga's Artpop campaign. As Artpop sales and singles did not perform up to the standards of Gaga’s previous releases, the $25 million was held up again and again to show just how high the expectations were that had been missed—to, ultimately unfairly, define a failure.
It was this realization that led me to make a few phone calls. After all, maybe I was wrong: maybe “Cheng” and “O’Connor” were just hard-working journalists in modern times, using new, user-generated platforms that were availed to them to create impactful work.
Now, I must say, I have no idea if there really is an Angela Cheng or a Sabrina O’Connor. This is what I know: In Cheng’s bio on Examiner.com, which I can no longer find on site, she listed herself as “a recent Communication Media Studies graduate of the University of Oklahoma,” and “the school newspaper’s pop music writer.”
But a University of Oklahoma representative told me on the phone in January that there had been no “Angela Cheng” to enroll or graduate within any timeframe that could reasonably be construed as “recent.” Similarly, no one at the school paper, the Oklahoma Daily could find any record of an Angela Cheng contributing. “Sabrina O’Connor,” meanwhile, represented herself in her Examiner.com bio as “a recent journalism graduate of Cal State Long Beach” and “a pop music writer for the university and local city newspapers.”
Again, a school official told me there was no record to support the notion of enrollment or matriculation of a student by that name. And again, no one at the Daily 49er—Cal State’s student paper—was able to find evidence of a contributor by that name. As well, the photographer who had taken the picture that Cheng was using to identify herself publically shared that the image was being used without his permission.
So who is Angela Cheng? I have no idea, nor do I have the time or the inclination to report it out. There is no shortage of internet rumors regarding high-profile bloggers with an axe to grind against Lady Gaga. But I’d be no better than what I’m decrying if I named names on such flimsy support.
All of this leads back to the second dynamic in this whole scenario that remains eating at me: the ease at which the lie accomplishes the truth. No one I’ve spoken with in or around Gaga’s camp or in the music business as a whole—and I have a decent source or two, trust—believes there was a $25 million dollar marketing budget on Gaga’s Artpop campaign. And yet suddenly, there it is, like wildfire, spreading in too many pop-culture outlets to be ignored. What can Gaga do? Ignore it and let people believe? Deny it and legitimize the claims of a person who may or may not exist? It’s a shit choice.
And to a much lesser extent, it’s the choice I’m now faced with. You see, in the BuzzFeed editor’s first communication to me, he proposed, “I'm working on a story about a few online music critics including one in particular named Angela Cheng…There were some rumors flying around at the time you left Billboard that you were being fired over trying to help Lady Gaga's chart positions, was there any truth to those rumors?”
So here I am, having to answer a reporter with a powerful platform behind him, because a person that I don’t believe to exist (“Angela Cheng”) posited what I know to be unfounded nonsense about my moving on from Billboard.
The only real lesson I can take away from this is that it’s better to be the platform than the person trusting the platform. This is why I decided to post all of this, after all this time. No, I wasn’t fired from Billboard for any sort of shenanigans—I wasn’t fired at all. To be clear, during the time I worked for Billboard, the amazing team of people I worked with and for built a consumer music brand where one hadn’t existed, grew a social following from zero to the millions, brought the Billboard Music Awards back to TV with ABC, grew traffic to Billboard.com by about 6X and won prestigious awards for our site relaunch and redesigned magazine.
In early January, the company that owns Billboard re-structured some of its media holdings and formed a new company out of Billboard and the Hollywood Reporter. Janice Min, who had been having an incredible run of success as the editorial director of the Hollywood Reporter, was promoted to oversee both properties, and I was moved into an entrepreneurial role with the company, working on some new projects. This is not scandalous, but just an old-fashioned thing called the truth. As the above can attest, sometimes it’s stranger than fiction. You just need to be very, very careful about where you choose to read it.