Friday, April 23, 2004My friend Sam Woll recently told me about a national controversy that seemed worth commenting on. In brief, here's what happened:
A white male columnist for the Oregon State University's daily student newspaper The Barometer named David Williams wrote a column published April 9th titled "A message from a white male to the African American community," which basically alleged he thought "African Americans have not made the leaps and bounds necessary to close racial disparity gaps," because of a lack of positive role models, pointing out R. Kelly and O.J. Simpson as flawed celebrities the black community erroneously chose to support:
"It's not the fact that black people are doing bad things that hurt them collectively as a group. White people do terrible things. Hispanics do terrible things. Koreans do terrible things. People do terrible things.
My point, however, is this: There is a lack of morality in the black community because African American leaders, whether Jesse Jackson or the NAACP, choose to rally around minorities who seem to have little quality characteristics about them.
Why don't black leaders call out people like Allen Iverson and Sammy Sosa and say, "Hey, there are millions of young African Americans who worship you; why don't you start showing up for work on time and stop putting cork in your bat?"
Sure, that's contrite and overly simplistic and there are bad apples in more than just athletics, but you get the point.
In summation, I think blacks should be more careful in deciding whom they choose to support. They need to grow beyond the automatic reaction of defending someone because he or she shares the same skin color and is in a dilemma...."
After sparking some letters and a full-fledged demonstration in response, Williams was fired by the newspaper, which then ran an editorial apologizing:
"On Friday, April 9, The Daily Barometer published a column by staff columnist David Williams that was racially insensitive and inappropriate.
We apologize to everyone for printing the column.
While the opinions expressed in columns are not representative of the staff members of the Barometer, we have a policy never to print material that is discriminatory, racist or sexist.
By printing such material in the Barometer, we legitimize the messages, even if we don't agree. ... "
Activists have since held a public forum with the newspaper's editors to discuss the event. However, it doesn't end there. It turns out Mr. Williams column was extremely similar to a column penned by a Pulitzer Prize winning African-American columnist for the Miami Herald, Leonard Pitts Jr., who recently wrote a column about the dispute saying that Williams should not have been fired titled "Ignorance and Racism is not the same":
" ... My piece dealt with African America's support for singer and accused child pornographer R. Kelly. I argued that black folk reflexively defend those among us who transgress out of a sense of shared identity. An understandable impulse, I said, but often a counterproductive one.
Williams, his language sometimes echoing uncomfortably close to mine, used my observations to make a less nuanced point and reach a far different conclusion. While careful to concede that no group has a monopoly on poor behavior, he said that support for the likes of Kelly demonstrates a ''lack of morality'' among black people.
For the record: I don't know that I'd call Williams a racist -- or a plagiarist, though he comes near both. He's definitely guilty of cockamamie reasoning and blithe self-righteousness.
So rather than getting fired -- a relatively easy out -- I wish Williams had been required to sit down and discuss what he said with the people he said it about. He might have learned something. As it is, he will probably only learn to feel sorry for himself."
Here's a longer piece about the whole incident from the local newspaper: "Barometer rising"
I'm not sure I know whether or not Williams should have been fired, however I think there are several things to be learned here. To start, I suspect the controversy was made worse because columnists have an unclear position in the paper. Letters to the editor usually have the lowest level of scrutiny - they are printed as space allows with a minimum of editorial oversight. At the other end, the newspaper's staff editorials are the official opinion of the paper and determined through discussion and voting, and the staff are clearly responsible for their content. However, both columns and op-ed pieces ("viewpoints" in the Daily, for example) seem to fall somewhere in between: editors reserve the right to edit columns and selected which viewpoints are printed according to their judgments. This, I think, is were the confusion comes in - the newspaper certainly is correct when they point out that by printing racist, discriminatory, and sexist material they "legitimize the messages, even if we don't agree." Should the newspaper print material which might be highly offensive? I don't think there is an easy answer to this. Ideally, newspapers should have a public ethics policy explaining what sort of writing is not allowed, and if they do in fact have to edit a column they should do it according to their policy. Part of me thinks that Mr. Pitts has a point and Williams should have not been fired, however Williams column is extremely offensive ... then again, I doubt as editor I would have hired him to begin with.
The collumn in question aside, I think the newspaper's actions after their firing of the reporter are to be commended. They seem to have encouraged a full and open discussion about the incident (reporting on people who were protesting the newspaper openly and fully) and participating in public discussion and forums about their decisions - whether it was admitting a mistake, or explaining their decision to fire Williams. In contrast, during a boycott of the Michigan Daily two years ago, the Daily gave the protesters only partial coverage well after it had begun, and only engaged in limited discussions with the protestors.
One would hope that controversies of this scale - including allegations of racism and plagiarism - can and should be avoided, but when they occur doesn't mean the newspaper is simply "doing its job," but instead something serious went wrong which should be identified and corrected.
Posted by Rob at 8:54 PM