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Thursday, April 12, 2007

Don Imus, Duke, and a personal story

I have never written about this.

It was 2003. I was returning from North Carolina. It had been an exhilarating trip. Eric Robert Rudolph had just been captured and I was one of the reporters sitting in the courtroom as he was formally read the charges against him. I enjoyed little more than a good manhunt and that day in Asheville had been the culmination of the pursuit to end all pursuits.

There are few more enjoyable short trips than the one between Asheville, North Carolina and Greenville, South Carolina. It was late Spring and the mountains were as lush as they would be all year long. There is a dead spot for nearly all cell phone signals and, for just a few precious moments, you can escape the constant demands of work and life. By the time you break the city limits of the aptly-named Travelers Rest, you're back in the real world.

That was when my cell phone rang. The tone in my wife's voice indicated something was very wrong.

***

For those of you who don't know, my wife and I used to work together. She was a TV news producer. I was a field reporter. We were an anomaly in the corporate culture--a married couple working for the no-no-on-nepotism Hearst-Argyle Television. We'd been grandfathered in when the no-nepo rules kicked off. Most people handled it pretty well. Some people did not. We didn't let it bother us. We considered ourselves professionals. We worked to actually be harder on each other than we would be on other people we worked with. It actually hurt our relationship sometimes. Regardless, our work situation meant we worked in close quarters and often meant we were discussing news stories in front of our co-workers.

One morning we got a visit from our local police Public Information Officer. We were friendly with the guy. I was the cop shop reporter and talked to the PIO every day. My wife talked to him almost as often. We were friendly enough that, rather than force me to drive down to the police station to pick up mug shots and arrest warrants, the PIO would occasionally drop them by.

A few days before I got sent on the road to chase Rudolph the Red-Faced Bomber, the PIO had stopped by the newsroom to drop off what he routinely called "Dumb Crook News." In this particular case, it was the mugs of two guys who thought it was a good idea to ship a few pounds of dope via Fed-Ex.

One of the mugshots pictured a guy with bloodshot, sleepy eyes...the kind of eyes I've seen more times than I can count on people who have taken a few more hits from the bong that the Surgeon General recommends. The other guy was capital "W" Wired. He looked like he'd just mainlined an eightball cut with pure adrenaline. His eyes were blown out and his veins were popping out of his head.

The PIO held up the pictures for us and asked, "Do these guys look like drug dealers or what?"

My wife and I responded with two sentences:

"That guy looks stoned."

"That guy looks like he's been sampling some of his own product."

And that was it. No words other than those. Conversation over.

One thing I didn't mention about the pictures--because it had nothing to do with our responses--is that both of the people in the mugshots were black.

***

Across the room sat a fellow reporter. She heard what we said and applied her reasoning to it. Before long, she had jumped over the head of her immediate supervisor, jumped over the head of the station manager, and written the corporate offices to report that two station employees had engaged in racial stereotyping by declaring two men must be drug dealers because they were black.

Despite being 100% wrong--and despite knowing my wife and I abhor any form of prejudice--this reporter felt a need to escalate the situation to the highest level she could. She would later write a mass email to members of the community with the same allegations. She never addressed the situation with my wife or me. She never asked if we meant what she thought we meant. In short, she didn't care. She was a crusader in need of a crusade.

My wife and I felt fortunate that nearly all of our peers--of all races--rallied behind us. They knew us, they knew how we treated people, and they knew our hearts. That was one of few good things to come of the incident.

While the reporter waged a community-wide campaign against the PIO, my wife, and me, we were told by managers to keep our mouths shut. We were told our jobs were at stake and that we could not be protected. The people we'd trusted with our careers and given--at that point--four years of beyond-dedicated work, told us they couldn't publicly support us. We were stuck listening to someone falsely accuse us of racism, stuck waiting to find out if we were going to be fired over the allegations, and stuck watching our clean reputations tarnished by someone who was on a mission of vitriol.

A local gossip 'zine picked up the story, as did a national journalism trade 'zine. The corporate offices sent down some VP who interviewed us all at length. They hired a diversity mediator--remarkably, one of my favorite college professors--to come down and iron everything out. In the end, every employee of the station was forced to undergo diversity training.

The only things left un-fixed in the situation were three previously spotless reputations. Though we'd never said--nor thought--anything even remotely racist, we'd been labeled racist. It was both painful and infuriating. Still, we kept our mouths shut, lest we cause further problems. I ended up offering what was an honest apology. "I'm sorry if you misunderstood what I said and I'm sorry if it somehow hurt you," I told the reporter. In tears, she said she accepted. She said she felt like she had a responsibility to protect people of her race. She looked honest.

And then she went behind my back and e-mailed members of the community again, and essentially, said we racists had gotten away with it.

***

That was absolutely the worst moment of my professional career, and one of the worst incidents of my personal life. It ruined a lot of the faith I had in people. I actually sat up at night wondering if I had done or said something wrong. My wife and I talked at length about it and wondered, if even by accident, we had said something racist.

We concluded we had not. The color of the skin in the mugshots did not matter. We said:

"That guy looks stoned."

"That guy looks like he's been sampling some of his own product."

We've known people of all races who were high off their asses. We would've said the same thing if they dudes had been a Scotch/Romanian. They were stoned and that was that. For that, we were publicly labeled racists.

The support my peers showed me during the two-month incident buoyed my spirit and helped me recognize that most people in this world are right-thinking. They choose to fix the world by helping people, not by hurting them. I've thanked all of those people before, but, if they happen to read this, I thank you again. You know who you are.

I've thought a lot about that four-year-old incident in the past year or so. The false allegations against the kids at Duke started a lot of the thinking off. Don Imus' hateful, racist, and sexist blather capped it.

There is absolutely a problem with race in this country. The college parties based on stereotypical racist themes are a clear indication that some of the young and privileged white kids are still being raised with prejudice in their hearts. Michael Richards launching into a rage-filled racist tirade is another example of how racism isn't something in which only poor, stupid people engage. Don Imus and, worse, his producer Bernard McGuirk, got away with a lot of bullshit before the market finally sent them off public airwaves.

We all have a responsibility to be honest. We should honestly discuss race. We should apologize if we hurt someone. We should call people out if they hurt us.

That said, there is a very fine line. There are people, at least one of whom I know all too well, who use the racist label as a weapon. They use it as a way to draw attention to themselves. They use it to hurt rather than to help. It's those people who weaken the heartfelt efforts to bridge the racial divide. Every time they cry racist, people listen even less. So, when it comes time to hunt down real prejudice, people are so tired of hearing the wolf-cries, they don't listen nearly as closely as they should.

I'm glad Imus got fired. I'm glad the Duke lacrosse players were exonerated.

I wonder if my old colleague feels the same way.

Labels: , , , ,

10 Comments:

Anonymous Uncle Anonymous said...

Reading this made me feel exactly the same way I did 4 years ago: my blood boiled. I wanted to so badly take that person by the throat, smack them around, and say "what the fuck is wrong with you??? These are two of the most loving, accepting, wonderful people I've ever known!"

You two weathered a big storm on this one and I'm sure you learned a lot. But it's still a class you didn't ever want to enroll in, and you didn't deserve to have to sit through that entire semester.

Much love from your gay-ass, jew-dog, stoneriffic friend (who also happens to have extremely nappy hair, and, at times, can be a bit of a ho himself).

2:40 AM  
Blogger Zippy said...

"Do these guys look like drug dealers or what?"

You know, the part that pissed me off is that I'm the one who said this to the PIO in question back in graphics when we were recording the mugshots to tape, before we ever came to the newsroom. To this day, I've never seen a mugshot that more clearly showed what a person got arrested for, and it didn't have a damn thing to do with their race.

But nowhere in the investigation/inquisition did anyone ask me about what was said prior to him showing you the mugshots, and when I tried to mention it to managers, I was rebuffed.

Her demotion in the Great Anchor Switch is about the only good thing to come out of it.

5:24 AM  
Blogger Student of Life said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

10:01 AM  
Blogger Student of Life said...

Zip,
We never knew you did this. We thought absolutely no one stood up for us. That means a lot, even now.
Thank you.
Uncle Anonymous,
We love your gay-ass, jew-dog, stoneriffic self, and yes, your hair is certainly nappy. BUT, there is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT. :)

10:06 AM  
Blogger Special K said...

wow

5:11 PM  
Blogger KajaPoker said...

Until you mentioned it, I didn't even get that the two dealers were black. It was a complete surprise. I don't know how you showed such restraint. I would have outed this reporter for all to see. What a loser.

5:22 PM  
Blogger Easycure said...

I had something similar happen to me in Tennessee by a particular backward ass country you-know-what. He was white and didn't like the fact that I empathized with someonw who was not white.

I live in Washington State becuase of it. I was happy to get out of there. Too bad there are some people, and I'm talking of all races, that choose not to make decisions about other people for themselves.

Not everyone is like that in Tennessee, or anywhere else. But there are enough of them out there to be discouraging.

I also, have never written about it. And probably will not.

8:56 PM  
Blogger Joaquin "The Rooster" Ochoa said...

If, in my low moments, in word, deed or attitude, through some error of temper, taste, or tone, I have caused anyone discomfort, created pain, or revived someone's fears, that was not my truest self. If there were occasions when my grape turned into a raisin and my joy bell lost its resonance, please forgive me. Charge it to my head and not to my heart. My head -- so limited in its finitude; my heart, which is boundless in its love for the human family. I am not a perfect servant. I am a public servant doing my best against the odds. As I develop and serve, be patient: God is not finished with me yet.

Jesse Jackson

10:39 PM  
Blogger golden said...

A particularly fine post written by what seems to be a particularly fine human being. Thanks for taking the time to be honest and share your story.

5:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello I will put my name because I want people to know who in the hell I am this is John Brown in Greenwood South Carolina and I just want to say what happen to Brad and his wife sucked because me being a disabled man was showed great repect by Brads wife when she worked at that channel thats a hell of alot more that I can say about some of them pinheads up there in with some just by watching them do not know what in the hell they are talking about and as far as being disabled how some of them at that channel treat us disabled they have no right to talk about anyone else being bigoted or racist

12:52 AM  

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