By George E. Curry
Between the drama surrounding the arrest of George Zimmerman for the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla. and the White terrorists who killed two Blacks and injured five others in Tulsa, you may have missed the news about CNN Anchor Don Lemon, an African-American, defending journalists who use of the n-word while reporting on hate crimes. In case you missed it, let me bring you up to date. The discussion about use of the n-word grew out of reporting on a racial killing spree in Oklahoma. On Good Friday, Alvin L. Watts, 32, who is White, and Jacob C. England, who is 19 and describes himself as White, though he is a Native American, went on a random shooting spree, killing three innocent African-Americans and wounding two others.
The day before, England posted on his Facebook page, “Today is two years that my dad has been gone, shot by a f—— n—–.” Of course, England did not mention that authorities determined that the Black man who shot his father was acting in self-defense. In discussing the case on CNN, Lemon argued that when used in proper context – such as referring to England’s rant – the actual n-word should be used in direct quotations. To substitute “n-word,” he contends, lessens the impact of the slur.
“I think it takes the value out of what that word really means, especially when we are reporting it,” Lemon said. “And I don’t care what color the reporter is, I think someone should say, ‘That person calls someone nigger’ instead of saying the n-word because I think it sanitizes it.” CNN correspondent Susan Candiotti did not sanitize the word the next day. After saying, “Please excuse the language, it’s very sensitive,” she quoted the Facebook post about England claiming that his father had been killed by a f—— n—–.”
Anchorwoman Fredricka Whitfield said, “We apologize to our viewers for the profanities used.” It wasn’t just the vulgarity that merited an apology. And this wasn’t the first time a CNN correspondent had used the n-word. Last month, CNN reporter Drew Griffin used it while reporting on Deryl Dedmon, a White Mississippian convicted of running down a Black man with his truck and killing him.
Griffin said, “To be absolutely factual, at the end of this, Deryl Dedmond is laughing with his friends and actually called on his cell phone and, pardon my language, but there is no other way to say this, and said, ‘I just ran over that f—— n—–.’” Griffin used the actual words. Let’s indeed be absolutely factual. The n-word, according to Merriam-Webster, “ranks as perhaps the most offensive and inflammatory racial slur in English.” When we hear someone refer to the n-word, we understand exactly what they mean and don’t need to hear the full word to realize the depth of the insult.
Contrast Lemon’s argument for uttering the n-word with the controversy that surrounded New York Knicks sensation Jeremy Lin, who is of Taiwanese descent. The nation has been mesmerized by the exploits of Lin, who blossomed from benchwarmer to star for the Knicks. After the Knicks lost to the New Orleans Hornets 89-85 amid “Linsanity,” a writer for ESPN.com posted the headline, “Chink in the Armor.” The post was removed within 35 minutes and the offending journalist was fired. Also, ESPN anchor Max Bretos was given a 30-day suspension after asking, “Is there a chink in the armor, where can Lin improve his game?” ESPN did the right thing in disciplining insensitive journalists. Just as it was wrong to use a slur in connection with Lin, it is equally obnoxious to rationalize the use of the n-word. There is no “context” that warrants its use.
Once you go there, the floodgates are open for every derogatory word used to insult women, gays, Jews and Polish immigrants, to name a few. In one comment on CNN.com, a viewer applauded Lemon’s position on the n-word and urged him to start using the f-word – he said the actual word – to describe homosexuals.
In discussing the n-word, Lemon said, “I hate it in music. I hate those kinds of things. I hate it when it’s misogynistic and rap and all of that. But what I’m saying is in the reporting of a story, you should say the word not to sanitize it.”
I don’t know of anyone other than Don Lemon who considers the n-word – even when not spelled out – sanitized. Instead of standing for Cable News Network, CNN should stand for Can Not (use) N—–.
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service and editorial director of Heart & Soul magazine. He is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. Curry can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.