Posts Tagged ‘race’
Just past midnight on March 3, 1991, a Los Angeles man named George Holliday was awoken by police sirens.
Curious about the noise, Holliday grabbed his “clunky Sony Handycam” and stepped out on his balcony, according to the Los Angeles Times. The nine minutes of videotape he proceeded to capture that night changed the world.
He recorded the indelible images of white police officers beating an unarmed black motorist named Rodney King. According to Wikipedia, Holliday “contacted the police about a videotape of the incident but was dismissed. He then went to KTLA television with his videotape.”
The video, which aired thousands of times, spawned deep anger inside L.A.’s black neighborhoods. Local residents watched the resulting criminal case against the four white LAPD officers closely. On April 29, 1992, the four officers were acquitted of assault, sparking a week of rioting in Los Angeles that resulted in 53 deaths and more than 2,300 injuries.
Rodney King died yesterday at 47.
I was a college freshman when the beating occurred and remember how shocked we were not only by the brutal beating, but by how one random man’s videotape was responsible for the world learning about the story.
It’s difficult today to remember a time when every citizen wasn’t armed with a smartphone containing a built-in video camera. Holliday largely ushered in an era of citizen journalism in which everyday people armed with video cameras perform the functions once performed solely by “professional” reporters. (Yes, Abraham Zapruder’s famous tape of John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination could also be considered citizen journalism, but cameras then were mostly purchased by hobbyists, not the broader public).
Today, we’re well aware that anyone with a camera can suddenly become a journalist. It’s common to see citizen journalists provide the first bloody pictures of national revolution, broadcast the first images from a school shooting, or conduct an ambush interview with a politician.
The legacy of citizen journalism that Holliday’s video helped leave behind is mixed. On the plus side, it allows ordinary people to expose bad behavior or share images the world would otherwise never see. On the downside, it complicates communications for people who would otherwise be able to communicate more freely.
As an example, the number one question I hear from executives today about social media is this: “How can I prevent employees from secretly recording staff meetings and uploading the audio or video to YouTube?”
The answer, in short, is that they can’t.
Tags: George Holliday, media analysis, race, Rodney King, social media
Posted in Media Training Analysis | 2 Comments »
The Internets are abuzz today with news that GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum targeted “black people” who receive Medicaid, while ignoring that the majority of recipients are white.
The heads of the NAACP and National Urban League were both quick to blast Sen. Santorum for his comment, which he is alleged to have made last Sunday during a campaign appearance. And the two leaders would be right to attack Santorum’s comment if he actually said it.
But I don’t think he did. Here’s the clip in question:
On first listen, it indeed sounds like Santorum says “black,” making his quote appear to say:
"I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money. I want to give them the opportunity to earn the money and to provide for themselves and their families…"
But listen again. The word “black” makes a hard sound – “ack” – and Sen. Santorum’s word did not. Upon careful listening, it seems to me that the word ends in an “ah” or “igh” sound. Plus, he addressed the comments to “you” (the crowd), meaning that “black people” would have made little sense in that context.
Mr. Santorum says that he was stumbling for another word and accidentally combined two different thoughts in a single jumbled word. As a professional speaker, I admit that that happens to all of us sometimes, so I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
But assuming that Mr. Santorum is indeed innocent, his response to this mini-crisis has been awful.
First, he told CBS News’ Scott Pelley that:
“…he wasn’t aware of the context of his remark, but mentioned that he had recently watched the movie ‘Waiting for Superman,’ which analyzes the American public education system through the stories of several students and their families.”
But by last night, his explanation changed when he spoke to CNN’s John King (fast forward to 2:10):
Notice how Mr. Santorum’s response is loaded with hedged, tentative language:
“I looked at the video, and I don’t, in fact I’m pretty confident I didn’t say ‘black.’ What I think I started to say a word and sort of mumbled it and changed my thought. I don’t recall saying black.”
He’s “pretty” confident? He “thinks” he started to say another word? "He doesn’t “recall?”
If he didn’t say the word black, he needed to say so unequivocally. This type of statement would have been far superior:
“I absolutely did not say the word black. I started to say another word and mumbled it and changed my thought. I would never make the statement I’m alleged to have made, especially because it would have been factually incorrect – more Caucasians receive Medicaid than anyone else, so it would have made no sense to single out a particular group.”
What do you think? Do you buy Sen. Santorum’s explanation? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
Tags: election 2012, gop, race, rick santorum
Posted in Crisis Communications | 4 Comments »
Niggardly (adverb): grudgingly mean about spending or granting. Synonyms: cheap, chintzy, close, closefisted, mean, mingy, miserly, niggard, stingy, parsimonious, penny-pinching, penurious, pinching, pinchpenny, spare, sparing, stinting, tight, tightfisted, uncharitable, ungenerous – Merriam-Webster Dictionary
I was speaking to my wife yesterday when I referenced the word “niggardly.” She immediately thought I had said something racist. (In fact, the word traces back to the 1300s, derives from the word “miser,” and has nothing to do with race.)
Our exchange reminded me of a controversy that occurred in the late 1990s when I lived in Washington, D.C.
David Howard, the head of Washington, D.C.’s Office of Public Advocate, used the word “niggardly” when speaking about his budget. At the time, Mr. Howard, who is white, was speaking with two African American employees. The employees thought he had used offensive language, and word got out that he had said something racist. Mr. Howard quickly resigned, and DC Mayor Anthony Williams, who is black, accepted his resignation.
Normally, that would have ended the crisis. But then Mr. Howard received support from unexpected places. Julian Bond, the head of the NAACP at the time, jumped to Mr. Howard’s defense:
"You hate to think you have to censor your language to meet other people’s lack of understanding. David Howard should not have quit. Mayor Williams should bring him back — and order dictionaries issued to all staff who need them.”
So here’s the question: What should your crisis response be if you say something that sounds offensive, but technically isn’t?
Should you resign because you’ve used a word that could be easily misconstrued, or should you fight back and point to other peoples’ ignorance? In this case, I place most of the blame on Mayor Williams. He should have refused to accept Mr. Howard’s resignation and issued a statement along these lines instead:
“Mr. Howard was using a word that means ‘miserly,’ and which has nothing to do with race. I’m not going to accept the resignation of a talented public servant just because some people didn’t know the definition of the word. That said, I might suggest that people working for city government try to avoid using the word from now on. We’ve all seen how easily words can be misconstrued in a city that has too often had a difficult racial history, and we can express the concept of ‘miserly’ without using a word that’s so easily misinterpreted.”
Within a couple of weeks, Mayor Williams finally did the right thing – he offered Mr. Howard his job back. In a statement, Mr. Williams admitted the obvious: “I believe I acted too hastily in accepting David’s resignation."
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Tags: Anthony Williams, crisis communications, David Howard, race, Washington DC
Posted in Crisis Communications | 6 Comments »
Marilyn Davenport, an elected Orange County Republican official, sent an email containing a racist photo to a few of her friends last week. The photo showed President Obama as a baby ape, playing to the most vulgar stereotypes about African-Americans.
After being confronted by the media about the photo, Ms. Davenport sent a defiant email to her fellow Orange County, California Republican leaders on Saturday. That email reads, in part:
“I will NOT resign my central committee position over this matter that the average person knows and agrees is much to do about nothing. Again, for those select few who might be truly offended by viewing a copy of an email I sent to a select list of friends and acquaintances, unlike the liberal left when they do the same, I offer my sincere apologies to you–the email was not meant for you.”
As you might imagine, that response didn’t sit well with many people – including some of her fellow Republican officials. So on Monday, she tried again – this time, with a much more humble tone:
"To my fellow Americans and to everyone else who has seen this e-mail I forwarded and was offended by my action, I humbly apologize and ask for your forgiveness of my unwise behavior. I say unwise because at the time I received and forwarded the e-mail, I didn’t stop to think about the historic implications and other examples of how this could be offensive. I would never do anything to intentionally harm or berate others regardless of ethnicity. Everyone who knows me knows that to be true."
In reading this interview with Ms. Davenport, I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps, as she says, she did something stupid, reflected about it, realized what she did was wrong, and feels genuine remorse. And I do appreciate that she came to the right conclusion within a few days instead of continuing to defend her bad behavior – plenty of public officials dig their heels in and never admit culpability in any form.
But Ms. Davenport’s second, more humble apology was badly undercut by her first, defiant apology. Many readers will conclude that she said what she actually meant in her first statement, and said what she thought she should in her second.
One of the most difficult things for people in crisis is to go straight for the second apology. Their instinct is to go for the first apology, which allows them to defend their motives, actions, and honor. But that rarely works.
Imagine if Ms. Davenport had gone straight to the second apology instead of releasing the first one. Sure, people would have still been upset. But the story would have had fewer days of shelf life, and more people would have believed her statement was sincere.
Tags: Marilyn Davenport, media training disaster, media training disasters, race
Posted in Crisis Communications | 1 Comment »
Remember ALF, the 1980s sitcom that millions watched but no one actually admitted watching?
Last week, a new outtakes clip from ALF hit the Internet, in which the actor playing ALF made a series of offensive comments.
Warning: This clip contains offensive language.
People have long debated the appropriateness of racist language in comedy, and I don’t intend to enter that debate with this blog post. It’s not much of a leap, though, to suggest that many people surely find the actor’s use of the “n-word” offensive. That the actor also mocked people with Tourette’s Syndrome (a topic of a then-recent L.A. Law episode) and aimed sexually explicit jokes toward a female co-worker is also notable, but not the topic of this post.
Instead, I’d like to highlight the response of a former ALF associate producer, Steve Lamar, who was asked by TMZ about the new outtakes clip earlier this week:
“You’re talking about 20 years ago when the world was not so ridiculously PC. Anyone that’s offended needs to lighten up already.”
The problem, according to Mr. Lamar, isn’t that an actor used words on-set that are offensive to a wide swath of Americans – but rather that those Americans are “ridiculous.” Plus, his inference that the n-word was acceptable in the 1980s seems rather dubious.
Instead of simply apologizing, Mr. Lamar chose to dig in, extending the shelf-life of the story and diminishing his reputation. His comment reminds me of the one that forced former Sen. Trent Lott to resign his leadership post in 2002 (his quip at a birthday party for Sen. Strom Thurmond seemed wistful for simpler, more segregationist times).
If given another chance to comment, Mr. Lamar would be wise to simply express his regret for the use of racist language on the ALF set and apologize to those offended by the incendiary words.
He might take a lesson on tone from MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, who offered a textbook apology after unintentionally stepping into a racial minefield with Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele earlier this year:
Finally, I’m not sure why Mr. Lamar even chose to comment on-the-record, as the clip doesn’t suggest he personally uttered any of these words. But if he’s going to comment, he better get it right.
Note: The video’s caption, “Alf Say Bad Words VERY FUNNY!!!” was given by the video’s poster, not by me.
Tags: ALF, crisis communications, race
Posted in Media Training Analysis | Please Comment »