What are we afraid of?
Is a single word so frightening and powerful? And if it is, then when the president decides to use it, isn't that news? And aren't reporters obligated to report the news?
The president's quote, in a discussion of racism on comedian Mark Maron's podcast, was, "Racism, we are not cured of. And it's not just a matter of it not being polite to say nigger in public. That's not the measure of whether racism still exists or not."
The wisdom of the president's use of the word, and further, his decision to discuss his views on the existence of racism in the United States on a comedian's podcast, is not my subject today.
My subject is the obligation of journalists to report news as fully, fairly and accurately as possible. And not to treat the news-viewing, -listening and -reading audience like two-year-olds.
CNN and CBS aired a clip of the conversation with the word intact (CNN had initially demurred). The New York Times printed it. Fox and MSNBC censored it. According to Joanne Ostrow of The Denver Post, the Associated Press used the word intact, but its subscribers, NBC News and CBS News, edited it out, using "n----r."
I am all for civility, and I don't think newspapers have to use every obscenity and harsh characterization uttered, even when spoken by someone high up in the government. But, when the first African-American president in history chooses to use the vilest racial slur possible in a discussion of racism in America, that is clearly news. And the American public deserves to get the full benefit of his choice of words. Especially when it has been recorded, and there is not the shadow of a doubt that he said it.
And, this is different from when President Bush, unaware that the microphone he was speaking into was live, called a New York Times reporter "an asshole ... major league." No one was playing "gotcha" here with Obama; he knew precisely what he was saying and the level of reaction he was likely to provoke.
I am not a racist; I don't believe I have ever used that word. It is hurtful, mean, angry, demeaning and uncivilized. But when the president of the United States chooses to utter such a slur -- to make a point about the state of race relations in our society -- the public needs to hear it. Loud and clear, without ellipses, dashes, softening, or having it gussied up.
The word itself is not the shame.
Ruth Hochberger, a lawyer and journalist, teaches journalism and media law and ethics to graduate journalism students at New York University and the City University of New York. The former editor-in-chief of the New York Law Journal, a daily professional newspaper for lawyers in New York, she writes frequently on the intersection of law and journalism.
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