Defamation and Responsibility

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WHEN is someone, or some group, ``racist''? As American society becomes more pluralistic, controversies about this question increase. Washington mayor Marion Barry called the press corps ``racist.'' Commentator Andy Rooney was recently slapped with a three-month job suspension (now lifted) by CBS for racist comments he allegedly made to a journalist. Black muslim minister Louis Farrakan broke a long press silence last week saying charges he is antisemetic are ``unfair.''

In academics, politics (both office and electoral), and in the media these days, charges and countercharges of ``racism'' fly back and forth like bullets across the OK Corral, often with nearly the same result. This kind of Wild West epithet-slinging needs to be tempered.

As America learns to live with ethnic diversity, all sides deserve fairness and justice. A kind of reverse McCarthyism needs to be avoided - where simply to level a charge can incriminate, and permanently taint. More thought and better and more responsible ground rules need to accompany charges of ``racism,'' if the charges are to be taken seriously.

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Even though Mr. Rooney has been reinstated by CBS after a month-long suspension, his case raises several potential dangers.

First, punishment without facts. There was no proof Rooney made the alleged statements (he denies them). The reporter did not tape the interview. The public did not hear it. We don't know if Rooney was quoted out of context, or trapped by leading questions.

Second, the dulling of discourse. Columnists are paid to think in controversial and challenging terms. No one benefits if charges of racism have the effect of censoring ideas and speech.

Third, hypocrisy. CBS suspended Rooney. At the same time, CBS sells, and pays huge sums to promote, rap and rock music that contains overtly racist and sexist lyrics. Justice ought to serve more than the bottom line.

Today, far fewer Americans oppose racial equality than a generation ago. Arguments usually take place over how to achieve rights. If the issue of racism is not raised responsibly, individuals can be labeled racists simply for holding views about which honest and intelligent people disagree - from sanctions against South Africa to public school curriculums. One can be convicted by the mob-rule of popular thought.

People deserve to be judged at least as much by their record as by allegations. In the current Texas governor's race, Democrat Ann Richards is being attacked for allegedly using the repugnant term ``wetbacks'' in a 1976 speech, referring to illegal aliens. Former San Antonio mayor Henry Cisnersos (D) defends Mrs. Richard's liberal record on Hispanic civil rights.

Racist thinking and acting, when clearly established, should be condemned. So should any careless or manipulative labeling of others as ``racist.''

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