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Open mouth, insert foot. Now repeat.

By by Kim CampbellStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 27, 2003



Media personalities are losing paychecks this month, and not because of downsizing. It's because racially charged comments about everything from football to filmmaking are emerging from their mouths and keyboards.

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Their choice of words in a society where political correctness prevails means they are having to exercise their apology skills. But their punishment shows that saying "I'm sorry" is not always enough - at least when it comes to perhaps the most highly charged issue in America today.

Rush Limbaugh quickly ended his career as a TV sports commentator on ESPN after he claimed the media were trying to boost the career of a black quarterback - which didn't go over well with some viewers and the sports community. At the same time, a pair of Boston talk-radio hosts joked that an escaped gorilla found at a bus stop was probably from an inner-city school busing program - and were suspended without pay when advertisers started pulling ads.

More recently, Gregg Easterbrook, a senior writer for The New Republic, suggested in an online column that the greed of Jewish studio executives might be to blame for excessive violence in movies. One of those he named was Michael Eisner, the head of Disney, which also owns ESPN.com, which quickly ended Mr. Easterbrook's job moonlighting for the site.

While these men work on repairing their reputations, others are pondering how to deal with racially charged remarks and the punishment they should carry.

Many in the media are being reminded that, despite the anything-goes atmosphere that prevails in the entertainment industry, there are still topics that can offend - and race heads that list. "We seem to be more offended by stereotypes than ... by grotesque bodily-function discussions on public broadcasting," says Tim Graham, director of media analysis at the Media Research Center in Washington.

Minority and special-interest groups often take a zero-tolerance approach when it comes to controversial statements - and are among the first to want to see offenders get the boot. But those who monitor free speech say punishing offensive remarks is a delicate business.

"It's tricky, because on the one hand, social progress is advanced by a certain type of blatant racist and sexist comments not being acceptable anymore," says James Weinstein, a law professor at Arizona State University. But the flip side is that "we have to be careful that we don't punish people for ... asking hard questions, or even saying offensive things that have some critical inquiry behind them."

If a chilling effect is happening, some say it's media outlets themselves that are causing it. Nervous media groups, concerned they will lose viewers and ad revenue because of controversial employees - even those who were hired to be controversial - are giving offenders the ax.

ESPN didn't put up a fuss when Mr. Limbaugh offered to resign several days after his comments caused outcry. It was subsequently even quicker to dispense with Easterbrook. Boston's WEEI-AM extended its initial two-day suspension for the two radio hosts to two weeks after the community and advertisers protested.

But The New Republic, while apologizing to readers, based its decision to keep Easterbrook on his overall record, an approach legal scholars are more comfortable with. "We did not fire Gregg Easterbrook because he's a superb journalist with a decades-long track record and he's not an anti-Semite," says Peter Scoblic, the magazine's managing editor. "For us, it really wasn't under consideration."

When it comes to racially charged comments, part of the problem is knowing what will be a punishable offense in the eyes of the public. One man's stupid remark is another's hate speech, notes Todd Boyd, author of the just released book, "Young Black Rich & Famous."

He says the discussion about race has gotten off track since the 1960s, and that people have started to assume that, unless someone's being dragged behind a pickup truck, it's not racism. "People have a hard time understanding how language and words play into racism," says the University of Southern California professor.

That idea is familiar to David Howard. He's become the example observers point to when they say that the definition of what's punishable needs to be narrowed. Four years ago, Mr. Howard was working for the mayor of Washington, D.C., and used the word "niggardly," which means stingy, in conversation with several staff members. Rumors spread that he had used a racial epithet, and to take the heat off the mayor, he resigned. The public, including some African-American leaders, came to his defense. The mayor reinstated him, and he works for his office today. But Howard still thinks about what he could have done differently.

"My mistake was that I didn't think about race. And if I had, I wouldn't have used that word," he says.

Boyd calls the "niggardly" incident "silly." But he offers this reminder about free speech: "If an individual is free to say what they think, another individual is free to criticize that." Boyd is not a fan of blindly punishing people - which he thinks is a predominant attitude since Sept. 11. Instead, like others, he'd prefer to see more attention focused on improving discussions about racism, and figuring out "How do we get better?"

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