The news story that started it was a segment about a curious ape at the Oklahoma City Zoo.
Jason Hackett and Alex Housden, co-anchors for the morning news show at KOCO 5 TV, called up a video of Fin, the zoo’s baby western lowland gorilla. Fin’s caretaker had taken over the zoo’s Instagram for the day, capturing footage of the ape recording selfie videos.
“As you can see, Fin was fascinated,” said Housden, who is white.
“Definitely ready for his close-up there,” added Hackett, who is black.
As the broadcast cut to the traffic report, Housden made a final comment.
“Kind of looks like you when you take a picture,” she said.
“Yeah it does, actually, yeah,” he said. “Very close to the camera.”
What followed was outrage from viewers, who called into the station and wrote on Facebook that Housden’s comment was racist and amplified an ugly stereotype about black people.
The slur — comparing black people and those from Africa to monkeys, gorillas or apes — is entrenched in world history. It has been used by politicians to insult former first lady Michelle Obama, by U.S. presidents to criticize U.N. delegates and by the founders of modern political thought to term people with black skin as subhuman.
The day after their dialogue about Fin the gorilla, Hackett and Housden engaged in a much more somber on-air conversation about racism, word choice and cultural education in an America that is growing more divisive every day.
Almost immediately, Housden began to cry.
“I’m here this morning because I want to apologize, not only to my co-anchor Jason but to our entire community,” she said, touching her co-anchor’s arm.
“I said something yesterday that was inconsiderate, that was inappropriate, and I hurt people. And I want you to understand how much I hurt you out there,” Housden continued, turning her eyes from the camera to her colleague, “and how much I hurt you.”
Hackett sat beside Housden on a couch as she spoke.
“I love you so much, and you have been one of my best friends for the past year and a half, and I would never do anything on purpose to hurt you,” she said. “And I love our community, and I want you all to know from the bottom of my heart: I apologize for what I said. I know it was wrong, and I am so sorry.”
Next, it was Hackett’s turn to speak.
“Alex, thank you very much,” he said, tapping her knee as he addressed her. “I do accept your apology, and I do appreciate your apology.”
Hackett turned to the camera.
“I want to let everybody out there know that Alex is one of my best friends,” he said, explaining that they often talk outside of work and share personal matters about their lives. Hackett said that he appreciated her.
“I do love you,” he said. “All that being said, and Alex would be the first to say this to you. What she said yesterday was wrong. It cut deep for me, and it cut deep for a lot of you in the community.”
Hackett said he had heard viewer phone calls and saw their angry Facebook messages. He explained to the viewers that just as a doctor uses a scalpel or a plumber uses a wrench, broadcasts use words as the tool of their trade.
“Coming out of this, I want this to be a teachable moment,” he said. “The lesson here is that words matter.”
Because of changing demographics nationwide, a shift that is making the United States more racially and culturally diverse, Hackett emphasized the importance of ownership and education. He said ignorance is “no excuse.”
“We have to understand the stereotypes,” Hackett said. “We have to understand each other’s backgrounds and the words that hurt, the words that cut deep. We have to find a way to replace those words with love and words of affirmation, as well.”
That education, he said, should be used “not to hurt and not to divide, but to build a more perfect union.”
Hackett said that process is going to be a “journey” for him and his colleagues.
“We’re learning things here,” he said. “And we at KOCO 5 hope that you join us.”
Hackett and Housden did not immediately respond to a request for comment. KOCO 5 president and general manager Brent Hensley said in an email Tuesday that “Alex’s apology and Jason’s acceptance of the apology and comments on the broader are sufficient” comment. Asked if Housden was disciplined for her on-air comment, Hensley said “personnel matters are private.”