Last night, Don Lemon introduced the 10 p.m. program “CNN Tonight” with these words: “This is what America is talking about right now. Does this offend you? It’s the Confederate flag,” said Lemon as he held up the flag. “Is it a symbol of Southern pride or a symbol of hate?”
He continued: “And then what about this, does this offend you, this word?” This time, Lemon held aloft a black poster with the word [N-word] in white letters. In showing the word, Lemon was bouncing off of one of the day’s big news stories, as President Obama had stirred controversy with his choice of words in an interview. “Racism, we are not cured of it. And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say ‘nigger’ in public,” Obama said on the podcast “WTF with Marc Maron.”
The president’s use of the word, of course, startled some commentators.
CNN’s editorial approach to the matter appeared to be a bifurcated one: Play the tape of the president saying the word, unedited, while resorting to common workarounds in describing the issue. For instance, “New Day” co-host Alisyn Camerota yesterday morning introduced the topic with these words: “He sat down for a radio interview with Marc Maron on his radio show. And it’s notable for several reasons. First, he speaks very candidly about racism, and he uses the N-word to do so.” Chyron displays also hewed toward caution:
An article on CNN.com repeating Obama’s choice of words carried this warning: “Editor’s Note: This article contains language that some may find offensive.” Other outlets found ways to avoid thrusting the word toward their audience. The New York Times, for instance, headlined its story “Making a Point, Obama Invokes a Painful Slur.” Yet it still quoted in full from the president’s remarks, as did other outlets.
The propriety of saying this word on CNN’s airwaves received a patdown last night on Wolf Blitzer’s “Situation Room.” Sunny Hostin, a CNN legal analyst, told Blitzer of her disappointment that President Obama had used the word. “I think language matters, especially when that language is coming from the leader of the free world, the president of the United States, especially as an African American man,” said Hostin. “I think what it does, quite frankly, Wolf, is give people the feeling that they, too, can use it. We hear that argument being made oftentimes. ‘Well, rappers use it, so I can use it too.’ ”
N-word references, suggested Hostin, were prohibited on CNN airwaves — a state of affairs undone by the president’s interview. At that point, Lemon broke in: “We have been able to use that word on this network for the entire nine years that I’ve been here,” he said. Guidance from the standards crew, said Lemon, has been that if an anchor is comfortable using the term, go ahead. Excessive use of the “N-word” formulation has the effect of “sanitizing” a racial slur, argued Lemon.
LEMON: If you’re using it in context of a story, and it is relevant, you should be able to say it. And in fact, I encourage people to say it, because I think…
HOSTIN: You’re encouraging people to use a racial epithet?
LEMON: … you should hear the — because you should hear the impact of the word. No, I’m not encouraging people to call people the “N” word. I’m using it in historically. If you are — I’m a journalist. Journalists are part of the record. It is our job to convey the truth and to tell people reality —
HOSTIN: It’s also our job to realize —
LEMON: It’s not our job to sanitize a word.
HOSTIN: — that there are certain words that should not be used.
This is barely a debate. What Hostin is advocating here is a world in which intelligent and sensitive people cannot possibly carry on an adult conversation about racism. Mainstream media outlets and others have swung way too far toward “protecting” their audiences from a term essential to understanding U.S. history. Perhaps one of the reasons that some folks have reacted so sharply to Obama’s invocation of the word is that big media outlets have spoken with a single voice: “N—–” shall not be uttered.
Lemon last night got hammered on Twitter for his placard stunt, as various jokesters inserted their own substitutes for Lemon’s little billboard.
With brainstorms like that, the anti-Lemon faction is attempting to lump the poster thing in with Lemon’s various instances of on-air stupidity. It doesn’t belong. What Lemon did is good TV and good journalism. Tiptoeing around the language of racist hatred helps no one.