Earlier this month in the Florida Panhandle, Franklin County Commission Chair Cheryl Sanders sought to end a debate over wages paid to department heads by declaring, “Today’s not the day to do it. We’re … not to be up here Jewing over somebody’s pay. I can’t believe that you all would put a man down who has worked here for 26 years because he don’t have a high school education.”
Jewing? Really? (We’ll leave the grammatical lapse for another day).
The story was written by the paper’s city editor, David Adlerstein, who is Jewish. The incident might never have gone beyond the fishing and vacation haven on Florida’s “Forgotten Coast” if her inflammatory language hadn’t been posted July 15 on the media Web site jimromenesko.com.
Adlerstein told me he neither corrects the grammar nor sanitizes the words of officials, which is why he did not insert a less loaded word such as “negotiate” in brackets along with an explanation that the actual utterance “might be offensive.” He also said a few current and former journalists made “hostile inquiries” as to why he did not change the word, or at least criticize Sanders for using it.
(He is running an excoriating guest column by Ron Sachs, a Tallahassee media consultant and lobbyist, in the paper July 18, he said.)
Adlerstein contends that while Sanders, a Democrat first elected in 1998, can sometimes be politically aggressive, she’s no anti-Semite, a breed of bigot he knows well because his father headed the Columbus, Ohio, Anti-Defamation League for years.
Sanders did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but did apologize at the start of the July 16 commission meeting: “On July 2, there was a statement I made that offended. I used a word that was offensive to some people. It was in the heat of argument and it was a poor choice of words and I’m sorry. If I have caused any hardship to the people or employees of Franklin County, I’m sorry. This is a heartfelt apology.”
Sachs, who is Jewish and owns a vacation home in the county, wasn’t buying the Sanders mea culpa. “When you show your butt in public as this commissioner did, and then try to cover it with a half-*&%^ apology, you have double-mooned the public. It is completely lacking in contrition. That ‘poor choice of words’ was her choice of words, and the apology does not address the fact that the comment reflected ignorance or prejudice.”
Adlerstein perfectly understands that the term — which he said he did not capitalize lest it equate with the most religious and philanthropic members of the Jewish community — “is rude, it’s crude, it’s unrefined, it’s offensive, but it is not being used as an anti-Semitic crack. If that sounds like I’m an apologist, that is not me. I am not a self-hating Jew and I am not an ignorant Jew who is unaware of the pain of my people.”
He told Romenesko that “I have heard the expression on more than one occasion around these parts in my dozen years at the paper,” and “It doesn’t offend me, unless it’s used to describe someone who cheats you. But haggling and dickering? To me, it’s a proud trait of my tribe, and it’s a solid cut above cold-hearted stiffing someone with a pious grin. But that’s me.”
Several Romensko commenters were angered more by Adlerstein’s “proud trait” defense than the original statement by Sanders, who discussed the incident with Sachs on July 15.
“My view is that she either said it with ignorance or that it was a slur. She at first denied it. She told me she said ‘jawing, with an ‘a,’ not Jewing, but I listened to the tape and saw the video.” Sachs also told me that Sanders explained in a later call that “’it was slang, not a slur.’”
Whatever her explanation, Sachs found it plain unacceptable. “For someone in 2013, an elected public official, to be using the word ‘Jewing,’ she needs to be outed … I think what she did was despicable. What appalled me almost as much as the chair of a government body in the fourth most populous state in the country was that not one of her four peers, and no one in the audience, said anything at the time.”
In addition to sensitivity training, Sachs suggests that Sanders may also need a strong opponent in the next election.