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Vanity Fair poll: Was slavery or treatment of Native Americans the biggest ‘ethical misjudgment’?

Vanity Fair, in partnership with “60 Minutes,” set off a firestorm this week by publishing a  poll that forces readers to play the divisive game of who suffered the most as a result of U.S. acts of oppression: African slaves, Native Americans, victims of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki or the victims of the Vietnam or Iraq wars. The poll asks readers to choose between what editors label the worst “misjudgments in US history.”

Misjudgments? Not exactly how I would characterize the sustained acts of terror against whole populations, but I digress. The fact that Vanity Fair’s poll was followed by a question that asked “Which is worse ethically when it comes to fast food restaurants” just adds insult to injury.

Vanity Fair runs a monthly poll, and this month the magazine partnered with “60 Minutes” to gauge reader attitudes on morals. Nearly a week after publication, it is clear that Vanity Fair editors do not understand the poll is offensive.

“The poll is about ethics, or the lack of them,” said Beth Kseniak, the magazine’s executive director of public relations. “When we asked the question about the biggest ethical misjudgment in U.S. history, we were simply curious about how Americans view their past.”

Not only does the Vanity Fair/”60 Minutes” poll make the mistake of minimizing atrocities inflicted upon African slaves and indigenous people in this country or victims of the Vietnam or Iraq wars, it also — albeit perhaps unintentionally — pits historically marginalized groups against each other, as if one brand of suffering was worse than the other. Competing in “Oppression Olympics” is one way to ensure communities of color remain marginalized.

It’s not the first time mainstream media has pitted groups one against the other; it’s not even the first time for Vanity Fair. The magazine is noted for how it negatively portrays or excludes people of color, particularly women of color. Not only was it criticized last year for ignoring women of color in its Hollywood edition, editors also angered some readers by featuring this puzzling image of scantily clad ladies to illustrate its article on powerful women in television in 2012. Earlier this year Vanity Fair reportedly lightened Lupita Nyong’o’s complexion, exploiting tensions involving colorism within African American communities.

Vanity Fair’s target audience is predominantly affluent, mostly white women with a median household income of $165,000 a year, according to its media kit. Kseniak claims editors have gotten no complaints about the poll, and she declined to make an editor available to discuss the matter.

Other media, such as Vox.com, described the poll as “a bit strange” and noted its results. (38 percent – Slavery; 20 percent – Treatment of Native Americans; 13 percent – Vietnam War; 11 percent – Iraq War; 7 percent – Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.)

Writing for PolicyMic.com, Zak Cheney-Rice calls the poll “absurd.”

“… The logic behind such a poll provides a convenient out for the parties who’d otherwise be held accountable, specifically by turning practical conversations into abstract debates,” Cheney-Rice says.

The Native American Journalists Association was the first to call attention to the issue when Indian Country Today, which reports on American Indian communities, published a short article under the headline: “Rate That Genocide: Which Was Worse, Slavery or Treatment of Native Americans?” Indian Country Today’s piece was an effort at satire that fell flat.

Chris Napolitano, creative director for Indian Country Today, said the article was posted to expose the “offensive premise of the Vanity Fair poll,” but was later removed after realizing his Web site had only succeeded in doing what Vanity Fair had done.

“… Intent is useless if the execution is shoddy. And clearly it was. The headline had an element of satire to it but didn’t name the target of the satire. The body text of the article was not satirical at all. The graphic from the Vanity Fair site, presented at face value, only muddled things further,” Napolitano said via e-mail. “Our piece ended up offending readers in the same way the Vanity Fair piece had offended us. To those readers who were troubled by the headline and article, we say: We’re sorry.”

Leaders of the Native American Journalists Association said they are happy that Indian Country Today removed the article and offending headline. The association is now setting its sights on Vanity Fair.

“We hope that outlets will exercise sound judgement and cultural sensitivity in both the newsroom and in published content,” said Tristan Ahtone, vice president of the Native American Journalists Association. “Holding organizations accountable for their actions will hopefully facilitate conversations about making better decisions in the future.”

Tracie Powell writes regularly about the media for several publications. She is the founder of allDigitocracy.org, a blog that focuses on the intersection of technology, media and policy.

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