Politicians will do anything to minimize their awful behavior, including the blatant deployment of euphemisms. And sometimes news outlets swallow them.
In just the latest bit of upheaval from Richmond, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring confessed that he’d put, uh, something on his face: “In 1980, when I was a 19-year-old undergraduate in college, some friends suggested we attend a party dressed like rappers we listened to at the time, like Kurtis Blow, and perform a song,” noted Herring in a statement. “It sounds ridiculous even now writing it. But because of our ignorance and glib attitudes — and because we did not have an appreciation for the experiences and perspectives of others — we dressed up and put on wigs and brown makeup.”
Which is to say, “blackface,” a racist tradition whereby white folks dressed up as black folks for the express purpose of mocking them and profiting from the spectacle.
The New York Times, in its writeup, used the term “dark makeup” to describe the racist behavior to which Herring had admitted. That decision drew some commentary:
The backlash came from all quarters and carried the unmistakable import of history and common sense. “Dark makeup” is dark makeup; trying to impersonate a black person by applying dark makeup is blackface. The latter was clearly the activity to which Herring was copping.
The New York Times adjusted its presentation accordingly, and its headline now reads, “Second Virginia Democrat Says He Wore Blackface, Throwing Party Into Turmoil.” The newspaper, among many other media outlets, has swarmed Richmond ever since last Friday, when BigLeaguePolitics.com published a 1980s medical school yearbook page from Ralph Northam, the state’s governor, with a picture of two people, one in blackface and the other in a KKK costume. Northam flip-flopped on whether he was in the photo — with his latest version insisting that he wasn’t — but in a Saturday news conference, he volunteered that he’d used blackface for a Michael Jackson dance contest in San Antonio.
New York Times Politics Editor Patrick Healy explained the whole thing on Twitter:
Speed imperatives do indeed produce par-baked journalism. Like any other self-respecting news organization, the New York Times wanted to be competitive with its “dark makeup” opus. But who reviewed it?
The Erik Wemple Blog has asked Healy about the review process. Was the piece reviewed by a person of color? How about a copy editor? The newspaper, after all, ended its traditional copy desk in 2017. We also asked Healy whether his Twitter thread was an apology or just an explanation. His email response: “My thread was an explanation. I started doing Twitter threads in early January about Times politics stories in hopes of being more transparent about our intent and thinking on coverage and to provide context about the pieces, in part to be responsive to readers and growing interest in political journalism and the 2020 campaign coverage.”
As for the questions about editing, Healy declined to comment. “I generally don’t comment on editing practices,” he wrote.