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Esquire Joins Race-Epithet Controversy

November 29, 2006

Essay Urges, "Send N------ on Their Way"

John Ridley

The current issue of Esquire magazine—"Man at His Best"—features an essay called "The Manifesto of Ascendancy for the Modern American Nigger" that argues before Esquire's white, male, affluent readership that the people the author labels with that description are "the oppressed minority within our minority" and that "we need to send niggers on their way."

The decision by Esquire to publish the piece, written by John Ridley, a black novelist and producer, has prompted William Jelani Cobb, a black author and writer who teaches history at Spelman College, to call for a boycott of the magazine and its advertisers.

William Jelani Cobb

The piece in Esquire's "Genius Issue" was published before the controversy involving "Seinfeld" comedian Michael Richards' repeated use of the racial epithet this month in a tirade at a comedy club, for which he has apologized.

For its part, Esquire, which is not believed to have any African Americans on its editorial staff (a spokesman did not reply to an inquiry about that), defended its decision as thought-provoking and told Journal-isms in a statement, "To date, we have received a great deal of mail and e-mail from readers about Ridley's essay—most of it from African-Americans—and the preponderance of the response has been positive."

Ridley told Journal-isms the piece was in fact about a 2001 incident in which a U. S. reconnaissance plane got into a tangle with a a Chinese J-8 interceptor jet off the coast of China, and "Condi and Colin. . . pulled the administration out of a Retro Guard-dug hole" with diplomacy. The references are to Condoleezza Rice, then national security adviser, and Colin Powell, then secretary of state; and to the "Retro Guard" of "Dick Cheney and Donald Rusted," or Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Ridley contrasted Powell's and Rice's behavior with that of those who, after a black man was shot by police in Cincinnati that year, rioted. "Nearly $4 million in damage to the city, most of it in predominantly black areas that could ill afford economic downturn. Record levels of homicides, particularly among blacks, as the police, hamstrung by new rules of engagement, could no longer effectively protect the very people who had demonized them," he wrote.

His piece was about the difference between what he called the two types of African Americans. Ridley, 42, told Journal-isms he hoped his piece would reach beyond Esquire's audience, and that the racial epithet no longer bothers him because "it doesn't mean anything."

The objections to Ridley's piece ranged from its use of the epithet in its headline and text, to its premise and the quality of its writing.

Ridley defined those who should be sent "on their way" as "Always down. Always out. Always complaining that they can't catch a break. Notoriously poor about doing for themselves. Constantly in need of a leader but unable to follow in any direction that's navigated by hard work, self-reliance. And though they spliff and drink and procreate their way onto welfare doles and WIC lines, niggers will tell you their state of being is no fault of their own. They are not responsible for their nearly 5 percent incarceration rate and their 9.2 percent unemployment rate. Not responsible for the 11.8 percent rate at which they drop out of high school. For the 69.3 percent of births they create out of wedlock."

On the e-mail list of the National Association of Black Journalists, Robbie Morganfield, director of the Freedom Forum's Diversity Institute, objected. "I am amazed at the suggestion that blacks who have 'made it' should feel OK calling blacks who have not—i.e.: those living on the margins and in the projects, etc.—'Niggers.' This is absurdity at its height," he said.

"Frankly, I was so stunned and offended by the article . .. that I flipped to the end, waiting for a punch line. I mean, this just had to be satire, right? No one could be this mean-spirited and unnuanced. Could they? Tayari Jones wrote on her blog.

"Ridley's essay would be inflammatory had it been published anywhere, but publishing an article in a magazine with a 97% white readership that derides 'niggers' and attempts to highlight the differences between them and 'good black people' is highly irresponsible. Moreover, Esquire would never publish a piece that sought to distinguish in earnest between whites and crackers, Italians and wops or women and bitches,' another reader wrote Journal-isms.

Cobb said in an open letter, "There are two questions on the floor: one is why Ridley chose to adopt such a stereotypical view of the black poor; the other is why your editors were so willing to take his assessment on face value. Esquire has never run an article dividing white America into 'good citizens' and 'crackers' and I highly doubt that you would make such an editorial decision."

He also called the piece poorly written and edited, though he said he had liked some of Ridley's other work. "Not only was the essay inflammatory, it was semi-coherent and very poorly edited," Cobb said. "A sharp editor would have pushed Ridley to question his presumption that African Americans disdain Condoleezza Rice because they perceive her as a 'Tom'—especially when, statistically speaking, no one in the Bush Administration is very popular with black Americans. The possibility that Ms. Rice is unpopular because she is part of an administration that is unpopular was ignored. Her standing can't be solely about blacks lauding street ethics over hard work as Ridley claims because black folk weren't referring to Jocelyn Elders, Thurgood Marshall, Ron Brown, Oprah Winfrey, Bob Johnson or other blacks as 'Toms.'"

Nathan Christopher of the Hearst Corp., which publishes Esquire, said in a statement to Journal-isms:

"Esquire consistently publishes thought-provoking pieces about the issues of our day, and recent examples include John Ridley's essay about black America (December 2006), endorsements for all 504 races in the midterm elections (November 2006), a controversial prison profile of "American Taliban" soldier John Walker Lindh (July 2006), and an exclusive inside account of the excessive interrogation techniques used by the armed forces in Iraq (August 2006). All of these pieces are intended to promote discussion and debate.

"Ridley's essay, in which he called for a redefinition of the idea of success in Black America, is a particularly timely instance of Esquire examining the state of our nation. To date, we have received a great deal of mail and e-mail from readers about Ridley's essay—most of it from African-Americans—and the preponderance of the response has been positive."

Meanwhile, the Michael Richards episode continued to generate commentary, including from Ridley, who asked, "what exactly do you call a couple of black guys who go to a public place where people paid money to enjoy themselves and who then begin to yell and scream at the person on stage who is trying to do his job?"

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Lee Persuaded Teams to Fund Morehouse Program

Photo credit: Morehouse College
Filmmaker Spike Lee discussed the proposed sports journalism program with Morehouse students on Nov. 14. He raised $721,000 in seed money.

Major League Baseball, ESPN, the "Got Milk" Fund, filmmakers Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, and the New York Mets, Yankees and Knicks were among those whose contributors helped director Spike Lee raise $721,000 to begin a sports journalism program at Morehouse College, school officials told Journal-isms Wednesday.

As reported on Friday, the program is to be a journalism and sports concentration, which will offer the first courses in the spring. The program will operate under the English department for now, as a concentration, according to Elise Durham, spokeswoman for the historically black Atlanta school.

"The hope is to grow the program into a minor and later a major. That is a ways down the road though. For now, we are concentrating on hiring a director for the program," Durham said.

Kathleen Johnson, assistant to the Morehouse president for its capital campaign, said these contributors gave directly to the program: Major League Baseball, the "Got Milk" Fund, ESPN, TBWA/Brand Experience Company Charity, Upper Deck Trading Card Co., New Era Cap Co., Johnson and Murphy Productions, New York Yankee Derek Jeter's Turn2 Foundation and Shareef Abdur-Rahim of the NBA's Sacramento Kings.

Lee held a fundraiser May 12 aboard the cruise ship Freedom of the Seas to celebrate 20 years of filmmaking at his 40 Acres and a Mule Productions. The $50,000 sponsors included Spielberg, Lucas and the Mets, Yankees and Knicks. Their money went to Morehouse and to the New York University Film School, both of which Lee attended. Lee presented Morehouse with a $325,000 check, which included some of his own money, on Nov. 14.

The filmmaker's campus appearance included a panel discussion to talk about the proposed program, with David Cummings of ESPN: The Magazine, Curtis Bunn and Ronnie Ramos of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Reggie Roberts, vice president of football communications for the Atlanta Falcons, Tara August of Turner Network Sports, and Ike Reese, linebacker for the Atlanta Falcons on the panel.

"The program was originally an idea sparked between Lee and his close friend, the late Ralph Wiley," Chad Sanders wrote in the Maroon Tiger, the campus newspaper. "Wiley, former senior writer for Sports Illustrated . . . was 'a giant of journalism,' said Lee. When the two came up with the idea in 1999, they took it to Morehouse President, Dr. Walter Massey, who was originally skeptical of how the curriculum would fit into a liberal arts college. However, Lee assured Massey that such a program was necessary, as the prominence of black athletes in sports should be equally represented in the coverage of sports." Lee, a Morehouse alumnus, is also on the board of trustees.

The program is to start in the next semester with a course in basic news writing, said English Department Chair Paul Wiebe.

A director is to be chosen by the end of the spring semester, and about 15 people have already applied, he told Journal-isms. Word was spread during the National Association of Black Journalists convention in Indianapolis this summer, Wiebe said.

The job announcement says the salary is negotiable and that, "Preference will be given to candidates with either a Ph.D. in Mass Communications or an M.A./M.S. in Journalism, supplemented with significant academic/professional experience. The successful candidate will have college teaching experience, a familiarity with academic administration, a notable record of publications (scholarly or prominent trade publications), and evidence of academic, professional, and public service. Salary is commensurate with qualifications and experience."

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Bebe Moore Campbell Services Scheduled Saturday

Funeral services for journalist-turned-novelist Bebe Moore Campbell, who died Monday of complications from brain cancer, are planned for Saturday at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, her publicist said Wednesday.

Campbell, 56, was a parishioner at the church, which seats about 1,500 and is the oldest African American church in the city.

Publicist Linda Wharton Boyd said the speakers had not been determined.

Family hour and viewing is scheduled from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., followed by the services. The church is at 2270 South Harvard Blvd.

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In Crises, Baquet Brothers Leaned on Each Other

Newspaper brothers on E&P cover
Dean Baquet, the ousted editor of the Los Angeles Times, and Terry Baquet, the Page One editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, have leaned on each other during a year that has been trying for both of them, according to a cover story on the brothers in the Nov. 27 issue of Editor & Publisher.

"Dean and Terry both say that the travails of the past year—both in New Orleans and in Los Angeles—required a lot of phone time and familial support. 'We talked all the time during the storm,' says Dean. 'There were a couple of nerve-wracking moments when I couldn't get through. I just wanted to hear [Terry's] voice,'" Joe Strupp writes in the piece, which is available so far only to E&P print magazine subscribers.

"Terry agrees, adding that during the recent upheavals at the Times, he sought to help Dean work through the issues. 'He is a hero in the business right now,' Terry remarks, but he is quick to note his brother's heroism for the family as well. During the weeks that he had to work out of the Times-Picayune's makeshift office in Baton Rouge while his wife and two children were stuck in Georgia," after Hurricane Katrina, "Terry says Dean was often the only person to whom he could vent. 'I would sit out on the front steps and talk to him, I would break down to Dean,' Terry recalls about the first few weeks after Katrina when he was living out of a dormitory at Louisiana State University and keeping in contact by cell phone. 'There were instances when it was hard, I really missed my family. Dean offered to do anything he could.'"

The piece also discusses the day Dean Baquet was ousted. "'When I first heard about it, it kicked me in the gut,' Terry Baquet recalls about the day he learned from Dean that he was losing his job. 'When it happened, it was like a sick parent who is ill, and then dies. You're not surprised, but you still don't expect it,'" the piece said.

"Terry, six years younger than Dean and the baby among five brothers, got word of the pending departure on Oct. 31. Driving through New Orleans after dropping off his brother, Rudy, Terry's cell phone rang with the bad news. 'I pulled up in front of my house, sat in my car, and we talked about it,' he says of the morning conversation. 'I didn't want it to happen, I felt awful for him. I wanted the earth to move so he could stay in Los Angeles.'

"Dean's only request to his brother: 'Keep it discreet.'"

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ABC Paid $1 Million "Kill Fee" Over O.J.

"The O.J. Simpson book debacle seemed like an unmitigated disaster for media mogul Rupert Murdoch and his maverick publisher Judith Regan," Johnnie L. Roberts reported in Newsweek's online edition. "In fact, Murdoch's empire had reaped a financial windfall before the embarrassed mogul cancelled publication of . . . 'If I Did It.' Newsweek has learned that ABC's Barbara Walters had explored so seriously the idea of doing a Simpson interview to promote the book that when she balked at proceeding, ABC's Entertainment division had to pay Murdoch's publishing arm a 'kill fee' of as much as $1 million.

"Kill fees are common in the publishing industry and in Hollywood. Typically, such a fee is paid after a prospective buyer has made a good-faith commitment to a project (although not necessarily signed a contract) before ultimately rejecting the content."

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Documentary Looks at Lack of Diversity in TV News

"Color Bars: Rants, Race and Ratings," "takes a look at the state of . . . television news. The documentary highlights the fact that not only has diversity become a casualty of the 'new' television news landscape, but so too is journalism," its producer, Tom Jacobs, says. "The 'dumbing down' of news appears to be epidemic in television newsrooms."

The 30-minute piece was produced by Jacobs in cooperation with the Kiplinger Foundation's Fellowship Program in Public Affairs Journalism at the John Glenn Institute for Public Policy at Ohio State University, where the veteran broadcaster was on a fellowship.

Included in the piece are Maureen Bunyan of Washington's WJLA-TV; former CNN anchor Bernard Shaw; CBS correspondent Byron Pitts, researcher Bob Papper; Ysabel Duron of KRON-TV San Francisco; professor Pamela Newkirk; media writer Eric Deggans; Karen Dunlap and Keith Woods of the Poynter Institute; Barbara Cochran of the Radio-Television News Directors Association; Michael Jack of NBC; Greg Morrison, formerly of Black Family Channel; Sally Lehrman of the Society of Professional Journalists; Pamela Strother, formerly executive director of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association; Antonio Mora of WBBM-TV in Chicago; Paul Mason of ABC; Lee Thornton of the University of Maryland; Mark Dawidziak of the Cleveland Plain Dealer; John Butler of WEWS-TV in Cleveland; and Belva Davis, pioneer Bay Area broadcaster.

"The new definition of diversity is blond or brunette," Pitts says. "The world is getting browner and management is getting whiter."

The piece won praise in Wednesday's Shop Talk TV news newsletter. "Diversity -- now wouldn't that be a great investigative story for the sweeps . . . 'Tonite see how we cover your community with smoke and mirrors!' Only on My television station!" wrote Fidell "Butch" Montoya.

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Short Takes

  • Eric Easter, who for the past three years was director of communications of Washington Post-Newsweek Interactive, is joining Johnson Publishing Co. as chief of digital strategies, he told Journal-isms on Wednesday. Easter, 44, worked for the Howard Dean Democratic presidential campaign in 2004, and later the successful campaign of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Warner in Virginia. He published One, among the first online African American magazines, in 1994 and 1995.

  • Univision will air a half-hour special exploring AIDS in the U.S. Hispanic community on Saturday, 25 years after the epidemic first began gaining traction, Moses Frenck reported Monday for Marketing y Medios.

  • "Right now," CBS has no plans to replace Ed Bradley on "60 Minutes," the show's publicist, Kevin Tedesco, told Journal-isms on Wednesday, knocking down an item in the Cindy Adams gossip column in the New York Post.

  • "American Gangster," chronicling "the life and times of some of Black America's most notorious crime figures," debuted on Black Entertainment Television on Tuesday. "The show will explore without glorifying, and investigate without celebrating these criminal-minded men and women," BET said. The series is produced by noted music writer Nelson George. A reader named Jazzfan wrote to EURWeb.com: "So when is BET airing the 'American Scholar' series, showing Black people who used their minds to affect positive change?"

  • The weekend police shooting in New York that left a bridegroom dead "is proving again how far Sharpton has come since the days he was routinely derided as a race-baiting, publicity-hungry opportunist," Nahal Toosi of the Associated Press declared on Tuesday, speaking of activist the Rev. Al Sharpton. On BlackAmericaWeb.com, Tonyaa Weathersbee wondered, "Is 'Knucklehead Culture' Contributing to Incidents with Police That Invariably End Badly?" In the Washington Post, Courtland Milloy asked Wednesday, "Where is our Rev. Al Sharpton?"

  • "The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the one-year jail sentence handed down to a Yemeni editor for reprinting Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad," the organization reported Tuesday. "A court in the capital Sana'a sentenced Kamal al-Aalafi, editor-in-chief of the Arabic-language weekly Al-Rai Al-Aam, on November 26. It also banned him from practicing journalism for six months after he leaves prison, and it suspended his newspaper for six months."

  • In Boston, "Channel 7 anchor Frances Rivera's workday is about to get a lot busier," Jesse Noyes wrote Wednesday in the Boston Herald. "After winning the plum co-anchor job on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7)'s 11 p.m. newscast last month, Rivera will also take a lead spot on a new 10 p.m. news on sister station CW56, Channel 7 officials said."

  • "At a time when general-interest newspapers are trying to evolve from dropping editions on driveways to delivering news via the Internet and hand-held gadgets, some industry analysts say publications that serve niche groups may face an easier future," Nick Madigan wrote Tuesday in the Baltimore Sun, focusing on black newspapers in general and the Afro American newspapers in particular.

  • "The first privately owned English-language daily, the Palestine Times, was launched Monday in the West Bank and Gaza, with its editors aiming to provide news about the region to English speakers abroad," Mohammed Daraghmeh wrote Monday for the Associated Press.
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Richard Prince's Journal-isms originates from Washington and is published Monday, Wednesday and Friday. (Full disclosure: Richard Prince works part-time at the Washington Post and is editor of the Black College Wire.) For newcomers: The words in blue (on most computers) are links leading to more information. The Web site BugMeNot.com provides passwords and user names to some registration-only news sites.

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