Topic: Media

Race Bully Ethics: Of Golf, the Media and Cowardice

An off-the-cuff remark on a cable channel once again raised the ethics issues entwined with political correctness and the language police.

There is a big difference between a slip of the tongue that inadvertently sounds insensitive or insulting, and words intended to hurt. The slip—an innocent mistake—is not ethical misconduct at all, and the proper remedy is usually an apology. Words intended to hurt are often unethical, however, and punishment is sometimes part of the remedy.

Nobody seems to believe that Golf Channel analyst Kelly Tilghman had any hurtful intent, racist agenda or repressed racial animus when she responded to pro golfer Nick Faldo’s comment that competitors would have to “gang up” on Tiger Woods in order to beat him by saying, “Lynch him in a dark alley.” Woods himself, who is a friend of Tilghman’s, accepted her apology and said that he wasn’t upset by what was obviously a poor choice of words on live TV. “Tiger and Kelly are friends, and Tiger has a great deal of respect for Kelly,” Woods’ agent said in a statement released by Golf Channel. “Regardless of the choice of words used, we know unequivocally that there was no ill-intent in her comments.”

That should have been the end of the episode. But there are people lying in wait for such mistakes, fully prepared to harm the reputation and career of an innocent professional who makes an honest mistake in order to cry “Racism!,” garner publicity and exercise power by forcing organizations and institutions to submit to their demands for retribution. Their argument, to the extent that they have one, is that the only way to ensure that society will become sufficiently sensitive to the words, symbols and trappings of historical racism is to enforce a kind of strict liability for any communication that could possibly be construed as a racial insult, even if it is clearly not so intended. The Golf Channel was attacked by such critics, and because it is easier to be unfair to one employee than it is to make a principled stand against race bullies in the media and the political arena, it threw Tilghman to the wolves.

It suspended her without pay, saying “There is simply no place on our network for offensive language like this. While we believe that Kelly’s choice of words was inadvertent and that she did not intend them in an offensive manner, the words were hurtful and grossly inappropriate.” The statement makes no sense. Those who are truly “hurt” by mischosen words that clearly have no hurtful intent need to grow up or get psychiatric help. When Mitt Romney recently called Senator John McCain a “prisoner” of the Washington establishment, he was not intentionally making a cruel reference to McCain’s imprisonment in Viet Nam. It was a careless choice of words, but obviously a mistake. If McCain complained that he was “hurt” by the remarks, the public would correctly conclude that he, not Romney, had the problem.

Half-time ethics score:

  • Race bulliesUnethical: Unfair, exploitive, vindictive, unsympathetic, and dishonest.
  • Golf ChannelUnethical: Unfair, cowardly, disloyal, venal.
  • Kelly TilghmanNo ethics offense.

Now on to the exciting second half!

Because Tilghman’s gaffe stirred up a race controversy, thanks to the critics who wanted to make her gaffe a race controversy, Golfweek Magazine decided to make the episode its cover story for its January 19th issue. The inflammatory word in Tilghman’s comment was “lynch.” Dave Seanor, the magazine’s editor, decide to run a cover that, in accordance with basic graphic principles, consisted of a picture that made it clear what the controversy was about while attracting attention. The cover was a picture of a noose.

Golfweek fired him. “We apologize for creating this graphic cover that received extreme negative reaction from consumers, subscribers and advertisers across the country,” said William P. Kupper Jr., president of Turnstile Publishing Co., the parent company of Golfweek. “We were trying to convey the controversial issue with a strong and provocative graphic image. It is now obvious that the overall reaction to our cover deeply offended many people. For that, we are deeply apologetic.”

Golfweek’s actions are a little bit more complex than those of the Golf Channel. The magazine may have some legitimate and fair reasons to fire Seanor. Perhaps the readership was so offended by the cover that the magazine was facing a financial crisis. Perhaps advertisers were going to pull out. A more likely reason is that the magazine concluded that Seanor lacked a feel for his readers, and his judgement about how “edgy” a golf publication could afford to be was poor. These are legitimate calls for a publisher to make. But that’s not what Kupper said. He said that he was firing his editor because “the reaction to the cover offended many people.” What he meant was that even though his editor had done his job (“trying to convey the controversial issue with a strong and provocative graphic image”), the political correctness hit squad had decided to flex its muscles and force the magazine to bow in submission. That is cowardly and unfair.

Nobody contended that the magazine was trying to encourage lynching. The “offense” was a picture that exactly—exactly—illustrated what the story was about. Yes—lynching is a concept that evokes strong reactions in most Americans, especially African Americans. But lynchings happened. The word exists. The past cannot be banished in a democracy by people declaring that certain images and words are “painful,” “hurtful,” or “offensive” even when they are not being used to hurt, offend or cause pain. The free media, of all institutions, should be on the front lines, refusing to be censored, resisting the efforts of race bullies to dictate what concepts and ideas can even be mentioned or illustrated. Instead, it is in full retreat, allowing the language police to declare crimes without intent, and race bullies to tar non-racists with the stain of racism, because it suits their hunger for power.

Final Ethics Score:

  • Race Bullies and Language Police: Unethical
  • The Golf Channel and Golf Week: Unethical and Cowardly
  • Kelly Tilghman and Dave Seanor: Not Unethical, but victims anyway.

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