Language Barrier

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Ben Cohen
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By Chez Pazienza

Well, it was good while it lasted.

A couple of weeks ago, CNN correspondent Drew Griffin -- who's an old friend of mine going back to our time together at KCBS in the mid-90s -- caused a minor stir by saying the word "nigger" live on the air during a report he was doing. Aside from that minor stir, though -- the instinctive gasping and clutching of pearls by outside media outlets always vigilantly on the lookout for the next non-controversy to create out of thin air -- what's significant is what happened on CNN in the immediate aftermath of the comment.

The CNN Center in Atlanta.

Nothing. Nothing at all. No sudden gasping for air followed by a harried apology. No public self-flagellation. No immediate scheduling of summit meetings with the NAACP followed by the commission of ten-part series on race relations in America hosted by Soledad O'Brien and Toure. Not a damn thing.

Why? Simple: because the word was used in the context of a news report. Griffin was relaying the exact quote of a man who had just pleaded guilty to running down and killing a black man in Mississippi. On the night of the crime, 19-year-old Deryl Dedmon called a friend on his cell phone and said about his victim, "I just ran over that fucking nigger," and Griffin wisely felt that replacing the actual epithet with some silly comfortable euphemism would diminish the awful heft of the statement. What Dedmon said was shocking in its sick barbarism and blatant racism -- and the public shouldn't be allowed to duck that shock. Griffin wasn't calling someone a name or hurling an insult in any group's direction; he was relaying information in the most truthful way possible, which is his job as a journalist. It doesn't sound like a big deal that no one at CNN freaked the hell out over Griffin's decision not to fully edit himself, but believe me, it is -- as evidenced by what happened when another CNN correspondent chose to use the word "nigger" in a report just a couple of days ago.

Susan Candiotti was describing the racist vitriol that had been unleashed on the Facebook page of Jacob England just hours before he allegedly shot five black men in Tulsa, Oklahoma and read a quote from the suspect without editing it at all: "Today is two years that my dad has been gone, shot by a fucking nigger," she said. Now admittedly Candiotti chose to use the word "fucking" as well as the racial slur while Griffin had edited the profanity from his own report, but it took all of a couple of seconds after she threw back live to Fredricka Whitfield in the studio for the anchor to issue an official apology to the audience on behalf of Candiotti and the network, presumably for offending its delicate sensibilities. Not long after, Candiotti herself doubled-down and publicly pleaded for mercy, saying that she regretted using such language.

Except that she shouldn't regret it. Not one bit.

It's not Griffin's, Candiotti's or any other journalist's job to protect people from the ugliness of the world -- it's the job of a journalist to relay that ugliness, if necessary, in the most truthful way possible. It's inarguably the case that we've bestowed upon the word "nigger" special status within our culture, tacitly decreeing that regardless of the context, it cannot be uttered by just about anyone ever -- particularly not anyone not of color. Because of this, otherwise educated, intelligent people -- the type who would normally rather step on a live land mine than risk looking stupid -- will gladly allow themselves to be reduced to spouting the vernacular of a parent looking to safeguard a four-year-old just to avoid speaking it. And really, no matter the alternative's power to offend and instigate, is there anything -- anything at all -- more painfully ridiculous than a grown man or woman chickening-out and saying, "the n-word?" It's an absurd verbal tip-toe that not only proves that there is apparently no safe context in which the actual word can be uttered, but also that there exists an implication that those whom one would expect to be angered by the use of such a word are a bunch of children who are so easily enraged that they can't discern between the desire to dehumanize and subjugate and the need to openly discuss, and therefore should be protected from hearing the word altogether, for the good of everyone. This latter possibility -- an indictment of an entire culture from some liberal Mount Olympus, whether out of condescension or outright fear -- is infinitely more offensive than the utterance of any one word.

As for using the word "fucking" on the air, any anger over that proves little more than how dumb the person taking offense is. In the end, it's simply a word -- an expletive -- and nothing more. It has power in its ability to relate anger, and that's why it makes perfect sense not to edit it during a news report if it happens to come up in someone else's language or as a quote, but in the end it's not as if it sends anybody to the hospital. It's just a word -- and not one CNN needed to apologize for.

It's time for the media to butch up when it comes to their willingness to tell the story in the most honest way possible, because the truth -- gruesome though it may sometimes be -- is what matters most in journalism.

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