** Updates Below **
So by now you know that Paula Deen skipped out on the Today show this morning, earning her a brusque on-air quasi-rebuke from the hosts of the show, one of whom, Matt Lauer, says he had talked to Deen as recently as yesterday about her upcoming interview. Supposedly, she actually made it to New York City for the show but, at the last minute, bailed, her handlers saying that she was suffering from "exhaustion." Somewhat in her defense, I'd imagine it really is taxing watching your entire crappy cooking empire go down the drain. Either way, she's now vanished into the ether somewhere, no doubt trying to figure out how to clean up this mess.
While it's not tough to imagine a 66-year-old, rich, white woman from Georgia blithely rattling off a "nigger" here and there and having detailed fantasies about the Civil War-era South, I tried really hard to give Deen the benefit of the doubt when the story of her apparent casual, maybe even unintentional racism first broke. I did this because it was the kind of bombshell story that truly did have the potential to end her career, or at least put it through one hell of a wringer and as much as I truly can't stand Paula Deen, I wanted to make sure that the instant trial by media fire to come would be deserved. Then of course the details of what Deen had said came out -- we got the opportunity to read the actual transcripts -- and, yeah, it's damn ugly and pretty much indefensible. The potential effect on both her and her status as a genial purveyor of grotesquely fattening foods, one whose synonymous-with-Southern-cooking name is all over various products and TV shows, can't really be overstated.
And that's what makes her apparent decision to keep that usually gaping maw of hers shut so thoroughly confusing.
Certainly, facing some tough questions on Today would've been, well, tough. But there's no way in hell it would've been worse than the subtle scorn heaped on her by the show's hosts for canceling at the last minute and the cries of "coward" from the masses who'd simply like her to explain herself. Deen's breaking every single rule of effective disaster PR by staying silent through all this. She should've gotten out in front of it the minute it broke wide and just taken her licks, falling on every sword within a hundred miles of her and saying that she never even realized how awful it is to think and behave the way she occasionally does. And if she doesn't believe she did anything wrong, then have the guts to say it, consequences be damned. Either of those options is better and more worthy of respect than saying nothing at all.
But instead, she's clammed up completely, leaving herself open to mockery on Twitter, disappointment from those possibly willing to consider her side of the story, and worst-case-scenario imaginings from just about everybody.
She needs to drop whatever she's doing and address this controversy. Not for anyone demanding answers but for herself, because the longer she waits the more this wound gets infected and the more likely it is to eventually be beyond treatment. This thing could be a career-killer, especially if she lets it.
Update: I hate it when that happens. No sooner had I finished writing this than it broke that Paula Deen just posted an online video taking full responsibility for what she said and did. Here's the salient quote: "I want to apologize to everybody for the wrong that I’ve done. I want to learn and grow from this. Inappropriate and hurtful language is totally, totally unacceptable. I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way but I beg you, my children, my team, my fans, my partners, I beg for your forgiveness." So, what do you think? Is it enough? Was it still, to keep the #PaulasBestDishes meme alive, Chicken-shit à la king to post a quick clip to YouTube rather than answering questions from the press about this whole thing?
To be honest, I don't think Paula Deen's fans are much going to care one way or the other; they'll love her, racism or not. In fact, if she gets dropped, look for Deen's food, restaurants, etc. to become the next inadvertent cudgel in the culture war, with Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee proudly standing in line with the rest of the doughy tourists outside The Lady & Sons in Savannah and tweeting pictures of their smiling mugs chowing down on Paula's artery-clogging goodness just as a means of juvenilely kicking politically correct liberals in the nuts. Hell, maybe Deen can become the new spokesperson for Chick-fil-A.
Update to the Update: Food Network just dropped Deen.