We’ve sometimes run Washington Post Writers Group columnists Richard Cohen’s columns here on The Moderate Voice when the other two columnists we’ve used were on vacation. He has walked into a political firestorm and — if he understands the way today’s politics and Internet work — should have known better. Was he just making a point about racism, or being a racist? The Huffington Post has the latest:
Richard Cohen says that his latest piece was not intended to be and shouldn’t be read as racist.
“The word racist is truly hurtful,” he told The Huffington Post on Tuesday. “It’s not who I am. It’s not who I ever was. It’s just not fair. It’s just not right.”
The Washington Post columnist came under fire on Tuesday for writing that “people with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children.” He insisted that he was expressing the views of some people within the Tea Party and not his own.
A typical reaction came from Charles Johnson, of the lively blog Little Green Footballs:
If you feel the need to vomit when you see a white man married to a black woman… yes, that’s racist. In fact, that’s pretty much the archetypal example of racism, and why the hell are we even debating it? It’s difficult not to suspect that Cohen is projecting his own feelings onto “people with conventional views.”
Could that be the case? People will differ depending on their individual life’s experiences, or political viewpoints. And Cohen has written columns before that some felt raised eyebrows on the question of race. But if you give him the benefit of the doubt you have to conclude that he should have known better. In the Internet age every word that a columnist writes is examined.
“I didn’t write one line, I wrote a column,” Cohen said. “The column is about Tea Party extremism and I was not expressing my views, I was expressing the views of what I think some people in the Tea Party held.”
And those views are not held by the entire Tea Party. “I don’t think everybody in the Tea Party is like that, because I know there are blacks in the Tea Party,” he said. “So they’re not all racist, unless I’m going to start doing mind reading about why those black people are there.”
When asked if he believed that people who do “have a gag reflex” at the idea of interracial marriage are in fact racist, he said that he did. “I could have picked a better word, but it didn’t ring any bells with anybody, it didn’t ring any bells with me,” he continued. “But there is a context to the column. You’ve got to read the whole column and if you read the whole column you can’t honestly think that these are my views or I endorse the views that I articulated in the column.”
The fact that Cohen left himself wide open (whether he is a racist or not so choose your category) is underscored by The Huffington Post’s interview with a Post editor, who was dismayed over the controversy but in hindsight felt perhaps another word could have been used:
Fred Hiatt, editor of the Washington Post editorial page, said Tuesday that he should have edited Cohen’s “conventional” line to prevent misunderstanding.
Cohen said that no editors objected to the phrasing the first time around. “Nobody, not a single one of my editors — and believe me, they’re super sensitive to this sort of stuff — said, ‘Wait a minute.’ They all knew what I meant because of the context of the column. I was talking about tea party extremism. And it’s clear.”
He added, “Look, maybe the word was inappropriate or maybe I could have used a different word. But you’re talking to somebody who has written, I don’t know, 100 columns in favor of homosexual rights, many columns in favor of same sex marriage.”
Fair enough, but modern politics — blogging in particular — often focuses on THAT post or THAT column or THAT comment and doesn’t put a post, column or comment in the context of the totality of someone’s work. It’s what did you write or say now. And people can be upset over what they perceive a writer says or feels rather than what the writer really feels or says.
Editing is supposed to avoid such problems, although sometimes in America’s current political climate it is difficult. A blog such as The Moderate Post gives people who are trusted contributors codes and they post when they want. Posts are often not edited, or lightly edited, or there is after the fact editing if there is a warning flag. High level newspaper columns such as Cohen’s go through editors, as do news stories on newspapers. When yours truly writes his syndicated column for Cagle Cartoons, it is proof read by several people (and even then occasionally an error that we all miss goes through) and then sent out by Cagle for distribution to newspapers and websites. When I do my contributions to The Week, an editor there reads it carefully and may compress things or change the wording. He is trained to look at it very carefully.
Assuming that the totality of someone’s work will protect them from a column that is over the line, flawed or misunderstood is a bad assumption. Cohen will survive and the totality of his work will always be there. But totality will not prevent a column from being attacked if it is perceived as being out of line.
P.S. All professional journalists are experts in hedge words. A few additional hedge words or rewording would have spared Cohen a very bad day and likely loss of some readers.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.