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Blurring the Lines on April Fools' Day

By Ben L. Kaufman · April 3rd, 2013 · On Second Thought

I’ve written about mindless political correctness, but there was an eye-popping example on HuffingtonPost.com the other day: 

“Lincoln Journal, West Virginia Paper, Prints Anonymous Rant Claiming Gays, Minorities Be Put To Death.” 

The rant was screamingly offensive or brilliant satire at the expense of Appalachian culture. I’m undecided. 

HuffPost’s indecisive editors managed to be incorrect and offensive and their incoherent response to the rant was so politically correct that it was weird.

The subject of the newspaper article and HuffPost story was a rant left on the paper’s “Gripes and Gratitudes” phone voicemail. 

Apparently, the complaint arose from the unresolved controversy about Kelli Burns, a gay teacher recently fired by her school board. Here’s what the Lincoln Journal and HuffPost posted online, saying it was the verbatim transcript of that voicemail:  

“We were really glad to hear that School Board is getting rid of them queers. The next thing is we need to get rid of all the n****rs, the spics, the kikes and the wops. You know even them Catholics, they are wrong as baby eaters. We need to clear them people out and have good, white, God-fearing Christians and everybody else needs to be put to death for their abominations. We’ll keep Lincoln County white and right. Thank you.”

The Lincoln Journal didn’t bowdlerize “niggers” in its print edition. Or anything else: n****rs appeared only on the paper’s website. 

By including n****rs online in the transcript while spics, kikes and wops are spelled out, HuffPost gets goofy. In its online image of the rant printed in the Journal, HuffPost blacked out all four slurs: niggers, spics, kikes and wops. 

I’m tempted to suggest some possible reasons for this editorial meltdown, but neither makes much sense. That’s OK, neither did HuffPost.

The first reason may be HuffPost feared angry responses from Lincoln County’s 0.2 percent black population (U.S. Census, 2011). 

Or the second reason may be that there are even fewer Hispanics, Jews and Italo-Americans in Lincoln County and liberal HuffPost was willing to risk their wrath over the antiquated slurs.   

Local television station WCHS interviewed Lincoln County residents about the rant, and some said they were very offended by it. Janet Dooley, interim dean at Marshall University’s School of Journalism, said the rant “hit several of the markers of hate speech.” Brilliant. Sounds like a journal article in the making. 

In an interview with HuffPost, Lincoln Journal Managing Editor Sean O’Donoghue defended the decision to publish the rant in print and online. He said the firing of Kelli Burns was an emotional and widely read story the Journal had been following for several weeks.  

After the rant arrived on voicemail, O’Donoghue had Burns come in to the office, listen and give her perspective. Her reaction was filmed and posted on the newspaper’s website.

“Gosh, that just about says it all,” Burns said after listening to the rant. “It’s really hard to believe that opinions and such bigotry still exist anywhere in the world and especially also in West Virginia. But yet there you have a perfect example of appalling viewpoints and statements about other people.”

The paper ran the screed only after O’Donoghue inexplicably sought Burns’ permission to publish it. What would he have done if she said not to? After all, he told HuffPost, he hoped to raise awareness of local hate and bigotry. “We made clear, that while all readers are entitled to their views, we feel pity for people who resort to racial slurs.” 

Whether the caller’s views were representative of a “large swathe” of the populace was unclear, O’Donoghue added, but of the handful of people WCHS-TV interviewed, one supported the sentiment.

O’Donoghue said people outside of the county called him to complain about the gripe but few from inside the community had reacted so passionately. “What does that say?” O’Donoghue asked. “I think that says that people in the county are not shocked to hear somebody say that. Locally, there’s more of an understanding that there are people in our community capable of such hateful things.” 

Meanwhile, unrequited lust for Hispanic votes compelled GOP leaders to force Alaska Rep. Don Young to recant his “insensitive term” for Mexican farmworkers. Recalling his youth in rural California, the politically incorrect 79-year-old Republican told an Alaskan TV interviewer, “We used to have 50-60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes.”

That slur does “nothing to elevate our party,” Texan and Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn said.

Curmudgeon notes:

• Speaking of politically incorrect, Rick Green’s attempt at public service blew up in his face at the Des Moines Register. After the Newtown, Conn., massacre, Iowa’s dominant daily surveyed school security statewide. It posted the information on an interactive map along with its story.  

Kapow! Fox News and The Blaze.com, the right-wing web site started by Glenn Beck, went after the Register. As Fox’s Megyn Kelly put it, “If I’m some psycho, I might wanna play my odds.”

Green, a former Enquirer local editor who is boss at the Register, hoped to answer parents’ questions about police presence in school districts. Fox News, The Blaze and others focused on identification of unprotected school districts. 

Green said the map “showed no schools, showed no addresses (and) it did not go into detail” about security, but he killed the map.

Andrew Beaujon at Poynter.com says the Register did not tell readers what happened to the map. 

In a world of space-filling maps, graphics, etc., maps showing school security apparently have joined those showing owners of conceal/carry and other firearm permits. 

I recall that years ago, the feds discouraged publication of security information at such places as the Cincinnati Water Works where deadly chlorine is stored and used to treat drinking water. The information was published in the name of public safety: First responders, especially fire fighters, needed that information and some laws or regulations required its easy availability.

• How many structure fires do Cincinnati fire fighters fight every day? And how many “ambulance” runs do they make in those same, typical 24 hours? I haven’t seen that in news stories about reducing the city deficit. Firefighters do more than put out blazes, but is there a real threat to public safety if some are laid off to help balance the city budget? I’m not talking about the pain of being laid off — emotional as well as financial — but since the mayor and others tell us layoffs will threaten public health, I’d like numbers instead of reporters stenographically repeating what they’re told by partisans in this budget fight. 

• If I heard him correctly, Cincinnati mayoral candidate John Cranley wants to fight local gun violence by prosecuting perps under federal law. I hope the next reporter who hears this bullshit asks him how city prosecutors will do that. Or why Hamilton County prosecutors wouldn’t do the job using state laws. 

In almost 20 years of covering federal courts and agencies, I never found federal prosecutors and judges with any desire to prosecute persons who only violated the federal ban on possession by felons. This pattern continues although it could bring years in prison. That’s a powerful tool for taking bad guys off the street; possession doesn’t require using the weapon.  

But no one seriously expects the feds to prosecute this kind of stuff or federal judges to take kindly to tying up their courts with felon-in-possession prosecutions.  

New York Times op-ed columnist Joe Nocera is after the NCAA again, this time writing about rare coaches who stood up to the NCAA. His March 29 column includes an unflattering image of Bob Arkeilpane, then at SUNY Buffalo and now UC deputy director of athletics. 

The primary subject of that column is former SUNY Buffalo basketball coach Tim Cohane. Nocera says that Cohane’s essential complaint is that in 1999, Arkeilpane, the new SUNY Buffalo athletic director, “ginned up a series of phony NCAA rules violations to force out Cohane … NCAA obliged. Although the primary alleged violation — watching prospects work out in a gym — is incredibly insignificant, the NCAA charged Cohane with unethical conduct and hit him with a dreaded ‘show cause’ order. Any school that wanted to hire him as head coach would have had to explain its decision to the NCAA. Branded with that Scarlet ‘A,’ as (attorney Sean) O’Leary put it in court, Cohane’s career as a college head coach was over.”

Cohane is in federal court, trying to get his complaint before a jury. Defendants are NCAA, the Mid-America Conference and SUNY Buffalo. NCAA wants Cohane’s case dismissed, saying he has no standing to sue. Nocera said Arkeilpane “declined comment.” 

Nocera said Cohane also alleges that “a back channel developed between the conference and the NCAA as they conspired to give Arkeilpane what he wanted: a report that would doom the coach.” 

Nocera added that “a Buffalo assistant coach whom Cohane had decided to fire after he was caught in a hotel room groping two high school girls — a photo of the incident is part of the evidence — was the only one of Cohane’s staff to keep his job. The NCAA and SUNY Buffalo gave him a pass because he had aided in the investigation.” On April 2, Desiree Reed-Francois, senior associate athletics director at UC, told CityBeat that Arkeilpane “respectfully” would not comment but he looks forward to an opportunity to refute allegations levied against him in Cohane’s suit.

• If NPR did an April 1 story, the hoax was so good I still haven’t gotten the joke. However, someone’s bacon-flavored condom hoax soared. Even Jay Leno bit, warning guys not to use them when the dog’s around and remarking on the irony of the role of bacon and (women’s) eggs. Or maybe it wasn’t a hoax but a tasteless way to bring people to an existing product. Tuesday’s Enquirer says P&G did a hoax that went viral for a bacon-flavored mouthwash, but it was demur compared to the condom prank (or brilliant marketing ploy). 

• The New York Times was victim of an ugly hoax and it made it to Monday’s Page 1: Impoverished Afghan father must give 6-year-old daughter as a bride to the son of lender to whom he failed repay the equivalent of $2,500. The Times doesn’t do April Fools …  knowingly. But Tuesday, the Times said it was misled. An anonymous private donor repaid the debt weeks ago, but as recently as Friday, the father didn’t mention that to reporters. 

• Unless this guy suddenly went over the edge, West Virginia’s Supreme Court is stunningly slow to sanction unfit judges or local news media ignored a great story. Poynter.com credits National Law Journal for this gem:

“The West Virginia Supreme Court on March 26 suspended Putnam County, W.Va., Family Court Judge William Watkins III without pay until December 2016, citing 24 violations of the state’s judicial ethics rules. The justices said that, while in court, Watkins shouted profanities at people and threatened litigants. On one occasion, he called a woman seeking a protective order against her husband ‘stupid,’ they said. He told her to shut up and criticized her for ‘shooting off [her] fat mouth about what happened.’ One YouTube video of Watkins yelling at litigants last May has racked up more than 200,000 views.”

• It’s been years since the Enquirer had an environment reporter. Our Sole Surviving Daily left the position unfilled when the its last environment reporter left. That put the Enquirer in the vanguard of dailies and broadcasters who found little news in the environment that didn’t come from some distant news service: glaciers melting in the Himalayas, polar bears threatened in the Arctic and, maybe, climate change. So, in the celebration of sloth, here are some reasons to restore the Enquirer environment beat:   

Rivers and aquifers on which we depend for drinking water and food are threatened.  

Until natural gas or alternative energy replaces coal, pollutants from coal-fired power plants will continue to waft up the Ohio River valley and over us. Even when utilities meet horribly misnamed “clean air” standards, pollutants include brain-injuring mercury and lung-damaging soot.  

Coal is mined, moved and burned up and down the Ohio River valley. Environmental degradation from mining is well known; political battles to mitigate the damage and pollution are endless. 

Ohio oil and natural gas are abundant but require now-controversial “fracking” to extract. Any hope of near-term energy independence depends on those fuels, but industry secrecy and campaign donations degrade public debate about the environmental impacts of drilling. Dumping toxic fracking wastes into disposal wells and inescapable drilling leaks into underground drinking water are inescapable problems. 

Successful fracking means coal mining and transportation will suffer as cleaner, easily transported fuel becomes plentiful. 

The uptick in severe weather and partisan/scientific debates over climate change could be newsworthy, too, unless you don’t want to offend entrepreneurs who tell tourists that humans rode dinosaurs two-by-two on to a big boat to escape a global flood.

• News media should abandon euphemisms for medical risks and reassuring health studies. Tell us what the risks are and the studies said. The Enquirer all but abandoned serious medical reporting years ago, so I rely on the daily New York Times and its Science Tuesday sections. Recently, my frustration with Times reporting and editing boiled over. 

The Times said the FDA “toughened a warning” because the popular antibiotic, azithromycin, “may lead to a fatal irregular heart rhythm in some patients.” Pfizer markets it as Zithromax. 

The March 13 Times cited a study from the New England Journal of Medicine that found a small increase in the likelihood of death compared to other antibiotics. OK, but an increase from what to what, and who says it’s a small increase: Pfizer, the FDA, the NEJM, or Times reporter? Tell us the numbers. If we can swallow the pills, we can stomach the facts rather than indigestible adjectives.

A few days later, the Times produced a smarter, detailed story. It said Zithromax risks were almost triple those from the popular antibiotic amoxicillin or no treatment. That story attributed those results to a study of about “540,000 Medicaid patients ages 30-70 in Tennessee from 1992 to 2006.” And it gave context: “there were few sudden deaths … fewer than 100 combined among those taking azithromtycin, amoxicillin or no antibiotic.”

• Meanwhile, I asked Pfizer for the Z-pack risk numbers. Pfizer did not respond, unlike Merck, which provided details of risks that led it to take the painkiller Vioxx off the market. I’d contacted Merck after Times reporters covering Vioxx-inspired litigation mentioned “increased” risk without saying increased from what to what. Here’s what I wrote: 

“More than 2,500 people participated in Merck’s post-approval three-year clinical trial. It was analyzed in 0-18 month and 19-36 month periods. Merck found essentially no difference between people who took the placebo or Vioxx in the 0-18 month period. That changed in the 19-36 month period. Merck reported about one heart attack, stroke or other vascular death annually among every 263 patients given the placebo. However, among patients who received Vioxx during the same period, there was about one heart attack, stroke or other vascular death annually among every 70 patients. In short, for that 19-36 month period, Vioxx users faced more than three times the risk. During the entire 36-month clinical trial, patients taking Vioxx faced twice the risk of those given the placebo.”

• More recently, the Times wrote about corporate pressure on physicians to use Intuitive Surgical Inc.’s robotic da Vinci Surgical System in place of conventional surgery. The story recounted questions over da Vinci cost and safety and surgeon training. It quoted responses from Angela Wonson, Intuitive’s vice president for communications.

Wonson said studies showed that da Vinci produced better outcomes than conventional open surgery and “the most objective” measure of its robotic equipment is in the “comparative clinical outcomes.” The Times does not tell us what those studies or “comparative clinical outcomes” were. I’m not sure what’s worse, a reporter who didn’t ask or editors who let this into the paper without describing the reassuring studies or comparative clinical outcomes. 



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