Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The daily noose

Our country's tortured, tangled racial history -- that briar patch we try to negotiate, that minefield we desperately try to stay clear of -- recently claimed two new victims, both part of a news media that really should know better by now.

The latest case of accidental insensitivity began on Jan. 4, in a broadcast on the Golf Channel. Kelly Tilghman, one of the channel's anchors for coverage of the Mercedes-Benz Championship in Hawaii, was talking with golf legend Nick Faldo, and speculating on the likelihood that Tiger Woods, a golfer for all time, would win the event.

Tilghman, a former touring golf professional and the PGA Tour’s first female lead on-air announcer, talked on the air with Faldo, jesting about what younger golfers could do to stop the force of nature on the links that Woods has become since winning his first Masters in 1997.

"To take Tiger on," Faldo said, "well, yeah, they should just gang up for a while until -- "

"Lynch him in a back alley," Tilghman interrupted with a laugh, speaking in apparent jest and with no malice aforethought.

“That’s right,” Faldo said.

The more ethnically sensitive among you will notice the word "lynch," a word synoymous with an action freighted with an anguished history for African Americans. Tilghman was advised, after the broadcast, that she had uttered the unforgivable, given both the current national touchiness about race matters, and the deep impact Woods has made on the game as a golfer without equal. Tilghman was suspended on Jan. 9 for two weeks, despite an apology to the Golf Channel, its viewers and Woods (a friend of Tilghman for a dozen years).

The verbal faux pas reverberated quickly. Al Sharpton weighed in on CNN, saying the comment was “an insult to all blacks” and calling for her firing.

Woods, the soul of graciousness, said through his agent that "regardless of the words used, we know unequivocally that there was no ill intent in her comments." There almost certainly wasn’t – any more ill intent than when Faldo said “yeah, that’s right” after Tilghman’s comments, almost as a congenial conversational reflex (not much has been made of that).

Golfweek magazine, in its role as a monitor of news events in the golfing world, picked up on the Tilghman suspension with a cover story that sought to put the incident into proper journalistic perspective. Golfweek published the cover story the next week. But Golfweek illustrated its cover story with ... a dangling noose against a purple sky. The cover lines: “Caught in a Noose: Tilghman slips up, and Golf Channel can’t wriggle free." You cannot make this stuff up.

Dave Seanor, the editor who approved the cover, was fired by the magazine, which offered an apology. A statement from the president of Golfweek's parent company admitted that the magazine was “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.”

Seanor told the New York Times' Richard Sandomir that he only meant to make a point about a controversy encircling Tilghman, the Golf Channel and the game itself. “There weren’t a lot of other ideas for the cover," he said. "Either you put Kelly out there or this image, which is emblematic of what this controversy is about.”

Setting aside for now why Kelly Tilghman wouldn't have been just as emblematic of the controversy -- since it started with her in the first place -- we have to wonder how an editor of a top-flight magazine could be so tone-deaf to some of America's deepest sensibilities. The image of a noose still has a deep and agonizing resonance for black Americans.

"Lynching is not murder in general. It is not assault in general,” Sharpton said after the Tilghman jibe. “It is a specific racial term that this woman should be held accountable for," he told CNN.

The Golfweek cover took a bad situation and made it worse -- something that PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem recognized, in a statement calling the cover imagery “outrageous and irresponsible.” He added, “It was a naked attempt to inflame and keep alive an incident that was heading to an appropriate conclusion.”

Our take on Tilghman? As a daughter of the South (born in South Carolina), maybe she was victim of some latent strain of her upbringing, a stray meme of her state's Confederate heritage that surfaced for an unfortunate, inexplicable second. We'll never know. But her two-week suspension is punishment enough on an immediate basis. For all her trailblazing in golf and broadcasting, no matter what else she does in life, Tilghman will wear this bright scarlet asterisk — will face the ugliest sort of suspicion — for the rest of her days above ground.

She shouldn't be subject to any more enduring condemnation, shouldn't be faced with loss of her livelihood any more than Don Imus, the shock-jock radio nitwit whose years-long pattern of over-the-top bigoted remarks finally got him briefly fired -- and then rehired by a different news outlet, for millions of dollars.

One ridiculous error in the heat of conversation shouldn't define an otherwise promising career. It shouldn't be so for Kelly Tilghman any more than it was for Al Sharpton, who had his own trial by media fire some years ago for making an ill-advised decision. Paging Tawana Brawley ... Paging Steven Pagonis ...

The third rail of race -- the cry of "racism" -- still carries a dangerous voltage in America. We shouldn't go near it if we don't have to. And we don't have to now.
Image credits: Tiger Woods: PaddyBriggs, Wikipedia project > released into public domain; Tilghman: The Golf Channel; Golfweek cover: Turnstile Publishing; George Meadows, lynching victim: Public domain

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