Monday, April 16, 2007

Gwen Ifill slices through the fog

I was a fan of Gwen Ifill before yesterday. She's got a straightforward way of cutting through the rhetoric that would make her a good mediator and makes her a terrific interviewer and anchor. Yesterday, she brought that talent to "Meet the Press" for a discussion of the Don Imus flareup with two of the good old boys of the media -- Tim Russert and the NYTimes' David Brooks, as well as Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post and John Harwood of the Wall Street Journal.

The transcript of that session is here (The conversation starts at the bottom of Page 2.)

Here are some samples of what she brought to the discussion:


There’s been radio silence from a lot of people who’ve done this program who could’ve spoken up and said, “I find this offensive” or “I didn’t know.” These people didn’t speak up.

Tim, we didn’t hear that much from you.

David, we didn’t hear from you.

What was missing in this debate was someone saying, “You know, I understand that this is offensive.” You know, I have a seven-year-old goddaughter. Yesterday, she went out shopping with her mom for high-top basketball shoes so she can play basketball. The offense, the slur that Imus directed at me happened more than 10 years ago. I like to think in 10 years from now that Asia isn’t going to be deciding that she wants to get recruited for the college basketball team or be a tennis pro or go to medical school and that she’s still vulnerable to those kinds of casual slurs and insults that I got 10 years ago, and that people will say, “I didn’t know,” or people will say, “I wasn’t listening.” A lot of people did know, and a lot of people were listening, and they just decided it was OK. They decided this culture of meanness was fine until they got caught. My concern about Mr. Imus and a lot of people and, and a lot of the debate in the society is not that people are sorry that they say these things. They’re sorry that someone catches them.

When Don Imus said this about me when I worked here at NBC, when I found out about it, his producer called and said, “Don wants to apologize.” Well, now he says he never said it. What was he apologizing for? He was apologizing for getting caught, not apologizing for having said it in the first place. And that, to me, is the debate that we need to have. David’s right, about the culture of meanness, about the culture of racial complaint, about the internal culture in our community, about the way we talk to one another. But this week, just this week, it was finally saying “Enough.”


MR. RUSSERT: (quoting the concept) “If you don’t want to watch it, you turn him off. It’s the marketplace that should govern.”

MS. IFILL: But here’s the thing—you know what, that’s—there’s something to that. But here’s the thing, for parents of kids, like your—like John, here, he needs to know what these, what these kids are listening to. He needs to hear what the words are. You need to make your judgment. I don’t completely turn it off, I watch it just to know. Now, I don’t watch it for long, because I find it so offensive, but I need to know. And that’s what everybody — people can’t say, “Oh, I had no idea.” Especially when you’re trying to raise a generation of right-thinking kids.


MR. ROBINSON: But back up, back up a step. I mean, we should have the discussion about, about rap music, about gangster rap and, and, and that language, and, and I—and that’s a discussion, for example, those are issues that Al Sharpton has raised, that Jesse Jackson has raised. And, and, by the way, I got a lot of mail on—when I wrote about the Imus situation as well, and, and one strain of it was, was, “Well, who appointed Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson to, you know, to be spokespeople?” And my answer was this business did. You know, we’re, we’re the ones who call them up every time anything happens and kept going back and kept going back. And what does he think today and what does he think tomorrow? So...

MR. RUSSERT: And it was fair to ask Jackson about Hymietown, and it was fair to ask Sharpton about Tawana Brawley.

MR. ROBINSON: Of course, it—of course it’s fair, but, but the idea that, that, in this case, they were self-appointed is not really quite right because that was certainly abetted by, by a news media establishment that, that went to them, you know, 50 times a day.

MS. IFILL: And it, and it should be added that it wasn’t just Jesse and Al—Reverend Jackson and Al Sharpton talking about this. It was C. Delores Tucker, who took this. It was Calvin Butts, who steamrollered CDs. It was, it was, it was Essence magazine, which did an entire series of articles about what was happening to girls. Now, everybody who’s suddenly so concerned about what Ludacris and Timbaland have had to say, they weren’t concerned two weeks ago. So if this means we’re going to have this conversation, that’s fine. But let’s not pretend that certain elements in our community haven’t been trying to have this conversation with much less success.


MR. BROOKS: I think if you’re Howard Stern or Bill Maher or Glenn Beck or Michael Savage, you got to watch out. I mean, I mean, this, what happens is people change their standards. The only caution I’d, I’d, I’d say there’s comedy. A lot of this is comedy. And when you look at “Borat,” for example, Frank Rich....

MS. IFILL: Doesn’t comedy have to be funny, David?

MR. BROOKS: Well, it, it tries to be funny. But, but there is a, there is sometimes, like, for the example of Borat. Borat’s a guy who spews anti-Semitic stuff. Everybody knows he doesn’t mean it. And I’m not comparing Borat to Don Imus, but there is a carnival atmosphere, and that if we judge everything by the standards the comedians, the carnival people in our culture, by the standards of politicians, well, then we’ll have no comedy because all of the stuff that they say is, is nonliteral.

MR. HARWOOD: Well, exactly, and “Saturday Night Live” last night begins the show with a send-up of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. Do people, you know, flyspeck a presentation like that for what, what kind of stereotypes are they playing to? Yeah, it’s hard to know where you draw the line in the entertainment realm.

MS. IFILL: You know, except that it’s really not hard to know where you draw the line. We know where the offense is. We know what’s acceptable and what’s not, and the best way to dilute the argument in the moment we’re in is to say, “What about this? What about this? What about that?” The fact is, we have a moment where we can talk about the things which have been bugging us. I know a lot of people who aren’t really crazy about something—about, about “Pimpin’ All Over the World” or about what—something that Snoop Dogg would say. And you know what they do, they’ve been doing? They swallow it. They just turn off the TV. “I got—I don’t watch these shows. I don’t listen to these videos. I, I just don’t watch it.” But somewhere deep inside these girls becomes this little—you’ve heard what the Rutgers basketball players said when they were asked about this. They didn’t say, “Oh, well, yeah, I think it’s fine.” They don’t think it’s fine. And after a while it builds in them. And that’s what we saw happen this week. So if we want to—you know, we can, we can say it’s not a big deal because it’s happened all the time or it’s been happening for a long time. It’s precisely because it’s been happening a long time that...

MR. HARWOOD: But I’m not, I’m not saying it’s not a big deal. Look, Gwen, it’s harder than you think. And take the example of “Borat,” which David mentioned. I’ve not seen that movie, but I’ve heard people intensely on both sides of that issue. Some think it’s hilarious and fun, and some think it’s grossly offensive and racist and all sorts of things.

MR. BROOKS: Right, and I mean, I’m not saying, I’m not comparing “Borat” to, to what Don Imus said. What Don Imus said is so obviously over the line that it’s not worth debating. But the hard choices come further in, and “Borat” is a good example. I thought it was a very funny movie, extremely cruel. He is picking on people who aren’t good on TV or in the movies. And so I think those are the hard cases. And I don’t think it’s unfair to ask the question of this case, of that case, how much of it is just make believe. Human beings are extremely good at separating make believe from reality.

MS. IFILL: Yeah, unless they’re the targets. And when you’re the target, somehow it seems a lot more real.


She also had an Op-Ed in the New York Times on the topic, and on Imus's slur against her. Not sure how long it will be available there, so I've linked to the Houston Chronicle's reprinting. And here's a quote:

Every time a young black girl shyly approaches me for an autograph or writes or calls or stops me on the street to ask how she can become a journalist, I feel an enormous responsibility. It’s more than simply being a role model. I know I have to be a voice for them as well.

So here’s what this voice has to say for people who cannot grasp the notion of picking on people their own size: This country will only flourish once we consistently learn to applaud and encourage the young people who have to work harder just to achieve balance on the unequal playing field.

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