You Are Editor: What to do with ‘racist’ comments?

“I just–I don’t like him. Can’t stand to look at him. I don’t like his wife. She’s far from the first lady. It’s about time we get a first lady in there that acts like a first lady and looks like a first lady.” — Bobbie Lucie, a veteran’s wife, at the American Legion convention.

NPR ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos writes today that the comment “set off alarm bells” in the public radio audience.

Is it hate speech or do we just have the sensitivity meter turned up way too high in this too-long-for-the-human-body-to-stand presidential campaign?

Some listeners saw a meaning in the comment. “Looks like a first lady” is code for “being white.”

Here’s the story in question…

From the way Schumacher-Matos challenged reporter Ari Shapiro to defend the use of the quote — “I asked Shapiro about his decision to include Lucie’s comment and whether it was NPR’s responsibility to keep racist opinions off the air. ” — it sounds as though he had already concluded that it was a racist comment.

But Republicans said the same thing about a white woman in 1980 — Rosalind Carter.

In this case, Schumacher-Matos points out, the meaning of the quote is ambiguous and NPR’s directory of diversity suggests a reporter failure…

If there’s a problem here, it’s not that the comments are racist. The problem is, I don’t know if they’re racist. I don’t know, in fact, what the woman meant when she said any of that. I have a strong suspicion, but I could be completely wrong. When she said she couldn’t stand the look of the president, was she talking about his race or his ears? When she implied that Mrs. Obama doesn’t look like a first lady, did she mean that she’s not white or did she dislike the way Mrs. Obama wears sleeveless dresses?

I believe a reporter’s obligation here is to ask the question “What do you mean?” and either use the answer in the story or tell the listener whether the follow-up question led in one direction (racist) or another. Several people, including the woman now adjudged by many as a racist, have a stake in that question and answer. I can’t tell from the piece whether the question was asked.

Here’s the entire post. It’s a good discussion although it’s good to remember that it’s 2012 and we’re still having to have it in this country.