Race, diversity and watermelon toothpaste

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Boston Herald editorial-page editor Rachelle Cohen makes a minor error in her explanation of how the racist cartoon linking President Obama and watermelon toothpaste made its way into the paper.

“For two weeks I have remained silent,” she writes at the start of her column, which appears today on the Herald’s op-ed page. In fact, Cohen took the hit right after publication, telling media blogger Jim Romenesko that she was “guilty as charged” for not anticipating the outrage that Jerry Holbert’s cartoon would provoke.

Which is to say that Cohen deserves credit for taking responsibility right from the beginning, and for writing a heartfelt apology today — explaining that she saw the cartoon and approved it unthinkingly. “It’s my job as an editor to see around corners, to look at all the possible meanings and nuances of words and of images.” she writes. “It’s my job and two weeks ago I failed at it miserably.” (Here’s what we said about the controversy on “Beat the Press” on Oct. 3.)

She absolves Holbert of harboring any racist views. She reminds her readers of the division between the news and editorial operations. And in this case, she says, her usual practice of having an editor from the news side take a look was not followed.

I’ll take Holbert and Cohen at their word that there was no racist intent. But Holbert drew a racist cartoon and Cohen published it. The Herald recently announced that it has asked the NAACP to get involved, and that’s a good step. But I continue to believe that the larger issue is a lack of diversity in the newsroom. I’m not saying that an African-American editor should have seen the cartoon before it was published. Rather, I’m suggesting that when people of color are part of the day-to-day conversations that take place in any workplace, these things are a lot less likely to happen.

And surely someone should have had the foresight to turn off comments on Cohen’s column. That way we would have been spared the anonymous troll who calls Gov. Deval Patrick “one of the most obnoxious race pimps ever.” Again, it’s a matter of what kinds of conversations are unfolding among journalists on a regular basis.

In any event, kudos to Cohen for a straightforward, no-excuses apology, and to the Herald’s management for coming to grips with a serious lapse in a serious manner. Let’s hope it leads to action.