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.

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It’s time for the Herald to close the circle

Update: I’m not sure when this was added, but Herald editorial-page editor Rachelle Cohen tells Romenesko that she vetted the cartoon: “Herald editorial page editor Rachelle Cohen tells me neither she nor artist Jerry Holbert saw anything wrong with the cartoon. ‘Jerry doesn’t have a racist bone in his body,’ she says. He chose watermelon because he had just seen that flavor of toothpaste in his house, says Cohen.” So now we have the cartoonist and his editor both claiming that they didn’t see any racist intent in the watermelon reference. At best, this speaks to a lack of diversity in the newsroom.

To their credit, the folks at the Boston Herald clearly and quickly understood that they had a problem on their hands Wednesday after publishing an editorial cartoon by Jerry Holbert that was racist in its effect, if not in Holbert’s intent. The cartoon depicted an intruder in a White House bathroom asking President Obama if he had “tried the new watermelon-flavored toothpaste.”

Holbert went on the newspaper’s online radio station to apologize, and said he understood he compounded his error when he failed to notify the Herald that his syndicate had told him to alter the cartoon so as to eliminate the racial inference. And today, the paper publishes a straightforward apology. On the editorial page, Holbert apologizes again.

But now it’s time for the Herald to close the circle. Even if Holbert didn’t understand why African-Americans are offended by stereotypes of black people as placid, happy watermelon-eaters, are we to believe that editorial cartoons somehow leap onto the pages of the Herald with no intervention on the part of editors?

Here is an excerpt from a well-sourced article at Wikipedia:

While the exact origins of this stereotype remain unclear, an association of African Americans and watermelon goes back to the time of slavery in the United States. Defenders of slavery used the fruit to paint African Americans as a simple-minded people who were happy when provided watermelon and a little rest. The stereotype was perpetuated in minstrel shows often depicting African Americans as ignorant and workshy, given to song and dance and inordinately fond of watermelon.

I agree with my WGBH colleague Emily Rooney of “Greater Boston,” who said last night (above) that she believes Holbert when he says he had no racial intent — but that someone at the Herald should have caught it before publication. The Herald should tell us who approved the cartoon and why.

In case you missed it, here is how the story unfolded on Wednesday.

The Herald has some explaining to do

Kudos to Greg Reibman, president of the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce (and a former Boston Herald staff member), who flagged this on Twitter. It’s currently the lead item at Romenesko.

And it keeps on coming:

Here’s the link; screen image below.

Screen Shot 2014-10-01 at 10.47.46 AM

 

So which came first? The watermelon or the raspberries?

Here’s the Herald’s story on Holbert’s apology, which he delivered on the newspaper’s online radio station.