Newspapers and news magazines and television news programs are supposed to tell the truth. When they do not, it is for one of two reasons: they told a lie inadvertently, having perhaps been deceived themselves, or they told a lie as a result of a conscious decision to do just that.
Jayson Blair's (search) lies are an example of inadvertence. No one at the New York Times wanted factual errors in the paper.
The recent Time and Newsweek magazine covers, on which Caucasian women in surgical masks illustrated the SARS (search) threat, are an example of the lie-as-in-house-policy, Time’s editor having admitted that he did not use a photo of a Chinese woman on his cover because he did not want to stigmatize the Asians unfairly. As I pointed out in a previous column, it is the disease that stigmatizes Asians unfairly, and thus is the responsibility of journalists to reveal this information in words as well as pictures.
But today’s column is the tale of a different journalistic organization, one that has been distorting reality for nine years now, and is finally considering the truth-as-in-house-policy.
For almost a decade, the Minneapolis Star Tribune has banned American-Indian nicknames for sports teams. Never mind that Washington, D.C., calls its football players the Redskins: the Star Trib does not. Never mind that Atlanta calls its baseball players the Braves; the Star Trib does not. Never mind that Grand Forks, N.D., calls its University of North Dakota teams in all sports the Fighting Sioux; the Star Trib does not.
I am not an American Indian (search) or native American or descendant of an indigenous peoples. Perhaps, then, I cannot judge whether the terms Redskins and Braves and Fighting Sioux are offensive. It does not matter. News organizations should be in the business of reporting reality, not applying a coat of whitewash to it so that no one will be offended.
In fact, it is at least in part because the press has told so many un-whitewashed tales of injustice in the past that those injustices have been corrected by a society that could not longer bear repeated, daily exposure to them in print and on the air. If Redskins and Braves and Fighting Sioux really are offensive words, and if the Minneapolis Star Tribune was as socially-conscious in the past nine years as it surely likes to think it was, then it should have printed the names in boldface type and red ink; it should have circled them and italicized them and followed them with exclamation points, demanding that attention be paid to the injustice so that team owners in Washington and Atlanta, and college officials in Grand Fork, could have seen the light and felt the pressure of an aggrieved society to adopt new monikers.
Instead, the newspaper took the safe and gutless path, choosing political, rather than factual, correctness.
Now, though, it admitting the wisdom of the latter. A few days ago, Star Tribune editor Anders Gyllenhaal sent a memo to his staff about team nicknames. “At a time when newspaper accuracy and balance are constantly challenged,” he wrote, “our commitment to direct and straight-forward reporting has to be the priority.”
Gyllenhaal went on as follows: “This isn’t nearly as much about Indian names as it is about the paper’s responsibility toward accuracy and realism.”
But, he said, the paper will still be “sensitive.” As the Associated Press put it in a recent article on Gyllenhaal’s memo, the proposed new Star Trib guidelines “include using alternative logos for potentially offensive ones -- a script ‘I’ instead of the Cleveland Indians’ Chief Wahoo logo, for example -- and avoiding slang terms or abbreviations such as "Skins" for "Redskins."
The executive director of the local Indian Affairs Council is upset. He says that the Star Trib appears to be “going backwards.” He is wrong. It is the council and those who share its views that are going backwards. If they want to go forward, they should direct their attention to places like Washington and Atlanta and Grand Fork, N.D.
It is the role of the teams to choose their names. It is the role of reporters to report, whatever the former decide.
Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch, which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT.