Friday, September 5, 2008

The Post-Mortem On ChickenWingsGate

It's been a full week since the Las Vegas Sun decided that a couple of poorly chosen words about the 40/40 Club's demise on this blog qualified as a news story. It's time I offer some thoughts about what happened.

It was all very strange when Sun editor Tom Gorman called Friday for a couple of reasons. Gorman was for many years the L.A. Times' entire Las Vegas bureau. I've always had tremendous respect for him and I've admired much of the tack the Sun has taken towards contemplative journalism since his arrival. But why would a top editor who generally does not cover the news call me? And why did the paper post an article about a controversial topic without an actual byline when bylines are most important for transparency when the coverage is of a controversial topic? Did it really take the entire "Sun Staff" -- or even more than one person? -- to cover something as small as what a blogger wrote?

Gorman confused me from the start by asking about the big controversy surrounding my post. Up until that moment, I'd not known there was one. My 40/40 post was three days old when he called and, at that stage, I'd received a few comments on the blog agreeing with my views on the 40/40 Club's demise and not a single email about it from anyone aggrieved by the racial content.

Gorman's claim defied the laws of the Internet. If this were a big deal, I'd have been swarmed by angry people writing angry comments and emails. Activists know how to mobilize people in this era to make their voices heard. Nobody did so. Richard Abowitz disagreed with my take and its racial dimension on his L.A. Times blog, but he didn't suggest I had been offensive.

I was genuinely surprised, particularly when Gorman said such people as State. Sen. Steven Horsford were angry about the chicken-wings line. Horsford had spent the week in Denver for the DNC and surely couldn't have known or cared about this without someone avidly pursuing his take. When I explained where I'd really been coming from -- that I was thinking "sports bar food" not "black food" -- Gorman actually started debating me about it.

I knew then a hit job was underway. I chose from that point on to answer via email where I could be more confident that my words would not later be twisted for the Sun's purposes.

So what were the Sun's purposes? Well, there's lots of speculation about that. The prevailing theory? Take a look at which Sun reporter I've criticized the most by clicking here and then look at who shares the byline of this story from the 8/29 newspaper about black-leader reaction to Obama's big speech. On Thursday, someone who hates me is chatting up black leaders; Friday the same black leaders are pissed about a blog they've never read by a writer they've never heard of. Coincidence?

Could there be clumsier, more obvious and more journalistically suspect effort to fulfill a vendetta? It is shocking to me -- maybe not to many others who don't understand how legitimate newsrooms actually operate, but to me -- that a top editor would participate in such a dubious effort. I've great respect for most Sun staffers and, on balance, the media criticism in this blog has been far more positive than negative towards the newspaper.

Calling black leaders to gin up a racial scandal is extremely offensive and cynical, as much to the black leaders being used in this ploy as to me. Had a black activist called THEM to complain, perhaps they might have something. But building an entire story around reading bits of a blog post? That's a pathetic waste of journalistic resources.

That said, I was still in the wrong. The wording I used was not intentionally racist, but it was careless and glib and, ultimately, could reasonably be read in an offensive racist context. So I failed because I did not communicate well and I didn't consider carefully enough what I was saying.

So what did I do? Well, first, I owned up to my mistake publicly and explained myself. It's ironic that the Sun would be the ones to prompt me to do so, given that when the Joe Schoenmann scandal erupted these watchdogs of the public good felt absolutely no obligation to the public to explain how their reporter had been permitted to glibly smear -- as racists, no less! -- an entire community of Las Vegas. I couldn't get a comment out of anyone at the Sun about that matter -- not even a no-comment response! -- but I live by my creed and I responded anyway to Gorman and then to the public.

I also took to heart the teachings of modern black and white leaders, including that biracial fellow who might become our 44th president. I called each of the people in the Sun piece to personally apologize and explain myself. Dialogue, they say, is how we learn, teach and heal. And in the cases of Assemblyman Harvey Munford and the Rev. Robert Fowler, it was a pleasant exchange. I did not, by week's end, manage to get Sen. Horsford on the phone, but we did exchange email and he even posted a kind comment on this blog. Only the biggest flame-thrower in the Sun piece, UNLV Afro-American Studies Prof. Rainier Spencer, who compared me to Fuzzy Zoeller, decided that such dialogue is fruitless: "I appreciate the invitation but don't really see the point." Uh, OK.

I also went out on Monday evening for chicken wings with another black activist. No, that's not a joke. Alex Dixon, 27, invited me on the blog and so I went. Dixon had also been perturbed by what seemed like stereotypical language but then was appreciative of my later post. And he had another theory for why the 40/40 Club failed: The chicken wings sucked. “To make amends, I offer to share a Vegas classic: six hot wings a smooth draft and $2 for video poker at a PT’s Pub of your choice,” he wrote.

Seemed like a good time. So we had our wings – with Diet Cokes and sans video poker – and spent an hour or so mulling issues of racism, the media and politics. We also noticed the similarities of our lives as young minority professionals, him as black and me as Jewish and gay. I made a new friend and I left pleased that we aren't so polarized that we're unable to actually talk, explain ourselves, share our experiences. Also, the wings were among the best I've had in years and are now a constant craving of mine.

A final footnote. On Sunday, I was contacted by a reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal who was working on a piece for Monday's newspaper on this flap. But then it turned out that they chose not to publish whatever story was cooking. I can't know why, but I suspect that as critical as I've been of some aspects of the R-J, someone over there had a clearer head than the folks at the Sun and realized that this just wasn't an actual news story.

So, hopefully, this is over. And I've learned a thing or two. I don’t imagine the folks at the Sun who chose to invent this so-called controversy would have expected an outcome like that.


Anonymous said...

If what's written here is true, then as a Sun journalist I am extremely alarmed and hope a full internal investigation is done. Joe Schoenmann is NOT well regarded inside the newspaper -- rare is it that he has a byline on a story that doesn't have some at least minor errors or some obvious conflict of interest -- and I would be shocked if Tom Gorman would participate in something like this. That said, it doesn't look good for us.

James in Henderson said...

See, and here I thought the Sun was the good guys in the Vegas media. This should be a huge embarrassment to the other reporters there who weren't in on this fix. How Joe S is still employed there is beyond me.

Eileen Granger said...

Moral of the story: Don't fuck with the Friesster unless you can handle being fucked up back.

H.R. Vegas-sized! said...

what's the expression? if you shoot the queen, you better kill her. poor tom gorman, shame on him for getting involved with such a scheme.

Anonymous said...

Someone who takes responsibility, apologizes, and even goes out of their way to talk to the offended parties? I hope you don't have any intentions on getting into politics because with that kind of attitude you'd never be successful.

Anonymous said...

Hey Friesster! You know you've made it when you have a "gate"!!! Congrats! said...

Anybody who gets their check by being the professor of African American studies has to see a racist in every woodpile.

If they don't keep spotting racism they have no reason to keep getting that paycheck.

I'm Black,not African American, so I can say that and I can throw the phrase "poverty pimp" into the ring as well.

Just sayin'.

Anonymous said...

I like the Sun, probably more than the R-J. But, I think since it went to being a morning insert, it has become more of a Greenspun family plaything. Personal attacks are not uncommon, especially if it involves politics. You're in rarified air now, Steve.

Jeff in OKC

Heather said...

the last part about not correcting the error was priceless, steve. really shows what small people you have to deal with over there.

Anonymous said...

Um, I actually recall reading a correction about the Neal misspelling in the Sun. I think it ran along with two other corrections that day. LOL


I did correct that in a post yesterday and have removed that bit of this post. But the correction ran on its own, alongside no other corrections that day.