Dr. Laura and the Use of the N Word
Jean Marie Brown
August 18, 2010
Justification and motivation are two key ingredients of thorough reporting. The why of an incident can sometimes transcend what has occurred. But journalists have to be careful that the justification doesn't become a fact when it's actually a rationalization. Justifications have to be challenged and, if necessary, refuted.
The recent coverage of Dr. Laura's use of the n-word has lacked this element. The last chapter - that she is giving up her talk show at year's end - is couched in terms of free speech. Or rather that she feels she has lost the right of free speech to critics and special interests who don't like what she has to say. I don't dispute that that is her justification, but I question why no reporters are really delving into what this story is about - the use of offensive language.
The reports of the initial incident included her justification for repeatedly firing of the n-word, but that justification was not questioned any more than her lament about the loss of free speech. Instead the coverage has reinforced a specious and prejudiced assumption that since the word is used liberally by some it must be okay for it to be used by all.
Interestingly enough, this is the only swear word that I can think of that falls under the 'everybody else is using it' defense. A rant about 'bitches and whores' would have likely gotten the same reaction, but I wonder if the justification that the words are spewed by the 'HBO comedians' and rappers would have been readily accepted as a justification.
The coverage of Dr. Laura collapsed because of a tendency to view matters of race, particularly involving racial minorities, as a monolith. The message that came through was that Dr. Laura was being chastised for saying a word that all African-Americans use. That message is as offensive as the word itself.
Some African-Americans use the word along with a bunch of other words that you wouldn't say in polite company. In fact, comedians have long used words that aren't uttered in everyday conversation, think Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor. I can't recall anyone ever suggesting that, talented as they might have been, either man was an arbiter on polite conversation.
The fact is that some African-Americans use the n-word, while others object to its use. The comedic routines and rap music that that Dr. Laura and everyone else cite as their pass to use the word aren't part of the mainstream conversation. That's why the 'explicit' are noted on iTunes and the comedy specials are on cable rather than network television where they would come under the scrutiny of the FCC.
There's no excuse for using the word. It's a pejorative to the nth degree and so is the suggestion that all African-Americans use it.
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