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Guild Questions Ouster of Indy Writer

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Tuesday, November 6, 2007

RiShawn Biddle Regrets Language, Defends Point

The Indianapolis Newspaper Guild is stepping into the case of RiShawn Biddle, the African American editorial writer at the Indianapolis Star who was ousted after posting a blog item that referred to black officials as "coons."



Biddle, meanwhile, told Journal-isms on Wednesday that the terminology he used was "not endorsing any racial stereotypes." While it was not appropriate, he said, "It is the kind of language that many of us as black people use in describing and comparing the kind of negative, corrupting behaviors done by our fellow brothers and sisters."

"The point that I've made is no different than those made by Bill Cosby and others, who have decried the kind of negative activity perpetuated by black leaders, Hip-Hop stars and television shows," he said via e-mail. "While I will choose my words more wisely and again, I regret using them, I'm not the only person making this overall point."

Biddle, 33, said he hoped to continue working, adding that he was weighing his options. "The work overshadows the notoriety," he asserted.

Biddle is not a member of the Newspaper Guild, but Abe Aamidor, president of the Guild's Local 70 and veteran reporter at the Indianapolis Star, told Journal-isms that, "the Guild is contractually obligated to represent all employees who are in 'the bargaining unit,' whether or not they have joined the union (we are an open shop, in other words). We have repeatedly in the past defended and helped employees who were not, in fact union members, including RiShawn."

Aamidor sent this message on Monday to Guild members:

"You are all aware of the controversy over RiShawn Biddle's recent blog and his termination as an employee here.

"We just want you to know that The Guild is committed to due process and making sure that RiShawn was not improperly discharged. We have been involved in collecting facts related to this matter, and soon the Guild officers will meet to decide on what action we will take.

"For now, we are trying to determine if there is any basis for saying RiShawn was insubordinate or the equivalent (the original note from Dennis said he did not follow a directive)," referring to editor Dennis Ryerson. "Insubordination is just cause for dismissal.

"We are also deeply concerned about the very public manner in which RiShawn was hung out to dry — 'guilty' or not. While I haven't seen that his name was mentioned by management in public, he was uniquely identified among his peers, so he was identified. This affects his future employment prospects.

"Further, a time bomb with all these unedited blogs that media outlets host has finally gone off in Indianapolis. Bloggers are given quite a bit of license to post what they want, and to post directly to the web. But when something goes wrong, they're told, in effect, 'Oh, no, you can't do that.' It's like an ex post facto law. You're constantly at risk because you don't know what you can and cannot do."

The Star has not clarified whether Biddle was fired or resigned, saying only that he no longer works there.

Biddle, likewise, would not elaborate.

He said he posted his original blog item on Friday, Oct. 26, and said he believed his original headline was "Cooning in the Circle" or "Didn't Cooning End With Slavery?"

"It's always been an unedited blog," he also said.

He said he made several changes, but "never got to the 'Zip Coon' line."

His entry read in part, according to blogger Ruth Holladay:

"Then there's the embarrassing spectacle that is Monroe Gray, whose tenure as city-county council president is being marked by a lack of decorum during council sessions, the videos of himself on YouTube and responses to allegations of corruption that wouldn't be acceptable to a child who claimed his dog ate the homework. His act, more Zip Coon than honorable statesman, epitomizes the lack of seriousness some Black politicians show in their work; it's just inexcusable."

Tim Swarens, editor of the paper's Opinion and Community Conversations section, told Biddle to remove the word "coonery," and on Tuesday, Oct. 30, told Biddle that from then on an editor would have to vet the blog postings, Biddle recalled.

"Then, late in the day, I was told that I was suspended."

At 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Swarens sent this one-sentence note to the staff of the Gannett newspaper:

"Effective immediately, editorial writer RiShawn Biddle is no longer employed by The Indianapolis Star."

Biddle told Journal-isms the purpose of the piece was to be satirical and to illustrate the problems with local black leadership, as he had done previously.

He said he located the "Zip Coon" reference through research. George Washington Dixon, a white man who put on blackface, created the song "Zip Coon" and introduced it about 1829. The black character was described as stylish, boastful and fond of exaggeratedly fancy clothes, a counterpart to Jim Crow, a fictional bumptuous black plantation hand.

"I'm not going to defend the terminology, but I will say, if we don't criticize our own, how do we expect our community to be elevated?" Biddle told Journal-isms.

Ryerson acknowledged to Journal-isms last week that the Star was at fault for allowing Biddle to post directly to the Internet. "They're supposed to have things reviewed by an editor. It was not applied in this case. But it was clearly communicated" that "We don't use that language," Ryerson said.

As reported then, Ryerson made a public apology at a community news conference over Biddle's remarks, said he will look for diversity in filling three vacancies at the paper and will work to improve its damaged community ties.

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Michael Jackson Comes Across "as Kind of Normal"



Ebony magazine is promoting its December cover story on Michael Jackson, and the magazine's creative director, Harriette Cole, appeared Wednesday on both NBC-TV's "Today" show and CNN's "Newsroom."

The issue celebrates the 25th anniversary of Jackson's record-breaking "Thriller" album and features what is said to be Jackson's first interview in 10 years with a domestic magazine.

Bryan Monroe, editorial director of Ebony and Jet, conducted the interview, along with Ebony senior editor Joy Bennett. Dudley M. Brooks, Johnson Publishing Co.'s director of photography, shot the behind-the-scenes photos, working with Matthew Rolston on the cover shoot.

The news is that Jackson appears to be normal, according to Cole.

"From the time that I spent with him, what I got is that he's a man," Cole said on "Today." "He's 49. He's a grown-up. If you learn from your challenges, then you become stronger. He certainly seemed like that. His voice is a bit lower. He came across really as kind of normal."

"When Meredith expressed incredulity that the word could be used to describe Jackson, Cole replied, 'Honestly, Meredith, he was normal,'" Mike Celizic wrote on, speaking of "Today" co-host Meredith Vieira.

That sentiment wasn't always shared abroad. "Michael Jackson finally is white. And a girl," wrote Liz Braun, entertainment columnist for a number of Canadian newspapers. "See for yourself. Jackson is on the cover of Ebony (or Ivory?) magazine, not to announce a sex change, as you'd assume from the photos, but to help celebrate the 25th anniversary of his Thriller album."

The Advertiser in Australia wrote, "The U.S. king of pop has appeared on the cover of Ebony, a magazine aimed at black Americans — looking white.

"In the December issue's front page photograph, Jackson sports a creamy suit, complementing his creamy complexion and his hair, once a curly afro, is sleek.

"There is virtually no resemblance to the handsome young black teen who performed with his brothers as part of The Jackson Five.

"The photograph appears to have been heavily airbrushed."

On CNN, Don Lemon said to Cole, "So I've got to ask you this. Ebony magazine for a long time — and you know that as an African American — Michael Jackson has been criticized for bleaching his skin, not wanting to be black. There are some who are going to say that this is — he's doing this to garnish support or either reinforce his support that he lost in the black community."

Cole replied, "You know, I question how much support he lost from the black community. I didn't see that poll. I know that there was a lot of support in question, you know, during the trial" on child molestation charges, of which he was acquitted. "But, honestly, Ebony has been his friend for years. Ebony represents one-and-a-half million readers and we haven't gotten word that people have rejected him. You know, there certainly there were questions.

"But there's a lot more love, I think, than rejection."

Lemon asked, "How much did you talk issues?

Cole said, "We didn't talk much about issues. But I'll tell you what happened. We did spend time with him and his youngest child, Prince Michael II, who is 5 years old. He was there unshrouded during the fitting and later during the interview. And what was great was to see him with his child. Like, he is a dad. He obviously has a good relationship with his son. And his son was very comfortable being around adults and people that he didn't know."

Cole was asked on the fourth hour of "Today," with Hoda Kotb, why Jackson did the interview. "Do you see him trying to make a comeback? Is that what's going on?" she asked. "Well, he didn't say that," Cole replied. "But I think—number one, 25th anniversary is a huge accomplishment. 'Thriller' has sold 104 million records. And he didn't want the year to be go by without acknowledging it. But also, he is in the studio. He's worked with Will.I.Am from Black Eyed Peas. He's worked with Kanye West and Akon. And we believe that an album is coming soon. We don't know for sure, but we think so."

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Newsletter Reports on Reaching Hispanic Voters

"Just in time for Hillary Clinton's bilingual Web page, Barack Obama's three-part telenovela, Christopher Dodd's discursos en español, Craig Romney's Spanish testimonials for papi­ Mitt, John McCain's immigration reform fracaso, Tom Tancredo's 'amnesty' outrage and the simple fact of Bill Richardson: Here comes La Poli­tica, turning it all into a beat and a business," David Montgomery reported on Tuesday for the Washington Post.

"The Web-based newsletter and blog debuted yesterday, dedicated to covering 'the business of reaching Hispanic voters.' Published in English for a prospective audience of campaign insiders, consultants and media types, the newsletter takes its name from the Spanish word for 'politics.' The blog is called Platicando — 'chatting.'"

"The people behind La Política are too much old-school-journalist types to make brash claims about Latinos swinging the election. They're just walking the beat.

"'We aren't advocates, we aren't activists,' says Luis Clemens, the editor, a Cuban American and a former Buenos Aires bureau chief for CNN en Español. 'We'll watch and report on the way this plays out.'"

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Fareed Zakaria to Host Weekly Show on CNN



"Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International and one of the world's leading journalists and commentators on international affairs, has joined CNN as the host of a weekly international news program that will air both on CNN/U.S. and on CNN International around the world," the network announced on Wednesday.

"With Americans growing increasingly aware that their most pressing concerns — including prevention of terrorism attacks, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the security of jobs and retirement nest eggs, the safety of their families' food and toys and the health of the environment — are intertwined with events around the globe, Zakaria will draw upon his vast experience and extensive Rolodex to bring thought leaders and world leaders together to make sense of it all on a global stage.

"In addition to anchoring the new weekend program, Zakaria will contribute analysis to other CNN programs across CNN Worldwide. He is based in New York.

"Zakaria will continue in his role as editor of Newsweek International, overseeing all of Newsweek's editions abroad, as well as writing his regular column on foreign affairs in the magazine.

"Zakaria has served as an analyst for ABC News, a roundtable member of This Week with George Stephanopoulos and host of Foreign Exchange with Fareed Zakaria on PBS."

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N.Y. Times Op-ed Page Goes All-South Asia

"In what I suspect is a first for The New York Times op-ed page, all four of today's columns address either India or Pakistan," Arun Venugopal wrote Wednesday on the Web site of the South Asian Journalists Association. "Three of the items deal with Pakistan's emergency:

"Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan's former Prime Minister, on 'Musharraf's Martian Plan'

"Mohammed Hanif on 'Pakistan's General Anarchy'

"Maureen Dowd's 'Mushy: Handsome in Uniform'

"Plus a fourth item by Thomas Friedman, "The Dawn of E2K in India," in which he suggests that Indian outsourcing companies are well positioned for the environmental revolution. Friedman has once again interviewed Nandan Nilekani of Infosys, making me think this columnist has the world's smallest black book."


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Short Takes

  • "A letter signed by more than 200 young journalists in Iran reproaches media managers and executives for failing to sufficiently protect their rights, the Association of Iranian Journalists (AOIJ) said on its Web site," the Web site reported on Monday. "According to AOIJ, the letter complains that some managers — who often are also important political or business people — abuse their position and abandon the rights of their own employees. The young journalists also say there is very little security for them in Iran, especially for those who work for independent media."
  • The Sigma Delta Chi Foundation of the Society of Professional Journalists approved a $20,000 grant to help launch the Chauncey Bailey Project, "a collaborative investigative journalism project to continue the work of murdered Oakland Post Editor Chauncey Bailey," the foundation announced on Monday.
  • The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has filed an amicus brief arguing that a civil rights lawsuit filed by journalists who were assaulted by FBI agents in Puerto Rico should not have been dismissed, the committee said on Tuesday.
  • "The legitimate case for death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal's retrial gets another airing" in British director Marc Evans'"unfocused, oddly naive 'In Prison My Whole Life,'" Variety writer Jay Weissberg wrote on Monday. The documentary "throws in the full panoply of current social-activist causes, from Abu Ghraib to Hurricane Katrina to slavery (yes, slavery) and even Paul Robeson to explain the unsurprising news that black men are given a raw deal in the U.S." Appearing are William Francome, Amy Goodman, Frances Goldin, Robert R. Bryan, Linn Washington, Ramona Africa, Barbara Easley Cox, Reggie Shell, Noam Chomsky, Dave Lindorff, Terri Maurer-Carter, Michael Schiffman, Pedro Polakoff III, Billy Cook, Pam Africa, Angela Davis, Mos Def, Snoop Dogg, Alice Walker, Robert Meeropol and Steve Earle.
  • "Nearly three weeks after his abrupt departure as editor of The Sacramento Bee, Rick Rodriguez said he has made no plans for his future and remains mum on the reasons for his exit, which some have speculated was related to disagreements over Web site management," Joe Strupp reported Wednesday in Editor & Publisher. "'I am still just trying got figure out what is best for my family,' he stated. 'I have talked to a lot of different people, but it is just talk. There are no firm offers. Right now just talking to everyone.'"
  • Come Friday, Victoria Lim will leave her job in Tampa, Fla., with no real alternative arranged, Eric Deggans reported on his St. Petersburg Times blog. She serves as a consumer reporter/multimedia journalist/newspaper columnist for WFLA-Ch. 8, and the Tampa Tribune.



  • Denise Johnson, editorial writer for the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune, will receive an award on Friday for her work in teaching, mentoring and supporting high school students of color who are interested in journalism, the University of St. Thomas announced. "Now based at the University of St. Thomas, ThreeSixty is the successor to the Urban Journalism Workshop, which began in 1971 as a two-week summer camp to train and mentor teens of color interested in careers in journalism," the university said. "Johnson was a member of the first class and later directed the summer program for several years when she was a reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. She now works as a volunteer with the program."
  • "Dianne Lynch, who had been chosen as the new dean of UC Berkeley's graduate school of journalism, has withdrawn from the job," Tanya Schevitz reported Tuesday for the San Francisco Chronicle. "Lynch, who has served as dean at the Park School of Communication at Ithaca College in New York state since 2004, was named Cal's journalism dean in May 2007. But Thursday, she told UC Berkeley administrators that she will remain at Ithaca College." Cal associate journalism professor Neil Henry had been among the five finalists for the job.
  • Another voice at the Palm Beach (Fla.) Post has mourned the death of columnist Stebbins Jefferson: C.B. Hanif, editorial writer and ombudsman. "I once kept an editorial cartoon posted near my desk showing editors in an all-white newsroom lamenting the lack of someone to cover disturbances in African-American neighborhoods— even as an overqualified black custodian was cleaning the floor," Hanif wrote on Saturday. "To provide a wider viewpoint, this newspaper asked Mrs. Jefferson to begin writing a regular column in 1989, and in 1992 appointed her to the editorial board. Just as that cartoon parodied how some qualified blacks joined their news organizations, hers, too, was a nontraditional route. Mrs. Jefferson was an accomplished educator and homemaker long before she began writing for The Post. Her columns revealed her as Everywoman, written from her unique perspectives as wife and mother, daughter and sister, and friend, whether black, white, or other. Yet she also was Everyman . . ."

Richard Prince's Journal-isms originates from Washington and is published Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It began in print before most of us knew what the Internet was, and it would like to be referred to as a "column." For newcomers: The words in blue (on most computers) are links leading to more information. The Web site provides passwords and user names to some registration-only news sites, but use may be illegal in some states. Any views expressed in the column are those of the person or organization quoted and not those of any other entity.

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