Questions about bigotry in the media did not begin with the now notorious comment by radio host Don Imus about the Rutgers women's basketball team, but it opened a discussion that deserves students' consideration. Following an introduction, the student reading below offers samples from TV and radio programs, the record industry and other media outlets that raise questions about racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and Islamophobia in the media. Discussion questions and a writing assignment of the kind required in New York State's Document Based Questions (DBQs) follow.
The samples include controversial, even inflammatory, comments and descriptions the teacher needs to consider. Since worthwhile class discussion calls for an environment in which students feel they can speak freely, the teacher might first discuss with students the kind of environment in which they feel this freedom. Among the essentials are a willingness to listen attentively to what others say, respectful disagreement-if there is disagreement-and dialogue rather than debate. Does the class already have guidelines for discussing controversial issues? If so, they might be revisited. If not, they might be created. See "Teaching on Controversial Issues," which is available on this website.
People disagree about the difference between what's satirical and what's racist, between what's a joke and what's sexism. They differ over what's fair commentary about an issue and what's crossing the line into bigotry. They differ also on what some call "political correctness" (PC) - and others call using language to respect the feelings of others.
As a result of these disagreements, we get controversy over what someone says on a radio talk show, what we see someone say or do on TV, what we read. What did Imus, a white man, think he was doing when he referred to the Rutgers women's basketball team as "nappy-headed hos"? During the media uproar that followed, Imus apologized repeatedly for what he called his "thoughtless and stupid" remark. But he also said that he was trying to be funny by imitating the kind of language he had heard used by black rappers.
What's funny? What's satirical? When does something intended as humor turn offensive? What's the difference between a fair comment and one that's intended to insult or shock? Are there gray areas? How do you decide? Such questions will come up as you read the following.
"With Apologies to Jesse Jackson," an episode of South Park
South Park, a cartoon program, aired on Comedy Central for the first time 3/7/07.
In this episode, the South Park character Randy Marsh appears on the TV program Wheel of Fortune. He is presented with the category, "People Who Annoy You" and the letters "N_GGERS." The correct answer is "NAGGERS," but he answers "NIGGERS." At school the next day, Randy Marsh's son Stan Marsh tries to explain to a classmate, Token (who is black), that his father isn't a racist, "just stupid" and that it's "not a big deal." Token answers that Stan doesn't understand how black people feel about the word. Token says that Stan is "ignorant" for not understanding that even if his father made a mistake, it is a big deal. Token walks away. Eric Cartman lifts up Stan's hand and announces that "Whites win again!"
Randy tries to apologize to Rev. Jesse Jackson, who accepts the apology after getting a newspaper photograph of Randy "kissing his ass." But Token doesn't accept it, telling Stan, "Jesse Jackson is not the emperor of black people!" (even though Jackson apparently told Randy he was). Randy joins a socially progressive group that successfully lobbies Congress to require that the word "nigger" always be separated from the word "guy" by seven words. A news broadcaster is arrested when he says that the term "nigger guy" is banned.
Eventually, Stan tells Token that, as a white person he will never understand why Token is so upset by the word and why it can make black people furious when a white person says it in any context. Token is finally satisfied that Stan gets that he doesn't get it and this creates an understanding between them.
This episode uses the word "nigger" 42 times. (www.en.wikipedia.org)
1. What do you think were the intentions of South Park's creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, in writing "With Apologies to Jesse Jackson"? What is in the episode that supports your opinion?
2. Why do you suppose the program ends with the conversation between Stan and Token?
3. Why do you suppose the writers of the program used the word "nigger" 42 times?
4. How do you interpret Token's name?
"Imus in the Morning," on April 4, 2007, aired on CBS Radio and simulcast on MSNBC.
Don Imus was talking about the championship basketball game between the women's teams of Rutgers University and the University of Tennessee. "That's some rough girls from Rutgers. Man, they got tattoos and..." Brian McGuirk, the producer, cut in, "Some hard-core hos." Imus said, "That's some nappy-headed hos there, I'm going to tell you that."
A major controversy erupted that resulted in CBS firing Imus. Later, Imus filed a $40 million suit for breach of contract. His lawyer said CBS had violated a clause in the contract stating that it "desired" him to provide services that are "extraordinary," "irreverent" and "controversial." (www.cnn.com, 5/2/07)
The rapper Snoop Dogg was asked about the difference between Imus's language and the use of such language in rap lyrics. He said, "It's a completely different scenario...[Rappers] are not talking about collegiate basketball girls who have made it to the next level in education and sports. We're talking about hos that's in the 'hood that ain't doing shit." (Quoted in Gary Younge, "The Good Victim," The Nation , 5/7/07)
Russell Simmons and Ben Chavis, leaders of Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, said on 4/23/07: "We recommend that the recording and broadcast industries voluntarily remove/bleep/ delete the misogynistic words 'bitch' and 'ho' and the racially offensive word 'nigger.' [What is required are] creative voluntary actions exemplifying good corporate social responsibility." (www.hsan.org (no longer active), 4/23)
Chris Rock, Time Magazine , 3/15/07: "Will I stop using the N word? I won't even say 'the N word.' Will I stop saying 'nigger'? Nope, not me. Never. I'll stop using it in church. Is that O.K.?"
1. How do you define "racism"? How do you judge Imus's comment? Humorous? Racist? Something else? Why?
2. According to Snoop Dogg, Imus's language and the same language in rap lyrics are completely different. Are they? Why or why not?
3. What is your view of the Simmons-Davis proposal? How would you define "good corporate social responsibility"? Imus was on CBS and MSNBC for years, during which Imus made many controversial comments and never received any official warning for them. Consider the excerpt from his contract with CBS. Did he violate it? Why or why not? How do you account for CBS's firing him?
4. Why do you suppose that Chris Rock disagrees with at least part of the Simmons-Davis proposal?
5. At least some blacks, women, Jews and gays and lesbians, among themselves, use language that offend them when used by others. Why?
The Notorious B.I.G. (aka Biggie Smalls and Big Poppa; birth name, Christopher Wallace), singing from "Ready to Die"
And my jam knock in the Mitsubishi
Girls pee pee when they see me, Nava-hoes
Creep me in they tee pee
As I lay down laws like I lay carpet
Stop it - if you think you gonna make a profit
An Oakland high school student's translation from ebonics:
I enjoy playing music loudly on my car stereo.
Apparently, women enjoy this also because they become sexually aroused when they see me driving.
Oddly enough, when I visit the Native American reservations, some of the more sexually promiscuous women attempt to seduce me in their homes.
Their intent is to divest me of my earnings. Such actions are unacceptable.
1. What do the women in the class think of B.I.G.'s lyrics? Are they offended? Do they think the lyrics are funny? Something else? Why? Let the men listen to the women for a while before offering their comments.
2. What agreements are there? Disagreements? Why?
3. What differences are there between B.I.G.'s lyrics and the translation from Ebonics? Are reactions different? Why or why not?
Rush Limbaugh, Premier Radio Networks' nationally syndicated "The Rush Limbaugh Show," 11/30/06
"My cat comes to me when she wants to get fed....And after I feed her - guess what - she is off to wherever she wants to be in the house until the next time she gets hungry. She's smart enough to know she can't feed herself. She's actually a very smart cat. She gets love. She gets adoration. She gets petted. She gets fed. And she doesn't have to do anything for it, which is why I say the cat's taught me more about women, than anything my whole life." (www.mediamatters.org)
1. What has Limbaugh learned from his cat about women? This time have the men in class respond before the women offer their views. Agreements?
2. Disagreements? Why
3. How do you define "sexism"?
4. Would you classify Limbaugh's commentary as sexist? Why or why not?
Sacha Baron Cohen, playing Borat and singing a song on HBO's "Da Ali G Show"
Throw the Jew down the well
So my country can be free
You must grab him by the horns
Then we have a big party
Borat, a person supposedly from Kazakhstan, is at a country music club in Tucson, Arizona, where beer-drinking customers join enthusiastically in singing the song. Cohen said of this song and episode, "By himself pretending to be anti-Semitic, he [Borat] lets people lower their guard and expose their own prejudices." (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Borat)
1. Define anti-Semitism.
2. In terms of your definition is "Throw the Jew down the well" anti-Semitic? Why or why not?
3. Consider Cohen's explanation. What do you think about letting people "lower their guard and expose their own prejudices"? Why?
4. Chris Rock, a black man, will not stop using the word "nigger." Sacha Baron Cohen, a Jew, will not stop pretending to be anti-Semitic. How do you explain their views? Do you agree with them? Why or why not?
"The Baptism," Curb Your Enthusiasm, HBO, first aired 11/18/01
Larry, who is Jewish, can't believe that the Jewish man who is marrying his sister-in-law is converting to Christianity. Through his car window as they approach the lakeside inn where the marriage is to occur, Larry sees a man going up and down in the lake and perhaps drowning. He stops the car, rushes to the lake and dives in to save the man, the intended groom, and stops a baptismal ceremony.
At the inn Larry is apologetic but claims he knows nothing about baptisms and was simply trying to save a man's life. The bride and her family are outraged by his behavior. The wedding invitees divide into two camps - Larry's sister-in-law and her Christian friends and the groom and his Jewish friends. The minister says they must perform the interrupted baptismal ceremony over again. The groom says he's had enough of splashing about in the lake and urged on by his friends, refuses. The friends honor Larry as a hero who saved the groom from Christianity. Larry accepts their praise with pleasure. The two groups hurl insults at each other as the episode comes to an end.
1. Larry David writes the episodes for and acts in Curb Your Enthusiasm. What do you think his purpose was in "The Baptism"? To be satirical? To be anti-Semitic? Anti-Christian? Anti-religious? Something else?
2. Even if you judge his purpose to be satirical, this episode would probably be offensive not only to some Jews but also to some Christians. Should it, therefore, not have been aired by HBO? Why or why not?
Michael Savage, Talk Radio Nation's nationally syndicated radio program, "Savage Nation," 11/13/06
"And I want to tell you something, and I'm going to say it loud and clear. The radical homosexual agenda will not stop until religion is outlawed in this country. Make no mistake about it. They're all not nice decorators. You better get it through your head before it's too late. They went after the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church is now caving in to the homosexual agenda. They will not stop until they force their agenda down your throats. Gay marriage is just the tip of the iceberg. They want full and total subjugation of this society to their agenda."
Ann Coulter at the 2007 Conservative Political Action Conference
"I was going to have a few comments on the other Democratic presidential candidate, John Edwards, but it turns out that you have to go into rehab if you use the word 'faggot,' so I'm - so, kind of at an impasse, can't really talk about Edwards."
Hannity and Colmes, Fox News, 3/25/07
"Use of the word 'faggot' isn't offensive to gays; it has nothing to do with gays."
PBS, "Postcards from Buster"
"PBS has pulled an episode of the children's show, 'Postcards from Buster' that includes children with lesbian mothers. The episode was yanked the same day that PBS received a letter from new Secretary of Education Margaret Spelling condemning the episode and asking PBS to 'strongly consider' returning the federal money that went toward its production....PBS spokesperson Lea Sloan said the episode brought up an issue [lesbianism and lesbian parents] that was 'best left for parents and children to address together at a time and manner of their own choosing.'" (www.fair.org, 1/31/05)
Harvey Fierstein, an actor and playwright who is also gay, "Our Prejudices, Ourselves," New York Times , 4/13/07
"What surprises me, I guess, is how choosy the anti-P.C. crowd is about which hate speech it will not tolerate. Sure, there were voices of protest when the TV actor Isaiah Washington called a gay colleague a 'faggot.' But corporate America didn't pull its advertising from 'Gray's Anatomy,' as it did with Mr. Imus, did it? And when Ann Coulter likewise tagged a presidential candidate last month, she paid no real price."
1. How would you define "homophobia"? By your definition, is Michael Savage homophobic? Why or why not?
2. Homosexuals, he said, are not just "nice decorators." What do you understand him to mean? Is this statement homophobic? Why or why not?
3. What evidence do you know of that homosexuals seek the outlawing of religion in the U.S.? Even if you don't know of any evidence, would you judge this statement of Savage's to be homophobic? Why or why not?
4. What do you suppose that Ann Coulter meant by implying that John Edwards is a "faggot"? Are Hannity and Colmes right? Why or why not?
5. Consider Lea Sloan's statement for PBS on why it eliminated an episode of "Postcards from Buster." Do you agree with the statement? Why or why not? Did the statement exhibit homophobia? Why or why not? Might PBS have had any other motive for pulling the episode?
6. What does Harvey Fierstein think about the word "faggot"? "Corporate America"?
"Plan to Open an Arabic School In Brooklyn Arouses Protests"
New York Times, 5/4/07 (and 5/5/07 for the final paragraph)
"The Khalil Gibran International Academy was conceived as a public embr ace of New York City's growing Arab population and of internationalism, the first public school dedicated to the study of the Arabic language and culture and open to students of all racial backgrounds. But nearly three months after plans for the middle school were first announced, a beleaguered Department of Education is fending off attacks..."
Among them are some aimed at the principal, Debbie Almontaser, "who came to America from Yemen at age 3, who organized peace rallies and urged tolerance after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and who has been vilified on Web sites as having an 'Islamist agenda'...
"Alicia Colon, a columnist for The New York Sun, wrote that Osama bin Laden must have been 'delighted' to hear the news of the school. 'New York city, the site of the worst terrorist attack in our history, is bowing down in homage to accommodate and perhaps groom future radicals,' she said. 'I say break out the torches and surround City Hall to stop this monstrosity.'"
A column by Daniel Pipes "declared that 'A Madrassa Grows in Brooklyn,' contending that the school would generate problems and promote an 'Islamic outlook'....
"The school is expected to teach a standard college preparatory curriculum, with separate instruction in the Arabic language. Ms. Almontaser said she also planned to teach the history of the Arab people. 'It will encompass the international perspective,' she said. 'One of the core values of the school is to develop international global citizens.'"
Neil Boortz, Cox Radio nationally syndicated show, 7/19/06:
Neil Boortz: I don't care whether you were born into this religion [Islam], or you chose the religion. It is, at its core, a violent, violent religion....
Caller: I disagree with you, sir.
Boortz: ...You can disagree all you want. And I also believe this Muhammad guy is just a phony rag-picker that created...
Caller: You have a right to believe whatever you like.
Boortz: ...It is perfectly legitimate, perhaps even praiseworthy, to recognize Islam as a religion of vicious, violent, bloodthirsty cretins.
Bill O'Reilly, "The Radio Factor," Westwood One nationally syndicated radio show, 1/24/06
"The Sunni and Shia want to kill each other. They want to blow each other up. They want to torture each other. They have fun. This is-they like this. This is what Allah tells them to do, and that's what they do...That's the essential mistake of the war. And we didn't think these people would act like savages, and they are."
1. What do you think would be "an Islamist agenda"? What evidence is there that the principal has one? Do you think that the Khalil Gibran International Academy would be a "problem"? A "monstrosity"? Why or why not? Do you consider Alicia Colon's or Daniel Pipes' comments Islamophobic? Why or why not?
2. How do you think Pipes would define "an Islamic outlook"? How would you define one?
3. Would you consider any of Neil Boortz's or Bill O'Reilly's comments Islamophobic? Why?
4. Suicide bombers and other deliberate killers of civilians on 9/11 and in such places as Israel, Iraq, Saudia Arabia, Egypt, and Indonesia in recent years have been Muslims. Does this fact support Boortz's view? Why or why not?
5. How would you determine whether a religion was "at its core, a violent, violent religion"?
6. What do you need to know to answer the following questions? Do Sunni and Shia want to kill each other? All of them? Some? A few? If you didn't know enough to answer the questions, how might you find out?
7. A New York Times reporter screened nearly 250 hours of shock-talk radio several weeks after the Imus episode. The Times reported that "Gay men and lesbians, and women and Muslims, among others, were frequent targets of ridicule, coarse, sexually explicit banter...and meanness appeared to be a job prerequisite, whether a host was belittling someone who called in or the unwitting subject of a prank call." What, if anything, should be done by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) about such talk and why? If you are unfamiliar with the FCC's functions, how might you find out about them?
Viewpoints differ on whether the media include in their programming bigots and bigoted remarks.
Using information from the documents in this reading and your knowledge of the media, write a well-organized essay that includes an introduction, several paragraphs and a conclusion in which you:
- discuss, with supporting evidence, your reasons for thinking the media do or do not include in their programming bigots and bigoted remarks and
- discuss what, if anything, you think should be done about any bigotry and why
After students have written their papers, divide the class into groups of four. Ask each student to read his/her paper to the group. After all papers have been read, ask students to discuss which of them they think is the best. They will then read that paper to the entire class and further discuss the issues the papers raise about media bigotry.
This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: firstname.lastname@example.org