Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Gwen Ifill Speaks

Imus has been running around claiming he never called Gwen Ifill a cleaning lady. I'm sure that's technically true. Imus' schtick works like this: one of his crew, usually his producer, Bernard Mcuirk, makes an offensive statement. There's a brief moment of silence, then they all begin laughing like hyenas. Imus pretends to be outraged, and they all begin repeating the offensive statement, in the guise of remonstrating with Bernard. But actually, they're all enjoying the joke. Ha ha. Frat boy humor. Snap that towel, laugh at the pain that follows. Ha ha.

I don't think Gwen Ifill has ever spoken publicly about the cleaning lady incident before. She has a column in today's New York Times.

Gwen Ifill, NYTimes: Trash Talk Radio

I was covering the White House for this newspaper in 1993, when Mr. Imus’s producer began calling to invite me on his radio program. I didn’t return his calls. I had my hands plenty full covering Bill Clinton.

Soon enough, the phone calls stopped. Then quizzical colleagues began asking me why Don Imus seemed to have a problem with me. I had no idea what they were talking about because I never listened to the program.

It was not until five years later, when Mr. Imus and I were both working under the NBC News umbrella — his show was being simulcast on MSNBC; I was a Capitol Hill correspondent for the network — that I discovered why people were asking those questions. It took Lars-Erik Nelson, a columnist for The New York Daily News, to finally explain what no one else had wanted to repeat.

“Isn’t The Times wonderful,” Mr. Nelson quoted Mr. Imus as saying on the radio. “It lets the cleaning lady cover the White House.”

I was taken aback but not outraged. I’d certainly been called worse and indeed jumped at the chance to use the old insult to explain to my NBC bosses why I did not want to appear on the Imus show.

I haven’t talked about this much. I’m a big girl. I have a platform. I have a voice. I’ve been working in journalism long enough that there is little danger that a radio D.J.’s juvenile slap will define or scar me. Yesterday, he began telling people he never actually called me a cleaning lady. Whatever. This is not about me.

It is about the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. That game had to be the biggest moment of their lives, and the outcome the biggest disappointment. They are not old enough, or established enough, to have built up the sort of carapace many women I know — black women in particular — develop to guard themselves against casual insult.

Why do my journalistic colleagues appear on Mr. Imus’s program? That’s for them to defend, and others to argue about. I certainly don’t know any black journalists who will.
To his credit, Mr. Imus told the Rev. Al Sharpton yesterday he realizes that, this time, he went way too far.

Yes, he did. Every time a young black girl shyly approaches me for an autograph or writes or calls or stops me on the street to ask how she can become a journalist, I feel an enormous responsibility. It’s more than simply being a role model. I know I have to be a voice for them as well.

So here’s what this voice has to say for people who cannot grasp the notion of picking on people their own size: This country will only flourish once we consistently learn to applaud and encourage the young people who have to work harder just to achieve balance on the unequal playing field.

Let’s see if we can manage to build them up and reward them, rather than opting for the cheapest, easiest, most despicable shots.


Anonymous said...

Thank you Gwen for your comments. I am so proud of these young women that have worked so hard to not only have the grades to get into the University, and then spend hours in the gym building their basketball skills. To have someone attack them in such a despicable manner is almost beyond belief. They did nothing to Imus, but he has spoiled what should have been a highlight in their lives. No apology will ever change this fact.


Chus said...

This is what I think: Moderator Ifill gets ready for Biden-Palin debate