What Were They Thinking?
Included in the Carnival of Christian Women at Dandelions and Daydreams
“It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Caught in a noose: Tilghman slips up, and Golf Channel can’t wiggle free.”
That’s the headline on the January 19, 2008 cover of Golfweek magazine. It accompanies a photo of a noose (which, because it is so offensive, will not be published here). The magazine’s former editor, Dave Seanor, who was fired on Thursday, described the cover imagery as “an attempt, and a poor one, to link it to the situation the Golf Channel is in.”
The Golf Channel’s problems began on January 4 when anchor Kelly Tilghman bantered with host Nick Faldo about how young up-and-coming golfers might be able to best the phenomenal Tiger Woods. Faldo suggest ed that “to take Tiger on, well, yeah, they should just gang up for a while until . . . ” at which point Tilghman interrupted him and added “lynch him in a back alley.” Although Woods said he was not upset or offended by the remark, chalking it up to a poor choice of words with no underlying ill intent, not everyone saw it that way.
Many people, including me, felt that the Golf Channel had a responsibility to discipline Tilghman because of her comments, even if she displayed no malicious intent and had no history of similar behavior. In order to set an example for the remainder of its workforce and take a public stand about its commitment to diversity, the Golf Channel had an affirmative obligation to take action against Tilghman commensurate with her employment history and her offensive comment.
Inexplicably, the Golf Channel failed to react immediately, instead waiting a full two days to issue an apology from Tilghman and a statement saying that no action would be taken against her. After public outrage, she was suspended from her duties for two weeks.
But the Golf Channel’s mishandling of the situation was mild compared with Golfweek magazine’s ill-fated decision not only to feature a photo of a noose on its cover, but also to attempt, via its headline, to compare the Golf Channel’s conundrum with the historical significance attached to the image. Seanor claimed that the headline was an attempt to “convey the concept that they were caught in a situation where it just continued to tighten around them.”
The irony of the timing of this controversy, i.e., in the days surrounding the commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and legacy, is lost on few.
While many people were ready to accept Tilghman’s apology, forgive her and move on because her comments were neither premeditated nor part of a larger pattern of behavior, the actions of the editors at Golfweek were deliberate, contemplative and designed to inject Golfweek into the story — and, many believe, the headlines. After much editorial debate, a photographer was enlisted to shoot the photo that was ultimately selected and the headline drafted after intense discussions. Seanor said, “We chose it because it was an image we thought would draw attention to an issue we thought deserved some intelligent dialogue.” But the cover has been referred to as not just inflammatory, but an example of tabloid journalism at its worst. On Thursday, January 17, 2008, Senator Barack Obama said, “We have to have a culture that understands that there’s nothing funny about a noose. That’s a profound history that people have been dealing with and those memories are ones that can’t be played with.”
Charles Barkley’s comments were more scathing: “I don’t want to hear that the golf industry’s biggest problem is something Kelly Tilghman said. If Golfweek really wanted to examine racism, as the editor said he did, they would look at golf and country clubs excluding Jews and black folks. . . . Look at their restrictive policies and explain why the only black folks you see at most clubs are working in the kitchen . . . just like it was 100 years ago.”Seanor would have done well to dispatch his staff to conduct research into the historical symbolism of the image — a disturbing amount of which is very recent. His staff would have had to look no further than CNN which reported on November 1, 2007, just a little over two months ago, an alarming increase in the number of incidents involving nooses.
Since September 2007, incidents of nooses placed in a variety of locations include:
- One left in the bag of a black Coast Guard cadet aboard a cutter and another left on the office floor of the white officer who conducted race-relations training in response to the incident;
- A police station locker room in a New York suburb;
- A high school in North Carolina high school;
- A Home Depot store in New Jersey;
- In a tree near a building that housed several black groups on the campus of the University of Maryland;
- Directed via U.S. mail to high school principal in Brooklyn, New York, accompanied by a letter stating “White Power Forever;”
- Outside a post office at Ground Zero;
- On the toolbox of an employee of the Goodyear plant in Fayetteville, Georgia;
- On the office door of a Professor Madonna Constantine at Columbia University, an act she said reeked “of cowardice and fear on many, many levels;” and
- The head of a black mannequin was found hanging from a noose outside a home in Valley Stream, New York, with a piece of paper bearing the “n word” attached.
The problem is so bad that House Bill 80, the “No Nooses Act,” is currently pending in the Maryland Legislature. In 2000, the Department of Justice reported an increase in the number of incidents of nooses found in professional environments and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has prosecuted at least 20 lawsuits involving nooses in the workplace since 2001.
The most frequently cited basis for complaints of discrimination filed with California’s civil rights enforcement agency continues to be race. That agency, like the EEOC, has handled cases involving nooses and images of nooses placed in workplaces around the state.
So you have to ask what Seanor and his staff were thinking when they made their unfortunate and short-sighted editorial decisions.
In response to that very question, Seanor offered this explanation: “It’s an easy question for someone to ask who has never sat in an editor’s chair or worked in journalism. We were thinking, as unbelievable as that might seem to people. Perhaps we overthought it in a way. We weren’t trying to be sensational. It’s interesting that a lot of the objection, ‘Oh, they’re just trying to sell magazines.’ We’re 99 percent subscriptions. We’re not even on the newsstand.”
Of note is the fact that there are no African-Americans on staff at Golfweek, so the “very, very vigorous” in which the editors allegedly engaged before deciding to go with the cover inarguably took place in a vacuum, without input from members of a diverse workforce.
The noose symbolizes one thing, “death by hanging,” says the Director of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Since the end of the Civil War, more than 4,700 persons have been lynched in America, more than two-thirds of them African-American. It remains, along with the image of a burning cross, the most enduring symbol of racial intolerance and hatred in American history.
So Seanor and his staff were plainly not thinking clearly, rationally or with even a modicum of sensitivity to the historical and sociological implications of their irresponsible behavior. Seanor’s contention that they “overthought” the issue is ridiculous. I agree with Jim Thorpe, a legendary African American golf champion: “It was a bad choice of words. But the guy from Golfweek . . . Let him get barbecued. That was a major mistake on his part. . . . [Putting the noose on the cover] was absolutely stupid. That was throwing fuel on the fire. Why would you do that? He knew better.”
The only “silver lining” is this: Like the recent incidents involving Mel Gibson, Michael Richards and Don Imus, the Golf Channel and Golfweek debacles have focused our attention upon how much we have accomplished in the nearly 40 years since Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated — and illustrated just how much work remains to be done in order to achieve equality and tolerance for all persons, and allow us to live peacefully in a society free from racial discrimination and harassment.
Seanor has said that he hopes to continue his career in journalism. Whatever he does in the future, my wish for him is that he will learn from his recent mistakes and never repeat them, and take responsibility for his actions in a manner not heretofore evident in the interviews he has granted. As Dr. King stated, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”