Ethics Dunce: Author Karen Hunter

In a jaw-dropping example of naked bias, dishonesty, and Bizarro World journalistic ethics, African-American author Karen Hunter complained on MSNBC that the Associated Press was racist by transcribing President Obama’s speech to the Congressional Black Caucus without restoring his intentionally dropped dropped G’s, as other services—unethically—did.

Here’s part of the AP version:

“Take off your bedroom slippers. Put on your marching shoes,” he said, his voice rising as applause and cheers mounted. “Shake it off. Stop complainin’. Stop grumblin’. Stop cryin’. We are going to press on. We have work to do.”

Hunter said the AP’s version was “inherently racist.”

“I teach a journalism class,” she said, “and I tell my students to fix people’s grammar, because you don’t want them to sound ignorant. For them to do that, it’s code, and I don’t like it.”

Code??  The code, of course, was Obama’s intentional, shameless, and condescending code, as the presence of a black audience before him caused him to suddenly morph from the Yale-educated Hawaiian who speaks impeccable English, perfectly G’d, into a street-talking community organizer. The fact that he chose to do such an overtly cynical shuck and jive act was the story as much as the content of his speech. For a news agency to hide that, to intentionally obscure it, would constitute an intentional effort to allow Obama’s lack of integrity fly under the radar. Hunter apparently feels it is racist to honestly report what the President does, if it doesn’t reflect well on him.

Mark Smith, the AP reporter who filed the story, defended his account. “Normally, I lean toward the clean-it-up school of quote transcribing—for everyone,” Smith said. “But in this case, the President appeared to be making such a point of dropping Gs, and doing so in a rhythmic fashion, that for me to insert them would run clearly counter to his meaning. I believe I was respecting his intent in this. Certainly disrespect was the last thing I intended.”

If anyone was racist, it was Barack Obama, talking to African Americans as if standard English pronunciation—the way he normally speaks—was difficult for them to understand. If any journalists were unethical, it would be those who added the carefully dropped G’s, preventing readers from recognizing what I could, thanks to the AP: Obama was pretending to be someone he’s not, and doing so in a transparent and blatant manner. This isn’t a case of cleaning up the “ums” and “ahs,” false starts and grammatical nightmares of some politicians less skilled and educated than Obama. This is a case of reporting how a politician said something, because the manner was part of the message.

Hunter would prefer that most Americans not know that their President drops his G’s when he talks to black audiences. That’s backwards journalistic ethics. The public has a right to know that Barack Obama, who promised to be a President of all the people, now shows different faces to different constituencies.

10 thoughts on “Ethics Dunce: Author Karen Hunter

  1. “The code, of course, was Obama’s intentional, shameless, and condescending code, as the presence of a black audience before him caused him to suddenly morph from the Yale-educated Hawaiian who speaks impeccable English, perfectly G’d, into a street-talking community organizer.”

    So when is this behavior deemed acceptable? I started a long term sub job last week – half the day I’m in SPED (where my tone is sweet and encouraging), and the other half I’m co-teaching 10th grade English. I learned the first five minutes that, in order to get the 10th graders’ attention, I was forced to add some window dressing to my delivery. I employed funny voices, I exaggerated my body language, I got in their faces, and I delivered the core content in a way I would never do to my fellow teachers (unless they too were falling asleep or gazing at their phone screens or talking amongst themselves). In other words, I woke them the hell up.

    Do I get your blessings on this, Jack, or have I strayed yet again?

    • If your point is that Obama justifiably regards African Americans as the equivilent of children who he is required to pander to with special effects and funny voices, I guess I’d say that they, at least, would have problems with the word “justifiably.”

      Even the 10thg graders aren’t expected to believe you really talk in a funny voice…they know it’s a performance. I’ll grant you the analogy for the black oration style Obama used. Not the dropped G’s. The dropped G’s weren’t performance, but artifice and attempted deception. A leader can perform; what a leader should not do is misrepresent himself. I perform in ethics seminars, but I’m not trying to fool anybody.

    • Would anyone be surprised that you changed your delivery and the way you act? Probably not. Acting is essential to teaching. Do you try to cover up the fact that you use different delivery styles to the different classes? I can’t see why you would. If you were explaining to someone how you teach, you would probably explicitly mention it.

      The unethical act here was that people tried to cover it up. If there is nothing wrong with it, why do you need to hide it? The fact that people are complaining that someone let the American people know the truth is the problem. This was a secret we weren’t supposed to know. The media was hiding from us how Barak Obama really acts, and they are acting more like a PR firm than journalists.

    • I presume, then, you would have no trouble with the Ricky Riccardo approach? “Lucy an’ I thin’ we shou’n’t be taxed as mush as the Mersses!” Should the AP record that as, “Michelle and I strongly believe that the middle class should be taxed at lower rates than the Mertzes”?

  2. What did the press do with Sarah Palin? She dropped enough g’s to fill a wheelbarrow every time she spoke in public, and I doubt that she did so in private. (If she did, I suppose that leads to a different discussion.) If Obama was pandering to a black audience with g-less gerunds, wasn’t Palin guilty of the same lapse in pandering to an “un-intellectual” audience? I don’t remember that all of her dropped g’s were scrupulously transcribed. Politicians have always tried to adapt their deliveries to their audiences.

    Remember, too, that when in 1948 Strom Thurmond said “There’s not enough troops in the Army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigger race into our theatres, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches,” every newspaper in the country reported that he’d said “Negro”. Clearly the safest course is to transcribe exactly what the speaker said, even though this undeniably favors facile orators like Obama and Reagan over, say, George W. Bush.

    • I agree with that, Tom. If a speaker sounds inarticulate and dumb, or uses slang, what is gained in making the speech sound otherwise. When Palin said, “How’s that hopey changey thing workin’ out for ya?”—although her use of “ya” was clearly to show wry contempt, not to “talk like the crowd”—it should have been reported exactly as stated, not, “How is “Hope and Change” working for you?”, which is neither as funny, catchy, or impertinent.

      The Strom quote is a great example.

  3. I wonder, hypothetically, how this controversy would have played out differently if the President had “axed” the crowd a question–by which I mean if the dialectical change were more overt than just the accent with which he was talkin’.


  4. Don’t think there’s an ethics question at all here. Any effective communicator adapts their style of speech based on several factors. In a formal paper, I would found some way to avoid using “their” for the third-person singular in the sentance preceding this one. Mark Smith’s explanation is very good, including the fact that most often, he would not transcribe the dropped Gs, but chose to do so in this case, because it seemed to more accurately convey the speaker’s message. But he knew he was taking a chance, and that the more common practice would be to not try to reproduce the accents of every person he quoted.

    There’s nothing unethical about reporting a speaker’s attempt to connect with a particular audience. And there’s also nothing unethical about trying to connect with your audience by speaking their language. (It might not succeed, but that’s for your audience to judge.)

    • There is certainly an ethical issue by definition, since the reporter was accused of violating journalistic ethics.

      Speaking Spanish to a Hispanic group is different from what Obama did. Nobody thinks he is Hispanic; there is no deception there. Using a dialect or speaking patterns is 1) insulting, suggesting that the audience can’t comprehend standard English 2) pandering 3) dishonest, suggesting that the President speaks this way naturally, and 4. silly.

      I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a president that intelligent people have been willing to go so far outside common sense and fairness to rationalize inept or unethical behavior. Clinton, maybe.

    • You are totally wrong-headed on this one. Does Obama adopt a Southern accent when he’s south of the Mason Dixon Line? Does he adopt a Boston accent when in Boston? Does he suddenly adopt the nasal vowels of the Midwesterner? Does he lose all his grammar when talking to a Union group? And would he be defended for it?

      He condescended to what he considers his “base” constituency, period. And his combined egotism and tone-deafness will eventually do him in.

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