Are they scandals?
Boston versus Gates, the Globe versus Flynn, Barnicle versus Eagan
The very white model lounges langorously on the very white chair, in the midst
of the very white room. The cover hype -- THE BEST PLACES TO LIVE: AN
INSIDE LOOK AT BOSTON AND 130 CITIES & TOWNS -- conjures up images of
opulent, very white neighborhoods.
It is a standard-issue cover package for Boston magazine, right out of
Lifestyle 101. And more than anything, it explains why the furor over the
headline for the magazine's profile of Harvard's Henry Louis Gates Jr. -- HEAD
NEGRO IN CHARGE -- still has not died down.
Context is everything, and Boston ran into trouble in two strikingly
On a mundane level, the editors made a serious error of judgment by taking a
provocative headline that was properly set up inside the magazine ("In the
parlance of black activists, he has become the new . . . Head Negro
In Charge") and repeating it on the cover without the necessary explanation.
But the white, fun-and-leisure cover itself points to a far deeper contextual
problem. Craig Unger, in his three years as Boston's editor, has at
least tried to include the black community in the magazine's ongoing
conversation. He has not, however, changed Boston's affluent, suburban
gestalt -- nor could he, given the imperatives of commerce.
Thus, Unger can hardly be surprised that publishing the offending phrase
provoked a decidedly different reaction from what might have been expected if
it had appeared, say, on the front page of the Bay State Banner. Even
worse, the phrase is (as Joan Wallace-Benjamin, president of the Urban League
of Eastern Massachusetts, pointed out on the Today show Monday) "a
euphemistic replacement for `head nigger in charge.' "
The white boys, in other words, got caught using the N-word.
It's too bad, because the 12,000-word profile of Skip Gates, by freelancer
Cheryl Bentsen, is superb -- a detailed, nuanced look at a complex man who has
become caught between a black world that sometimes sees him as having sold out
and a white world that looks to him as Black America's principal spokesman. It
follows a lengthy profile a little more than a year ago of the Reverend Eugene
Rivers, by Boston staffer Sean Flynn, that helped make Rivers a national
Rivers himself, who criticizes Gates in Bentsen's piece for purveying
"easy-listening, quasi-hip entertainment" rather than "a menu of social
policy," has played a curious role in the "HNIC" controversy. After the story
came out, he emerged as Unger's main defender, angrily and publicly confronting
the Reverend Charles Stith after a meeting arranged by Stith and Unger
degenerated into a sidewalk shouting match. It was that exchange -- captured on
television cameras -- that transformed this into a national story, attracting
the attention not just of Today, but of media ranging from the Los
Angeles Times to the New York Observer, where Unger worked as an
editor before coming to Boston. (Unger also did a stint in Boston at the
Real Paper in the 1970s.)
A further odd twist is that Rivers and another black Boston defender,
the Reverend Jeffrey Brown, have been identified as Boston "contributing
editors" in pieces in the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald.
Neither man is identified as such on the magazine's masthead. When
Boston was asked for a list of stories the two had "contributed" to
date, the magazine faxed just two book reviews: Cornel West's Restoring
Hope, reviewed by Brown last November, and Orlando Patterson's The
Ordeal of Integration, reviewed by Rivers in March. Unger says he's been
discussing a more formal role for Brown and Rivers for some time, and that
their names will appear on the masthead in the next issue. A final curiosity:
Brown cowrote a Globe op-ed piece last Friday that attacks Stith and
defends Boston -- but Brown is identified only as "pastor of Union
Baptist Church in Cambridge."
Stith, Wallace-Benjamin, and other critics have argued that though it may be
acceptable for African-Americans to use the "HNIC" phrase, which dates back to
slavery days, it's quite another thing for a predominantly white institution
such as Boston to adopt it. Those critics have a point, at least as it
pertains to the expression's context-free use on the cover. By injecting the
phrase into the mainstream (i.e., white) world, Unger stepped over an invisible
line -- much as Spike Lee did with his 1988 movie School Daze, which
explored tensions between light-skinned and dark-skinned blacks. At the time,
Lee was heavily criticized for airing the black community's dirty laundry in
order to entertain white audiences. And Unger, unlike Lee, lacks the cover of
Yet Unger also deserves some credit for ignoring the imperatives of political
correctness. Far better to be overly provocative than to follow the example of
John Kennedy Jr., who in his vacuous magazine, George, once wrote that
George Wallace, after losing an election to someone even more racist than
himself, vowed never to let anyone "outseg" him again. The ugly truth is that
Wallace said "outnigger," and Kennedy, not wishing to be unkind to the
doddering old man he was interviewing, chose to sanitize history instead. In
the Boston piece, Gates does, after all, talk about his efforts to
overturn society's "one-nigger rule" by stocking Harvard's Afro-American
Studies Department with a wide range of black stars. Bentsen herself uses --
and explains -- the phrase "HNIC." Yet Bentsen was also offended by the use of
the expression on the cover. Writers don't generally get to compose their own
headlines, but in this case her input would have been helpful.
What Unger really stepped into, though was not so much a language debate as it
was an ongoing battle between two types of black leaders, emblemized by Stith,
a traditional, civil-rights-oriented liberal, and Rivers, a street activist
whose ideology combines conservative and radical notions. Unger says he's
confident that he and Stith could have come to an understanding if Stith hadn't
stormed out of their meeting. Yet Unger certainly knew, or should have known,
what Stith's reaction would be when he saw Rivers waiting for him in
Boston's offices. (According to the Observer, Rivers winked at
Stith and said, "Hi, handsome.")
Obviously, Gates himself has no wish to get in the middle of this. He has
maintained total silence since the controversy burst into view, and a
knowledgeable source says Gates has informed the magazine that he will not be
available to attend a reception that had been planned in his honor. Accounts
differ concerning Gates's own view of the headline, but the Observer
story, citing anonymous sources, reported that he was "mortified."
At least in a superficial way, the debate is reminiscent of the last time
Boston found itself the subject of this much negative publicity. In July
1978 the magazine ran a sophomoric bit of satire that made fun of Cardinal
Humberto Medeiros. ("How can you tell Cardinal Medeiros from a marshmallow?
He's the one without the corners.") Faced with outrage from church officials
and a threatened advertiser boycott, Boston owner Herbert Lipson
apologized in the pages of the magazine, writing of his "rage and
embarrassment" and concluding: "Given the opportunity again, we would not run
Lipson, though, says the serious intent of the Gates piece makes the current
situation entirely different, and of course he's right. "I don't really want to
get involved with any comment other than to say I support Craig Unger and his
decision," he says before demanding: "Are you a journalist? There's nothing
that you write or have written or will write that some part of the community
will not take offense at. That's the nature of the business. If I had to
apologize and react to this, I would have to spend my whole life doing it."
Still, one wonders why Unger won't simply apologize and move on. "I've said
again and again that I sincerely regret offending people, and I really mean
that. But this is not racism," Unger says. Fine. But since he admits that his
attempt to be provocative was misunderstood by a sizable segment of the black
community, it's hard to imagine why saying "We're sorry" would be such a
For the moment, Unger's position seems secure -- perhaps even more secure than
it was before the HNIC affair. But Lipson has a well-earned reputation as an
arbitrary and capricious owner. If Stith is able to persuade advertisers to
boycott the magazine (a campaign he's had little success with so far), Unger
could find himself in a precarious position.
In that event, Lipson would do well to remember the fallout from the Medeiros
piece, says George Gendron, who resigned, unresigned, and was then fired by
Lipson in the midst of that flap two decades ago. "Once the threat of an
advertising boycott was over, the magazine benefited enormously from the
publicity it got," recalls Gendron, now editor-in-chief of Inc.
magazine. "I mean, this has given the magazine a kind of visibility and PR that
money can't buy."
Last December, when rumor had it that the 60 Minutes story on former
Boston mayor Ray Flynn and the Boston Globe might run before Christmas,
word on the street was that Flynn's minions were begging CBS to kill the
Now that the story has finally aired, it's easy to see why.
As CBS's Mike Wallace promised in an interview with the Phoenix
("Don't Quote Me,"
News, December 5), the piece criticized the Globe harshly for
reporting last September that Flynn, while ambassador to the Vatican, drank
heavily and performed few of his official duties. Assistant managing editor
Walter Robinson, deputy managing editor Ben Bradlee, and reporter Kate Zernike
never should have let CBS interview them as they sat like three white-collar
criminals waiting to be arraigned. None was particularly effective at making
the case that Flynn's drinking affected his public duties, although Zernike did
manage to interject, "I would say he failed in Rome."
Still, you couldn't help but come away thinking that Ray Flynn, for all his
protests to the contrary (I work hard! I run 10 miles at six in the morning
every day!), is at least a fairly heavy drinker. At a time when much of
society has become puritanical on issues such as smoking, drug use, and
drinking, that can hardly help his struggling campaign for governor.
Herald columnist Wayne Woodlief put it best when he wrote on Tuesday
that "the well-watched telecast could hurt his chances by introducing tens of
thousands of viewers around the state to a perception of Flynn they may not
even have known existed."
Especially telling was the performance of Herald political editor Joe
Sciacca. On 60 Minutes he rather piously told Wallace that his "best
political reporter" had been unable to find any evidence that Flynn's
ambassadorship had deteriorated into a Roman bender. Yet, the next morning,
Sciacca appeared on WROR Radio (105.7 FM) to yuck it up over
The most difficult question Wallace asked -- Have the media reached a point at
which nothing in a politician's personal life is off limits? -- really has no
answer. "I would hope not," Bradlee told him. "But it really is difficult to
draw the line."
It's a dilemma that the media are wrestling with more and more. There's an
enormous amount of self-examination going on during this lull in the Clinton
scandals, especially now that the Paula Jones case has been dropped. The best
the media can do is to assess each story on a case-by-case basis. The
Globe's whack-out of Flynn was brutal and bordered on the excessive, but
it was fair. So why didn't the Globe examine former governor Bill Weld's
drinking? (And how much do you think Weld loved 60 Minutes' showing that
old Channel 56 clip of him slurring his way through his 1995 inauguration
party?) Or Senator Ted Kennedy's?
The answer is that social mores change, and news standards evolve. Flynn was
in the wrong place at the wrong time last August, when Robinson says he saw the
former mayor "disheveled" and "loaded." The story has lingered because Flynn
has refused to deal with it credibly, preferring instead to engage in
class-warfare rhetoric. (He sneeringly told Wallace that the Taylor family, the
Yankee bluebloods who owned the Globe for generations and who continue
to run it, had come over on the Mayflower -- not only irrelevant but,
according to Globe spokesman Rick Gulla, untrue.)
In this uninspiring gubernatorial contest, Flynn's genuine involvement in
issues of race and poverty would represent a welcome elevation of rhetoric.
First, though, he's got to take care of some personal business.
If there were laws against columnists' writing about the same subjects that
others have already tackled, I'd be up on charges for the previous two items.
In a similar vein, Globe columnist Mike Barnicle gets a thumbs-down for
his Tuesday effort, in which he criticized the misogynistic lyrics of Eric
Clapton's new song "Sick and Tired" ("I may have to blow your brains out,
baby/Then you won't bother me no more") far less effectively than the
Herald's Margery Eagan had managed to do two days earlier.
Cheryl Garrity, president of the state's National Organization for Women
chapter, says battered-women's advocate Stacey Cabot spoke with Eagan and
Barnicle last week, urging them to write about "Sick and Tired." Barnicle chose
to hold off until the eve of Clapton's Boston concert. It wasn't worth the
Eagan pointed out the incongruity of the song's appearing on an album,
Pilgrim, that's mainly about the death of Clapton's son. Barnicle
settled for cheap jokes. He couldn't even spell Bo Diddley's and Brownie
McGhee's names right.
But there is justice. Eagan and Barnicle are both regulars on Imus in the
Morning, and on Tuesday the I-Man took note of Barnicle's column -- not for
the sweep and force of his argument, but for his statements that Clapton is
"the Babe Ruth of guitarists" and "better than anybody ever was."
Imus, who knows his blues, reeled off B.B., Freddie, and Albert King quicker
than you can say "got my mojo workin'," and named a passel of other legends
His verdict on Barnicle's musical acumen: "idiotic."
Articles from July 24, 1997 & before can be accessed here