To air is human …

… to forget is not divine

Kristi Capel drops the ‘j-bomb’ in front of co-anchor Wayne Dawson.

Kristi Capel drops the ‘j-bomb’ in front of co-anchor Wayne Dawson.

People have been asking me for my take on news anchor Kristi Capel blurting out the word “jigaboo” on the air the other day.

I suspect they’re asking me because I’m a retired journalist. Or perhaps because I’m no stranger to the black community. For years I served as a volunteer driver for a busing program that had been started by the Black Panthers and primarily served Cleveland’s African-American community. I also lived in a predominantly black neighborhood in Cleveland Heights.

Obviously, Capel wasn’t aware of what the word meant. She said it and repeated it right in front of her co-anchor, Wayne Dawson, who is black. (On the video, Dawson seemed taken aback but managed to maintain his composure.)

In the aftermath, Capel apologized profusely.

She was not suspended. But, from my journalism experience, I’d imagine she got a good dressing-down from her superiors. Her ears are probably still smoking.

I’m convinced that Capel didn’t know the meaning of the word. Others who have commented, particularly younger people, said they didn’t know what the word jigaboo meant or that it was a racial slur. Capel used it naively to describe Lady Gaga’s dancing at the 87th Academy Awards ceremony on TV.

However, Capel should have known better. She works in a profession in which words are tools. A journalist worthy of the title should be familiar with them and know how and when to use them. Or when not use them.

Sensitivity to cultural and racial issues should be taught in journalism school. It’s hard to imagine that it isn’t. But what do I know? When I studied journalism in college, we thought the IBM Selectric typewriter was cutting edge.

If journalism professors are looking for course material, I’d suggest they expose their students to the song “Colored Spade” from the Broadway musical “Hair.” The lyrics, sung by black performers, are basically a catalog of racial slurs set to music. It’s a perfect example of how humor can be used to drive home a point. As a white person hearing the song, it struck me how horrible it was that black people had been subjected to this litany of verbal abuse for decades.

The term Capel used is somewhat archaic. In fact, if there is a silver lining to the cloud hanging over all of this, it’s that the word has fallen out of use.

Regardless, journalists should have enough background in the history of our culture to know these things. After all, the older folks in their audience were around when the word was commonly used as a racial slur.

In researching the media response to Capel’s blunder, I noticed that some news outlets refrained from using the word. I disagree with that policy. We need to get these things out in the open and discuss them frankly and in context. Otherwise, history — and another news anchor — will be doomed to repeat it.

 

 

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6 thoughts on “To air is human …

  1. I haven’t heard that term since I was a little boy and I’m the same age as the author. According to one dictionary it is a term from the early 1900’s. ” 1905-10, Americanism; perhaps blend of jijiboo (with same sense, origin uncertain) or jig4and bugaboo ” . For those of us that don’t live with or have many people of African heritage it is a forgotten word. I think you are being a bit hard on someone and just because they are media personalities having them study archaic words that may or may not offend is a bit of a stretch.

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    • I wasn’t exactly hard on her. If anything, I was quite charitable, giving her the benefit of the doubt.
      I didn’t suggest that journalism students should be required to study word origins, as per your example.
      Frankly, the term is not archaic. I said somewhat archaic. Again, giving her the benefit of the doubt.
      A simple Google search turns up this definition in Dictionary.com:
      Jigaboo — noun, plural jigaboos. Slang: Extremely Disparaging and Offensive.
      1. a contemptuous term used to refer to a black person.
      Not exactly ancient history.
      May or may not offend? I don’t think there is any doubt that the term is offensive.
      Journalists are in a position of trust and should be held to a high standard. It’s not too much to ask that their training include a measure of cultural sensitivity.
      In fact, they don’t even have to take a college course. All they have to do is listen to the song I mentioned, take note of the lyrics and not use those words.

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      • Irv I fully agree it’s a disparaging word and deserving of being banished from civilized conversation, sadly I thought it was. However you can’t compare a journalist with a media personality, Let’s be honest they are nothing but news readers that somehow have been given celebrity status in some circles, I still believe it to be an archaic word certainly not in common use. Like you I’m sure the network probably tore her a new one. Although not likely we can hope this sort of thing will disappear from us entirely and be relegated to history.

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        • Yes, as I said, the silver lining is that the word has fallen from use, as have others.
          As for journalists vs media personalities, that’s another topic for another day. I’ll only say that news anchors are supposed to have the same training as print reporters. And that the whole industry is in a state of flux.

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