Talking Paula Deen and George Zimmerman on Howard Kurtz's last Reliable Sources for CNN
Sometimes there just isn’t enough time on 24-hour cable news to really explore complex issues.
That lesson came the hard way Sunday on CNN’s Reliable Sources, where I spent two segments in the last show hosted by media critic Howie Kurtz trying to get a few contrary words in on the Paula Deen controversy and the George Zimmerman trial.
Kurtz is heading to Fox News Channel after the end of his contract and 15 years hosting CNN’s media analysis show. Though one news account says executives were surprised by Kurtz’s resignation and relocation to Fox, it followed an incident where the critic apologized for a mistake made on two other platforms and was grilled by two other critics for 15 minutes.
I had a feeling I was going to be disagreeing with everyone a lot while waiting to go on and watching one of the show’s first segments, Kurtz’s exploration of whether news outlets were “cheerleading” the Supreme Court’s decisions supporting gay marriage.
Anyone who has read my past columns on this – you can catch up here – knows I see this as a pretty logical issue. Journalists stand on the side of civil rights and equality; newspaper have apologized for coverage in the 1960s which sided with segregationists over those fighting to earn fair voting, employment and housing rights for black people.
So it seems a bit odd to castigate journalists for learning from history. Coverage clearly identified with the notion of giving gay people an important civil right, even while allowing opponents of gay marriage to voice their views (here’s my piece on how the gay rights struggle is similar to black Americans’ civil rights fight.)
By the time my segment started, there were three other panelists and Kurtz also speaking on celebrity chef Paula Deen’s troubles and the ongoing trial of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer accused of murder in the shooting death of unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin.
Because the pace on Kurtz show is so fast – Howie will cut you off in a moment if you talk too long – it was tough to talk about all the issues in both these stories.
I’ve faulted mainstream media for focusing too much on Deen’s past use of the n-word, when the most serious element of her controversy is a lawsuit alleging sexual and racial harrassment at a restaurant she owns, along with claims from another lawyer that more employees are coming forward with similar tales. Even though the lawsuit produced the deposition in which Deen admitted using the n-word, it wasn’t discussed during the Today show.
I figured a panel of old school journalists would sympathize with that notion – focus on the real news instead of the question of whether 66-year-old woman used a racial slur back in 1986. But that didn’t get much traction.
Regarding Zimmerman, I had written a pretty interesting column about “code switching” between cultures and how that might be a factor in the trial (it's been shared over 600 time on Facebook so far). But Kurtz asked the panel instead if cable news was spending too much time covering the trial.
Cable news is desperate for programming which will draw eyeballs during the day. And a trial which has captured the public mind like the Zimmerman prosecution is tailor made for cable news to spend way too much time analyzing.
But I had to remind the panel; this was a news story which captured the world’s attention for an entire month last year while Florida authorities dithered on whether they would charge Zimmerman with a crime. Protests with folks in hoodies – wearing the clothing victim Trayvon Martin had on when he was killed -- broke out in New York, Chicago and California, as more than 2 million people signed a Change.org petition demanding Zimmerman be tried.
So now that it’s finally happening, I think it makes more sense to see detailed coverage of this trial than the prosecutions of Jodi Arias or Casey Anthony – both of whom were accused of crimes which were less distinctive and had less influence on our view of race or criminal justice.
Still, it was an honor to be part of Kurtz’s final CNN show. Will be interesting to see how he deals with the issues I’ve documented in my own book about how Fox News deals with race and culture on its air.
Here's the video: