[Opinion] Striking through Redskins Bigotry: A Media Call to Action

Certain terms are simply not fit for media to print. The N-word is one. The F-bomb is another. Words like these pack such a strong semantic punch that society created new terms just to reference them.

Redskins is yet another word unfit for print or any use at all for that matter. It is a racial slur that almost every modern dictionary recognizes as such. The term’s history is deeply intertwined with the systematic genocide of millions of Native Americans.

One doesn’t have to dig deep into the annals of history to demonstrate numerous less-than-forgiving past usages by the media alone.

An article from the Daily Republican, a newspaper based in Winona, Minn., published  Sept. 29, 1862, reads, “The removal of the entire race of redskins has become an imperative necessity, and we trust that it will be pressed upon the Government until the work is accomplished. Otherwise the depopulation of a large portion of the State must be the unwelcome alternative. This should not be permitted, if every Indian in the State has to be consigned to a ‘hospitable grave.’”

Likewise, an ad in the Sept. 25, 1863, edition of the same newspaper reads, “The State reward for dead Indians has been increased to $200 for every red-skin sent to Purgatory. This sum is more than the dead bodies of all the Indians east of the Red River are worth.” Keep in mind that the average Union civil war soldier in 1863 made less than $20 a month, which means that $200 was small fortune then, and equivalent to about $3,800 in 2018.

Such examples remind us why the term redskins carries a significant amount of bigoted baggage. The term was not used as a racial compliment, but rather operated as a genocidal semantic-enabler.

Growing Protests to the Term

According to a 2013 Pew Research Center study, 76 media organizations and journalists either support a name change or are no longer using the term. Twelve media outlets have banned the term out right, including newspapers such as the Oregonian, Seattle Times, Kansas City Star and San Francisco Chronicle.

The editorial board at the Washington Post followed suit in 2014 when its members announced they would no longer use the term in writing, “While we wait for the National Football League to catch up with thoughtful opinion and common decency, we have decided that, except when it is essential for clarity or effect, we will no longer use the slur ourselves.”

Likewise, California became the first state to ban the use of redskins as a school team name or as a mascot by enacting the California Racial Mascots Act in 2015.  California’s Assembly Bill No. 30 reads, “The use of racially derogatory or discriminatory school or athletic team names, mascots, or nicknames in California public schools is antithetical to the California school mission of providing an equal education to all.”

Although these advancements represent critical steps forward, there have been recent legal setbacks as well. The United States Supreme Court’s July 2017 decision that rejected the disparagement clause of federal trademark law represents a major win for the Washington Redskins by recognizing that the First Amendment protects its right as an organization to name its team whatever it deems fit.

“Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express ‘the thought that we hate,’” wrote Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., in a unanimous decision.

Objectivity or Linguistic Decorum?

Journalists maintain some of the highest standards for the written use of English language, and have a more nuanced understanding of its inner workings than does much of  the population. Still, many media organizations continue to use the term redskins. Rather than be accused of diminished objectivity, some journalists believe omitting the term is worse than reporting a potentially offensive team name. Journalists often defer to their media organizations for guidance when objectivity and linguistic decorum collide.

When the Washington Post’s editorial board decided against using the name, the news-gathering side kept it. “The Post’s newsroom and the editorial page operate independently of each other,” Executive Editor Martin Baron said in a 2014 interview for his paper. “Standard operating policy in the newsroom has been to use the names that established institutions choose for themselves. That remains our policy, as we continue to vigorously cover controversy over the team’s name and avoid any advocacy role on this subject.”

Unfortunately, valuing objectivity over linguistic decorum does not support the media’s ideal of being the watchdog over society, nor does it allow the media to alleviate itself of its responsibility to promote common decency. In this manner, media companies and industry organizations such as the Associated Press need to realize their inaction is nothing more than the perpetuation of the status quo, and that they are just as responsible for the current situation as are the journalists reporting the name.

If an industry organization such as the Associated Press were to ban the use of redskins, it would drastically reduce the objectivity concerns of individual reporters forced to decide between linguistic decorum or objectivity. In these cases, it would remove the concerns of “diminished” objectivity from journalists and place it on their media company and/or the industry organizations to which their company adheres.

Furthermore, objectivity would be better served through the omission of the term altogether, rather than through its use. Unless in a direct quotation, journalists do not use any other racial slur with the frequency or intensity as they do redskins. From a linguistic perspective, the use of redskins is more subjective than objective. It would be more objective to avoid all racial slurs in reporting rather than subjectively deciding some slurs are allowable if already in the commercial marketplace. In other words, it would be more objective to avoid the entire category rather than justify the use of one or two.

Silence through Omission Is Not the Solution

For the term redskins to ultimately be discarded from society’s lexicon, it will first require a change in the Washington Redskins name.  Based on Washington Redskins’ Owner Dan Snyder’s commitment to the term, this type of change will not come easily, and it will take time.  It will require more than a couple media organizations boycotting the term. Instead, it requires a systemic solution where every opportunity to strike through the term is seized.

It will require a proactive protest and not a protest of silence through omission.  Journalists must first take ownership of the term and not only use it as a weapon against Dan Snyder and its semantic supporters, but also utilize it as an educational opportunity with the general public. Current media protests omitting the term redskins would be more effective by striking through it instead. In doing so, it allows the media to recognize the First Amendment and Dan Snyder’s right to name his team whatever he wants, but it also allows the media to highlight the term’s offensiveness by explicitly drawing attention to the term’s semantic baggage.

This is a resolution to the journalist’s ethical dilemma, or double-bind, where  journalists may have to use the term in their reporting, but object to it. It allows journalists to take ownership of the term by framing it as morally objectionable to their reader, rather than avoiding the term.  Additionally, striking through the term allows for continued discussion where omission prevents it. Assuming the term “Washington Redskins” is probably mentioned five to six times in the average article after a game, its visual effect would be striking and its impact impossible to ignore.

On the other hand, a reader might not even realize when the term is not being used by a media outlet protesting it. Unless one types “redskins and editorial” into the search bar on Washington Post’s website, there is no way to know the editorial department is protesting the term. Based on the term’s usage on the website alone, the editorial department, if anything, is being visually silenced by its news-gathering counterpart. Striking out the term explicitly calls attention to the problem, while omission can only call attention effectually through the term’s absence. In the case of the Washington Post, in order for a protest of omission to work, the entire organization would have to adhere to the same standard.

Is Striking through Redskins a Solution in Name Only?

The continued use of redskins, even with a strikethrough, might be problematic to some because it requires using the very term it seeks to avoid. However, this temporary usage could help eradicate the term from society’s lexicon permanently.

One thing is certain:  Redskins is different than other racial slurs in that a professional sports team has a vested interest in keeping the term relevant. As long as the NFL remains as popular as it is today, the term — if left unchecked — will continue to dominate the media landscape. Unlike other racial slurs, journalists and media outlets are forced to either report the news as objectively as possible or avoid using the term in good conscience.

Once the Washington Redskins were to switch its name to a non-racial slur, there would be no need to continue striking through the term, in part, because it would no longer be printed in the pages of every major daily newspaper.

Most media organizations have been standing on the sidelines regarding redskins for far too long.  It’s time for a Colin Kaepernick-like media kneel-down for Native Americans.  A media protest of silence through omission, or worse, indifference, is simply not enough.

Travis-sham-mockery of the presidential debates


As I watched the three presidential debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, one word continually came to mind: travis-sham-mockery.

I know what you’re are thinking – Travis-sham-mockery is not a word. Technically you’re correct. It is, after all, not recognized by Merriam-Webster, Cambridge Dictionary, or even the game of Scrabble. And despite this refusal by the lords of the English lexicon to give it their stamp of approval, this only tells half the story.

The history behind this delightful idiom is revealed through a simple Google search. Its etymology is actually tied to the history of the presidential debates, albeit in a less than traditional way.  The term can be traced back to Miller Lite’s “President of Beers” commercial – a parody on the 2004 presidential debates.

In the commercial, Miller Lite debates Budweiser over which company really is the “King of Beers.” Naturally, Budweiser is represented by a Clydesdale Horse while Miller Lite is represented by comedian Bob Odenkirk. During Odenkirk’s opening speech, he is interrupted several times by the moderating panel until he frustratingly spits out, “It’s a travesty and a sham and a mockery. It’s a travis-sham-mockery!”

Assuming we can even call the verbal sparring between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump during the debates a true “debate,” then I think “travis-sham-mockery” is the perfect metaphor for what we watched.

It’s a travesty

It’s a travesty when presidential debates are more entertaining than educational. While many in the media pointed the finger at Donald Trump for the obnoxious tone set during the debates, I contend the format of the debates themselves also is responsible for the spectacle the world just witnessed.

Part of the problem rests with the moderators. Having them fire questions at the candidates makes it more of a media interview than an actual presidential debate. When compared with collegiate policy debate rounds, there are no moderators asking questions, but only a policy resolution which one side must affirm and the other negate. Questions can only be asked during cross-examination which the debaters conduct themselves.

Although credit needs to be given to the moderators for attempting the impossible task of keeping Trump in line, it also must be noted they overstepped their boundaries at times. From a debate perspective, moderators should never argue with a candidate regarding an answer. They are neither judge nor arbitrator of the debate. Instead, their primary role is to ensure the debate runs smoothly.

Even if moderators disagree with the answer given or think the response does not answer the question posed, they still need to remain neutral at all times. Anything less can jeopardize the impartiality of the debate. It is up to the other candidate to point out the flaws in their opponent’s answer or when their opponent attempts to skirt a question – not the role of moderators.

It’s a sham

Another problem with the debates are the short time-limits imposed on each speech. Two-minute speeches do not allow for any significant analysis of policy, but rather encourage “headline” debating, emotional appeals and claims without warrants. Candidates are often asked to explain complex and controversial issues in a short amount of time, and the end result is almost always a dumbing down of their answer.

Of course Trump might be the exception. Trump’s entire campaign was run on unwarranted claims. During the debates, he actually benefitted from the short time-limits of each question. It allowed him to once again make grand claims without evidence, relentlessly attack Clinton and talk in circles instead of answering the questions poised to him.

Longer speeches help separate wheat from the chaff. Give Clinton 10 minutes to explain her tax plan in its entirety and you would get a fairly detailed and thorough explanation of its inner-workings, its feasibility and its potential advantages. Give Trump the same 10 minutes and you have a potential disaster waiting to happen.

To put this in perspective, each of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates lasted three hours. Each speaker also had significantly more time to develop his position with the first speaker getting a one-hour opening address and the second speaker getting one hour and a half to reply.

Can you imagine Donald Trump with an hour long opening address? Neither could I. The better question would be: How many times could Trump hang himself in an hour-long address?

It’s a mockery

Calling the presidential “debates” debates is a mockery of forensics. It belittles every high school and collegiate debate coach, many of whom have spent their lives advancing the craft. It tells the world the United States is more interested in live theatre than in meaningful dialogue. This point is driven home by Trump when he holds a press conference minutes before the second debate to introduce four women – three alleged victims of former President Bill Clinton’s past indiscretions and the fourth, a victim in a rape case that Hillary defended years previously.

These are not the actions of either a debater or a president to be. These are the actions of a desperate candidate willing to do whatever is necessary to win, even if it means turning the presidential debates into reality-television to do so. Should anyone really be surprised with these Apprentice-like tactics? Trump simply wagged the dog.

And therein, lies the problem. If a candidate can make a mockery out of the debates, then isn’t it time to change the format of the debates? Intelligence Square U.S., an organization that holds public debates, has petitioned to change the current format to the more traditional Oxford format – Two sides, one topic, with minimal moderation. In doing so, they say it would lead to overall better debates that would help to clarify the similarities and differences between candidates.

“This format would quickly reveal how well the candidates think on their feet, how deeply they know their subject, how well they understand the trade-offs, and how persuasive they are without the teleprompters” write Robert Rosenkranz and John Donvan.

After watching the travis-sham-mockery known as the 2016 presidential debates, it is clear that the world needs to start debating the quality and future direction of presidential debates. Let’s hope these public debates go better than did the actual presidential debates.

If the Internet is not the answer, what is?

Book: The Internet is Not the Answer

Author: Andrew Keen

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press, New York City

277 pages, $25

Communication scholars over the last decade have been unabashed in their claims of the Internet’s potential to transform society through its unique capacity to digitize, store and transmit mass amounts of information as well as its potential for the creation of user-generated content. And although both scholars and the public at large generally agree the Internet has been a good thing for the progression of the human race, Andrew Keen, an entrepreneur and columnist for CNN, vehemently disagrees.

In The Internet Is Not the Answer he argues that the Internet is creating a two-tier caste system, eroding middle-class jobs for the sake of profit. Or, as he writes in the preface, “Rather than promoting economic fairness, it is a central reason for the growing gulf between rich and poor and the hollowing out of the middle class. Rather than making us wealthier, the distributed capitalism of the new networked economy is making most of us poorer.”

While Keen’s argument is brazen, it nevertheless deserves consideration. After all, if the Internet is responsible for causing more societal harm than good, the public should stand up and take note. The keyword though is “if,” considering Keen has the daunting task of backing up his controversial stance with sound evidence and reasoning. Recognizing the scope of this challenge, Atlantic Monthly Press, the publisher, provided Keen with 277 pages to defend his position.

Keen’s writing style is frantic and the logic of the book follows suit. Relying on broad strokes to paint reality and combine distinct concepts, Keen covers an astonishing amount of ground including everything from Amazon’s and Google’s destructive tendencies on society to the demise of the music industry and Kodak. Keen’s fondness for brevity leaves little time for a thorough exploration between the ideas being presented and often forces him to rely too much on anecdotal evidence to support his claims. This can be problematic when discussing complex and abstract issues such as the economy.

The larger the claim being made by the author, logically it follows then, the greater the expectation by the audience for sound reasoning and evidence to support it. Unfortunately, this is where Keen ultimately fails, as he simply cannot meet the claim that the book’s title suggests. Keen’s penchant for brevity leaves too many factors completely unaccounted for in his frantic race to tie every economic problem to the Internet. Any fair and impartial assessment should also consider factors such as globalization, capital flight, tax havens, regional and international trade agreements, tariffs, and trade imbalances, as well as numerous financial considerations such as currency devaluation or U.S. foreign debt. Unfortunately, Keen does not address such factors.

While the book does not live up to its lofty goals of proving the Internet is responsible for most of society’s economic problems, it nevertheless should not be automatically dismissed. For example, Keen’s account of Amazon’s business practices is thought-provoking and should cause readers to question their loyalty to the company. In that regard, readers more interested in gaining an overall better picture of how many of today’s top Internet companies operate will likely enjoy this book. Those more interested in its economic considerations should take a pass. In the end, The Internet Is Not the Answer demonstrates that while Keen is a talented writer and is asking many of the right questions, he is not an economist, nor does he have the necessary answers.