A News Clip Airing the Use of ‘N Word’ Still Raises Eyebrows More Than a Year Later, Underscores Persistent Need for Greater Newsroom Diversity

by Kenneth Mallory on September 27, 2011

Picture this: A leading, mainstream news station airs a story about an African American 103-year-old woman who, in 2010, was still driving her two-tone 1979 Cadillac Coupe Deville.

The cadence and diction of the newscaster narrating the story seems to deviate from the form it usually takes.

The newscaster lets viewers know the that elderly woman goes “tootin’ around” town in her car and subsequently decides to give her a “shout-out,” a seemingly endearing gesture to highlight the woman’s youthful spirit given her old age.

Seconds later, “gangster rapper” Coolio’s song “Fantastic Voyage” begins playing, with the lyrics “punk a** n****” heard clearly, while video images are played capturing the elderly woman getting inside her automobile.

Such is not an absurd imaginary figment, but an actual news story centered on then 103-year-old Coatesville, Pennsylvania, resident Gladys Flamer that aired last year on CNN and was anchored by journalist Kyra Phillips.

Originally airing in May, 2010, the news clip is still making its rounds on the Internet. According to MediaBistro.com, several rappers, in jest, are splicing their songs into the video on YouTube to replace Coolio’s “Fantastic Voyage.”

And although Phillips apologized on air, calling the airing of the song a “terrible mistake,” the clip still conjures up many questions:

Would the “shout-out” have been given and the audible “blaccent” been adopted by Phillips were Flamer white?

Did 103-year-old Flamer even know what a “shout-out” was?

Why was Coolio’s “Fantastic Voyage” decided upon as the music clip to play with the story?

Did the decision makers at CNN believe that as Flamer happened to be black and drove a car that could be considered a part of the “gangsta rap” iconography, it was appropriate to play Coolio’s “Fantastic Voyage” to accompany her story?

Does Flamer even know who Coolio is?

Was Flamer asked what type of music she would like to have accompany her story?

These questions bear similarity to the thoughts of many who believe the clip serves to reify stereotypes about African Americans.

The situation also appears to underscore efforts by those calling for greater diversity in newsrooms across the nation to curb the perpetuation of inaccurate and harmful depictions of minority culture.

These issues are referenced in the recent 4th Annual Television Newsroom Management Diversity Census released by the National Association of Black Journalists.

In that Census, the NABJ cites the following statistics:

• “According to the 2010 United States Census, non-Whites comprise nearly 35% of the U.S. population but … people of color fill only 12% of the newsroom manager positions at stations owned by ABC, Belo Corporation, CBS, Cox, Fox, Gannett, Hearst, Lin Media, Media General, Meredith, NBC, Nexstar Broadcasting, E.W. Scripps Company, Post-Newsweek and Tribune.

• “Out of a total of 1,157 managers,” at television news stations across the nation, “1,017 are White, 81 are Black, 42 are Hispanic, 16 are Asian and 1 is Native American;”

In a statement, NABJ President Gregory H. Lee, Jr., said those statistics were “disappointing.”

“If the media doesn’t reflect America, the stories and issues of those who are underrepresented will not be told,” Lee stated.

As an example made in its recent Census, the NABJ pointed to a recent news story that aired in Chicago regarding a shooting in which WBBM-TV aired a video of a 4-year-old boy “saying he was not afraid of violence and that he wanted to have his own gun. The station edited out the boy’s explanation that he wanted a gun because he wanted to be a police officer,” the Census said.

“There was no one of color on the WBBM-TV management staff who had the power to veto the use of the video or to at least make sure it was aired in the appropriate context,” the Census said.

It is unclear if any African Americans or minorities made any behind the scenes decisions that influenced the CNN segment that was aired in May 2010 regarding Gladys Flamer.

This past July, however, the NAACP released a statement criticizing what it deemed to be a paucity of Black journalists in CNN’s prime-time programming.

There appears to be no statement from the network about the Gladys Flamer news clip other than the on-air apology from Phillips. At press time, a call to CNN’s public affairs division was unreturned.

  • Kenneth Mallory is an award-winning journalist and attorney who has free-lanced for several publications, in addition to serving as a general assignment reporter for the Washington Afro-American Newspaper. He earned his B.A. magna cum laude from University of Maryland, Baltimore County, in addition to his J.D. from Northwestern University School of Law.

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  • Jessica

    I don’t know about the word “racist” but a LOT of people mentally stereotype based on race without even realizing it. I’m black, but when among white friends they often slip in words of the “black” vernacular. I get a little annoyed sometimes, but I realize at the end of the day that they’re just trying to find ways to fit in with and relate to me. It was very inappropriate for the CNN anchor to do so, though. And I have no clue what they were thinking with the music.

  • Ciz

    It’s pretty shocking that a network like CNN would allow this to happen. It is very fortunate that Rey apologized right away for it. I’m wondering too what happened afterward – how did that particular son get aired, and did someone take responsibilty for it?

  • JB

    I wonder what song they would’ve used for a white woman? I’m picturing an old white woman driving down the streets of Beverly Hills to “California Love”.

    Seriously, I doubt they would’ve used gangsta rap for someone else.

  • Tvmogul

    @c2d6684c165b8c4b165a1210cbd8dd89:disqus – I agree with your comments wholeheartedly. I think there is a big difference between prejudices and racism. As a prejudiced person, one pre-judges based on a stereotype. A racist person makes decision wholly on race …and continues despite evidence that their position is flawed or absolutely wrong. We ALL often prejudge people based on weight, social class, skin color and more.
    As a black male, I find myself in situations where persons of other races and ethnicities think it is cool to use hip hop vernacular. I too, view it as you do: as them trying to find ways to relate to me. The US is very racially sensitive …largely because their isn’t large-scale, and continued discourse on race matters. Nevertheless, I usually tolerate this from my white colleagues because I understand they are trying. I do bring the conversation back to civility by not reciprocating with hip-hop vernacular or other terms that lend itself to this. Usually, everyone gets the point & ceases the use of such.

    As far as the video, I do offer that this is not new. It happens all the time. I am a former local news producer. The situation is intriguing to many because it happened on national cable news. Adding music is an essential element of many stories. The music used is dictated by the producer or associate producer. In this situation, it appears there was a total breakdown in sensitivity. We must also acknowledge that it very well could’ve been a person of color (or two) by which this slipped through (because CNN leads the pack in having minorities in mgmt, and in production).

    I understand ALL the comments here, but I think the rhetoric is misguided. Yes, it was WRONG, but there are quite a few more injustices that minorities are enduring that are greater than this. Pick your battles. This is one that can be won, but aren’t their bigger fish to fry? (such as needing more blacks in front of camera, or more blacks in news mgmt, or more blacks in ownership)? This issue is trivial in comparison to the others.

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