New NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard took up a flurry of complaints when veteran news anchor Jean Cochran told listeners President Bush was traveling to Africa, the "dark continent." They insisted NPR was sounding racist:
"I thought that we had wrested that comment along with 'colored' and other euphemisms for Africans or Afro-Americans," wrote one listener, summing up how others felt. "Could you please report my comments to NPR management? I almost drove off the side of the road to start a protest!!!"
"This is simply an outdated reference as well as being outrageously offensive," wrote another listener, Karrye Y. Braxton.
The copy, which had been approved by an editor, was pulled and Cochran agreed to never use the expression again.
"I had no idea the term would be found offensive," said Cochran, who joined NPR in 1981. "I will concede antiquated but I was unaware it was 'racist and irredeemable,' as one person put it in an email. I was floored. Am I insensitive? I don't know how that could be since I didn't know there was anything to be sensitive about. I understood the term to refer to the African jungle. It's a canopy blocking out the light. A geographical term."
Official apologies soon followed:
Cochran issued an on-air and online apology four days later at exactly the same time her "dark continent" reference first appeared: "My deepest apologies for using such an antiquated and pejorative term."
Did NPR owe an apology?
After the apology ran, some listeners were infuriated, thinking it unnecessary, claiming that NPR had succumbed to political correctness.
Shepard brought out a passel of scolds to denounce NPR's insensitivity to unequal power relations:
"Even when not consciously selected, language that diminishes one group at the expense of others wields great power in naturalizing unequal power relations," Prof. Martin A. Berger, who specializes in gender and race at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told NPR. "It's less useful to talk about 'racist' people, than to see how racialized patterns of thought and speech are structured into our lives."
For her part, Shepard concluded that the apology was right, but it could have come with more context and discussion.
I would have been surprised to hear that term on NPR driving down the road, considering their progressive instincts, but it's not "drive off the side of the road" offensive. For that, let's recall some old examples from the 1990s from NPR commentators:
...NPR commentators like Bebe Moore-Campbell, who called the NRA "the Negro Removal Association," or Philip Martin, who proclaimed: "In the 1930s, Father Coughlin's anti-Semitism enjoyed enormous popularity because a vocal minority of people shared his views. The same is true today for devoted listeners of Rush Limbaugh and company."