NewsBusters Discusses 'Cracker Counties' With Politico's Jonathan Martin

As NewsBusters reported Tuesday, Politico's Jonathan Martin, while chatting with MSNBC's Chuck Todd, referred to some of Florida as "cracker counties."

This caused a bit of a firestorm for Martin who called the Media Research Center's publicist to address the matter.

In response, I spoke with Martin Thursday, and my first question was somewhat obviously, "What's a cracker?"

Martin replied, "In the Florida political-cultural parlance, it refers to a Florida native. It is as anybody down there who knows Florida culture knows politics well a term of endearment, and widely used."

He continued, "It is the title of books about Florida history and culture. It's the title of a museum about native Florida culture. Used in newspaper accounts for years talking about Florida politics and culture. And that is the context in which I was using it."

As I told Martin, this seemed very peculiar to me because I went to school in Atlanta at Emory University in the late '70s. Cracker was a highly offensive term that basically meant a “white, bigoted, racist moron.”

From my experience in Atlanta, it was like calling a black person the N-word. The mountain-men in the film Deliverance that homosexually raped Ned Beatty were crackers.

I also told him that my parents live in Florida, I spend about a month there a year, and have never heard anyone say that word in the Sunshine State for quite some time. "You think it's actually a term of endearment?" I asked.

"Don't take my word for it," responded Martin. "Ask Florida natives, Florida Republicans I should add, who will tell you emphatically it is a term of endearment, has been for decades and decades."

"Lawton Chiles," he continued, "the long-time senator and governor of Florida, a white Democrat, proudly referred to himself as a cracker. You can find on the web a St. Pete Times obit after his death, an appreciation after his death, where it referred to Florida crackers losing one of their kinsman."

Martin was right about the Chiles piece: "Most natives are not ashamed to say that they miss Chiles' Cracker wit and are already thinking of some of his gems nostalgically."

Much to my additional surprise, even the questionably relevant Wikipedia has an entry concerning "Florida cracker." For the suspicious, at press time the last modification was January 28, 2012, three days before Martin's comments.

"So, it's simply not a controversial term in Florida politics and in Florida culture, and that is the context that I was using it," Martin told me. "So people should take a few seconds or even minutes to figure out the context I was using it before they jump to conclusions."

But is that completely fair?

The outrage concerning his comment stems from the fact that in most parts of this country, cracker is pejorative and highly offensive. Wikipedia has an entry "Cracker (pejorative)" that supports what appears to be the more widely accepted view of this word.

Martin addressed the different interpretations saying, "I understand historical, cultural reference in other parts of the country, but it's a different term there [Florida] entirely."

True, but if a word or phrase does have different meanings in different parts of the country, should it be used at all, especially by a journalist on a nationally televised program?

Consider that what's thought to be the most offensive word in the English language, the N-word, is used by some in the black community as a term of endearment.

NBC's Andrea Mitchell got a lot of laughs on the internet Tuesday when she said "fo shizzle" on the air. What most likely don't realize is that according to the Urban Dictionary, this derives from "for sure mah nigga."

Since likely as small a percentage of Americans consider cracker a term of endearment as do the N-word - or put differently, most perceive both as being highly offensive - shouldn't both be shunned irrespective of what folks in one of the fifty states think?

"In this highly-charged racial atmosphere that we're in that you and I agree on," I asked, "don't you think it's in journalists' best interests to at this point do what they can to not say anything that might either in reality or, as you say, the faux indignation that might end up offending folks? Don't you have some responsibility?"

"Why should I walk on eggshells and play by the rules of a game that I think is flawed?" he asked in return.

"It's not an offensive term. It is a kind term in Florida to describe a native Floridian," he continued. "I'm talking about a Florida primary, and I'm talking about it with a serious reporter who's from Florida, who's a straight reporter, Chuck Todd. I don't care that he works for MSNBC. He is a serious, thoughtful, political reporter, and that's the context of the conversation that I'm having, and the fact that it can be construed as some kind of an offensive term never even entered into my head. I'm talking about stuff that I care about and that I take very, very seriously. It's something that I didn't find controversial because it's not controversial as the links that I can send you will attest to. So, look, people can try and stir stuff up for political gain, but I'm not going to play by their rules."

I again wonder if that's fair.

We live in a world where virtually every representative of every media outlet accuses anyone that criticizes Barack Obama of racism. As a writer, especially a conservative one, I have to walk on such eggshells 24/7. Everyone on this side of the aisle is having every word he or she utters scrutinized for the slightest hint of racism real or imagined.

If these are the rules people in the conservative media have to play by, shouldn't everyone?

"Let's say someone at Fox News had referred to one of the highly minority counties in Florida with something that could be perceived as a racial epithet," I said. "You can imagine the outrage?"

"But it's not," Martin replied. "It's just not a term that is racial in any way. That's the problem that I have. That's why I just don't want to get into this 'What if XYZ other side' because it's just not a term that is loaded in Florida. It's like a common historical, cultural, political term as reams of evidence will prove. I just am not going to be a pawn in this grand, ideological back and forth of trying to stir up outrage and like the sort of faux indignation. I'm just not going to be a part of it."

But he is part of it whether he wants to be or not. We're all part of it, and can't escape it. That's what over four years of media playing the race card at every turn has wrought.

Can anyone in this industry say, "I'm just not going to be a part of it?"

"Look, if you guys want to do media accountability from the right I think that's great," Martin told me, "but don't undermine your own cause by doing gotcha nonsense that is totally intellectually unserious and is entirely aimed at trying to gin up faux indignation and faux outrage."

He continued, "It's a common, political term down there to describe native Floridians, and the fact that there is this sort of outrage generated I think says more about the political media culture that we live in now and this sort of faux indignation that gets stirred up that is really just sort of point scoring for either side. I think it's really unfortunate."

I responded, "Okay, but wouldn't you say that this is the case on both sides. Let's face it, you were on MSNBC where virtually every criticism of Barack Obama they report as being somehow racist."

"Totally agree that there is now a culture in the sort of political media universe on both sides where there is this sort of outrage industry that has been created where both sides monitor the other and try to find examples of offensive comments that can be seized upon and stirred up entirely for political gain where you have this, again, faux indignation, but it's really just posing as indignation," he said. "It's all about political point scoring, and I think it absolutely takes place now on both sides."

He elaborated, "It's the same goal, and it's to try to catch the other side in saying something that is going to be received as offensive or outrageous or politically damaging or what have you. That's the game, okay? But keep me out of it, alright?"

"I am a political reporter, I'm doing my job on a show hosted by Chuck Todd, a serious political reporter who's from Florida, who is not a partisan, and we're talking about the primary, and I'm using a term that is widely used in the political lexicon in the state of Florida. Okay? And it was in no way inflammatory in that context, and for folks to just try and make it so says more about the political culture that we're in now than it does about the actual facts here," Martin continued.

"I still think facts matter, and I think reality matters, and I'm not going to let stupidity and ignorance triumph, which is why I'm talking to you right now because I think that you're a serious guy and that the folks that work with MRC are serious people, and that you guys should recognize that every word that comes out of somebody's mouth should not just be merely seen as an opportunity to play gotcha, but let's actually step back and think about this before we just blindly try to sort of score political points.I cover politics straight. I don't take sides, and I don't want to get caught up in these ideological wars back and forth."

None of us do, but that is the world we live in now, and no journalist is exempt.

What we've sadly witnessed during this Republican presidential race is press members scrutinizing every word uttered by the candidates to crucify them if they misstep.

Martin himself began the sleazy investigation into decades-old allegations of sexual harassment by Herman Cain. In six days last year Politico ran more stories about this so-called scandal than it did throughout the entire 2008 presidential campaign about Barack Obama's connections to domestic terrorist Bill Ayers or convicted real estate developer Tony Rezko.

For his part in breaking this "story," Martin was actually congratulated on MSNBC by Hardball host Chris Matthews and the Washington Post's Nia-Malika Henderson.

Eventually, the pressure of all this scrutiny led to Cain's withdrawal from the race. Heard anything about any of these allegations since?

Now, the Politico reporter that broke this "story," after stating on national television what he correctly believes is not offensive in Florida but is in other states, says, "I don't want to get caught up in these ideological wars back and forth."

Seems a bit late for that.

The reality is that after talking to Martin on and off the record, I believe him to be a highly-professional gentleman who thinks he said nothing wrong on MSNBC Tuesday. The research I've done supports this view: what he said about Florida crackers is not offensive in Florida.

But he was on a national cable network with national viewers that don't have the same opinion of this term as people in the Sunshine State.

As we live in a highly-charged racial environment partially due to media outlets like the network he was on and the publication he works for, Martin should have to walk on the same eggshells we all do whether he likes it or not.

Sadly, that is the world we now live in. If only it weren't the case.

2012 Presidential Politico Jonathan Martin
Noel Sheppard's picture