NPR's Ombudsman Skips 'Kill Whitey' Jokes, But Worries About Old Clips of Jewish Jokes From 1970

On February 12 many NPR stations aired the show “Smiley & West” in which comedian-actor Garrett Morris caused peals of laughter from Tavis Smiley and Cornel West by joking about the small space between “hate Whitey” and “kill Whitey.” West also lectured about how police brutality on the “vanilla side of town” in New York would get condemnations from the White House.

NPR ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos predictably told me on Twitter that this wasn’t in his critical purview, since it’s not produced by NPR, but by Public Radio International. But on February 23, Schumacher-Matos devoted a post to charges of anti-black racism on “Fresh Air,” which is also not produced by NPR, but by Philadelpha affiliate WHYY. It was far less racially transgressive than Smiley & West.

He claimed: "NPR distributes Fresh Air so it is NPR programming. PRI distributes Smiley's show so it is PRI programming."

On the February 8 “Fresh Air,” critic David Bianculli was recommending a DVD called "How to Be a Jewish Son," which aired on “The David Susskind Show.”  Bianculli plucked out as a highlight some banter between Mel Brooks and comedian David Steinberg. Susskind was asking about dating outside the Jewish population, and he joked you take home a black girl first, so the Gentile girl seems less shocking:

DAVID STEINBERG: Well, it's hard to bring a gentile girl home to a Jewish family. What you do is you bring home a black girl first.

DAVID SUSSKIND: By way of breaking the ice.

STEINBERG: Then you bring home the gentile girl and then you're in. Then they say, oh, come on in. Hiya. Would you like something to eat? They say Mary Smith, sit down. See, that "CH" like in "Chanukah."

SUSSKIND: Seriously, have you brought – have you brought gentile ladies into your household?


SUSSKIND: Your father's being a rabbi—

BROOKS: Do you know, in a Jewish religion if you're going with a Jewish girl, if you're just engaged to her and you break off you still pay alimony? Did you know that? I bet you didn't know that.

SUSSKIND: No, I didn't. I didn't know that.

BROOKS: Legal. That's legal. Sure. Three kisses and mm-hmm, alimony!

SUSSKIND: Alimony.

BROOKS: It's not a lot but there is a token, a token, like 80 percent of your income.

Schumacher-Matos explained, with plenty of hemming and hawing:

Shortly after the segment aired, an email arrived in our inbox—a listener found the segment to be racially offensive. Several others said the same online. Marilu Carter wrote that she was "disheartened, disappointed, and alarmed" by the piece. Listener John Abbot said: "Certainly highlighting racist humor, even in the context of the time, is below the standard I expect from both Bianculli and NPR. Sadly this piece highlights the mutual damage of lateral racism and perpetuates the historic bias existing between African Americans and Jews."

I certainly appreciate the concerns of the offended listeners...

The question is a difficult one, but in the end I come down on the side of [Fresh Air producer Danny] Miller and Bianculli. The reality of bigotry exists whether we ignore it or not. Poking fun at it combats it, even if it doesn't convert all listeners. I think that most African Americans and Jews understand the clear intention of the humor and go along. But I could be wrong.

Whatever part of this comic exchange isn't harmless is a product of its times. It originally aired in 1970. So why should the NPR Ombudsman waste space on it?

The blog post before that one (on February 17) also responds to liberal complaints. A feminist was upset that the usual David Brooks/E.J. Dionne roundup on February 10 was unanimous is disliking the Obama contraceptive mandate.  Schumacher shared the thoughts of Linda Fleck of Roslindale, Massachusetts:

Now that the issue of women's right to birth control has come to the fore, I think that it is inappropriate that E.J. Dionne be allowed to speak for the left insofar as he has apparently decided to subordinate women's health concerns to Catholic dogma. Perhaps someone like Gail Collins could substitute for Mr. Dionne while this matter rages in Washington. Both points of view need to be aired (versus the current "Amen" chorus of Brooks and Dionne). Women's rights matter. Women's voices need to be heard on this issue.

Liberals and feminists must always be heard from -- Dionne must be "substituted" when he departs from orthodoxy! Schumacher-Matos failed to address whether conservatives would like a substitute for Brooks pretty much every week if the goal was to broadcast a conservative perspective.

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