Controversy surrounding Washington Post columnist

Richard Cohen, a Tuesday columnist for the Washington Post, has had his fair share of controversy in the past.  Motherjones.com featured an article yesterday discussing “Cohen’s 10 Worst Moments” throughout the years of his writing.  One cites how he defends a child rapist; another discusses how Cohen himself was accused of sexually harassing a 23-year old co-worker.  The most common underlying theme among the majority of these “worst moments” however, is racism, which is why he is making the news currently.  In his column yesterday, Cohen wrote:

“People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?)”

The Daily Beast ran this quote yesterday in an article, responding to this questionable statement.  Their thoughts – it seems like these are Cohen’s own personal beliefs.  Since then, the Beast linked a Washington Post article on their site, with Cohen quoted saying:

“What I was doing was expressing not my own views but those of extreme right-wing Republican tea party people. I don’t have a problem with interracial marriage or same-sex marriage. In fact, I exult in them. . . This is just below the belt. It’s a purposeful misreading of what I wrote.”

Cohen’s boss is defending him.  But even with his rebuttal/explanation, the original column still seems questionable.

For one, he has had a history of making other racist remarks (going back to the Motherjones.com article).  Back in the mid-80s, Cohen defended jewelry store owners for not allowing young black males in their store because they feared criminal behavior.  Cohen was quoted saying, “As for me, I’m with the store owners.”  When discussing the Trayvon Martin case, he described it as “the death of a young man understandably suspected because he was black.”  And just last week, Cohen wrote that after watching the film 12 Years a Slave, he now realizes slavery was wrong.  He claimed he learned in school that slaves were content and that slave owners were good people.  (Even so, that means you’ve been forced to believe that ever since?)

All of this history makes a tough case against believing Cohen isn’t racist, and didn’t mean what he said in his latest column.  The news is handy that way, especially with the Internet, everyone can go back in time and see what he has written.  He also has every reason to deny that he is racist – if he admitted that openly, the paper would have a hard time keeping him around, he would probably lose a lot of readers and his personal life would be affected as well.

His bio from the Post states he’s been with the newspaper since 1968.  Is the paper just letting this slide because he is a veteran to the company and is known for making controversial remarks?  It could be.  I can’t see a new, young reporter sticking around too long if he/she made the exact same comments.

This news spread like wildfire over the Internet, and many blogs and new organizations crucified him (rightfully so, in my opinion). The Huffington Post Media Twitter postd a link to an article of theirs with the headline “Dear Washington Post: Please Fire This Man,”  as seen here.  Even the Washington Post’s own Wonkblog wrote a story respectfully disagreeing with Cohen.  It was generous in saying that they believe he meant “culturally conservative” instead of “conventional” and further explained that racism is by no means a conventional viewpoint in today’s society.  While this may very well be the case, I still don’t feel that lets him off the hook, especially since he’s in the business of writing – he should know to use his words carefully.

I think this story is a good reminder that while there is freedom of the press, and journalists are entitled to their own opinions in the columns they write, they need to be prepared for responses they get back.  They agreed to the job and are writing for the world, and writing something as controversial as this is bound to get lots of negative feedback.  Cohen’s comments are so extreme, I feel it warrants the question of what is acceptable and what is not.  It is up to the editors of the company, and every company is different.  That being said, I think that if the Washington Post continues to back Cohen, they will receive a lot of heat as well.

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