INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Paula Deen — You Call That an Interview, Matt Lauer?

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By GUY AOKI

If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s reporters getting the chance to talk to sought-after personalities, then botching the interview. 

When I wrote syndicated radio shows for Dick Clark, we often had to pay other companies for copies of interviews they conducted with artists we couldn’t get ourselves. One of them was a short sit-down with Aretha Franklin. I had to listen to a guy wasting time by asking her about her favorite recipes and ending the interview by asking her to say hi to his mother.

Some kiss-ups interrupted a celebrity’s answer by interjecting gratuitous compliments that only ruined my chance to use the cut as a sound bite and/or derailed the subject completely. 

Even in less extreme cases of stupidity/amateurism, I find that many interviewers have a list of questions, then check them off and continue down the line without really listening to what the subject says. So many times, the celebrity gives an answer that begs for a follow-up question the interviewer hadn’t prepared for. But too many times, it just lies there. If you’re a good listener, that’s where you can mine gold.

So with all that I knew about the case of former food titan Paula Deen, I watched the segment of the “Today Show” where Matt Lauer got his chance to grill the embattled celebrity about saying “nigger” some 30 years ago, which led to many corporations dropping her as a business partner. This was revealed after a former employee sued her for creating a racially hostile and discriminatory work environment. In a deposition, the celebrity chef was asked if she’d ever said “nigger” in the past, and she answered, “Yes, of course.”

Lauer blew it by not zeroing in on this very telling response. He said, “And you said ‘probably’ or ‘of course.’”

“Or?” Which was it? Get your facts straight because it makes a big difference which response she gave. “Yes, of course!” means she used it often.

He didn’t challenge Deen’s assertion that she only said “nigger” that one time when a black man held up her bank and put a gun to her head. Uh, Matt, you do recall the current lawsuit against Deen where she’s accused of using this slur in the workplace over a five-year period?  Guess not.

Matt Lauer interviews Paula Deen.

Lauer wasted a question by asking something he knew she wouldn’t cop to: “Are you a racist?” (For the record, we’re all racist. We can’t help but be given how we’ve been bombarded with unbalanced images and information about people of color since birth. We just have to be aware of it and not get fooled.) Of course, Deen said she wasn’t a racist.

Don’t ask dumb questions like that. Ask questions that bring out the subject’s attitudes, which demonstrate whether or not they’re racially insensitive or hateful.

Deen talked tearfully in her slow, Southern drawl, ending each sentence with “Matt” in seemingly every other response. If that wasn’t annoying enough, when Lauer asked if she was aware “the N-word” was offensive, she said, “I don’t know. I have asked myself that so many times, Matt. Because it’s very distressing for me to go into my kitchens and hear what these young people are calling each other. … I think for this problem to be worked on, these young people are gonna have to take control and start showing respect for each other.”

Apparently, Lauer didn’t realize what she’d just said: “No, I don’t know that’s offensive.” Why else would she have to ask that question of herself over and over? “Self, is saying ‘nigger’ offensive?” C’mon, it’s common sense. Stupid Lauer just went on to his next question.

Deen made matters worse by trying to shift blame to black people who call themselves “nigga,” thereby creating confusion as to if that word or “the N-word” is all right to say. Nice try. “Nigga” wasn’t commonly used 30 years ago. So again, what’s your excuse?

One of John Curtas’ tweets.

On the Other Hand Department: Ironically, Las Vegas food critic John Curtas joked about Deen’s ignorance in a tweet, which led Gann Matsuda to remind him that he lived in a glass house and shouldn’t throw stones.

In August, Curtas had tweeted a response to a video of a Japanese man yodeling, saying it was “the best Jap-German collaboration since 1941.” Matsuda asked for an apology back then, but was ignored. On June 21, after Curtas’ tweet, he asked for one again.

This time, Curtas responded with a series of tirades: “Oh great… now I have hypersensitive Asian language police on my ass. #getoveryourself”; “Get this straight… #idiots I used an abbreviation Go grind your p.c. axes elsewhere”; and “You’re being both stupid and wrong: ‘Jap’ as an abbreviation is hardly the same as the ‘n’ word.”

Curtas even went to Matsuda’s blog to write more: “I love Japan, Japanese food and the Japanese… despite the fact that it/they spent the years 1943-1945 trying to kill my father (the people not the food). The fact that the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of that generation now take umbrage at an innocent, slight, and Twitter-appropriate condensation of the English spelling of their country is really something I cannot sympathize with.”

Great. So now, adding insult to injury, we’re also descendants of Japanese nationals from World War II, not Americans like him. 

John Curtas’s twitter account is @eatinglasvegas, the name of his website. Thanks to Gann Matsuda, whom I first knew back in my college days, for fighting the good fight.

Quotas Against Whom? Department: Whenever people of color push for the industries to better include people of color, many reactionary whites get all red in the face and scream, “You’re asking for quotas! It should only be based on merit, not race!”

So it was ironic to learn that since 2004, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (those who vote for the Oscars) had their own quota system in place. Based on who retired, resigned, or died, they usually asked less than 200 new people to join each year. Overall, the academy grew annually by no more than 30 new voters.

The result, The L.A. Times determined, was a voting elite of 5,800 members that was 94% white and 77% male, 2% black and less than 2% Latino (of course, Asians were less than even that). So really, “a white institution” was maintaining quotas to keep out the minorities. Take that, defensive right-wingers! 

Now, keeping in mind racial diversity and younger talent, the organization has invited 276 new members, including Warner Brothers head Kevin Tsuijihara, Lucy Liu, Sandra Oh, Michelle Yeoh, and documentary filmmaker (and past MANAA Achievement Award winner) Renee Tajima-Peña.

’Til next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

Guy Aoki, co-founder of Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached via email. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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