Was It Something I Said?

General Semantics and the Unacceptable Remark

Nicholas Johnson

Institute for General Semantics

New York City

October 30, 2010



Note: This is the October 22, 2010, draft of an unfinished work in progress that was the basis for the presentation to the Institute for General Semantics, New York City, October 30, 2010. For the text of those remarks, related Power Point slides, and contemporaneous column and blog entries regarding the related NPR firing of Juan Williams, see nicholasjohnson.org/writing/IGS-speech-101030.html.


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What do a major corporation’s CEO, U.S. Army General, three journalists, Department of Agriculture employee, talk show host, and Republican National Committee Chairman have in common?


During 2010 each had the experience of being fired for words they uttered – or were believed to have uttered. The intended purpose of my words is the exploration of general semantics’ potential contribution to an understanding of (a) what is going on here, and (b) how institutional leaders can best respond to such situations.


The Words


For starters, what were their words?


Following the flow of BP’s gusher into the Gulf of Mexico the company’s CEO said, “There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.”[1]


General Stanley McChrystal gave Michael Hastings permission to follow him about, long enough to put together a major article for the June 22, 2010, issue of Rolling Stone. In the course of that article Hastings wrote, among other things, “According to sources familiar with the meeting, McChrystal thought Obama looked ‘uncomfortable and intimidated’ by the roomful of military brass.”[2]


A CNN correspondent, Octavia Nasr, tweeted, “Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah . . .. One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot.”[3]


A Department of Agriculture employee, Shirley Sherrod, during a 40-minute speech to the NAACP about growing up in a racist Georgia, said “The first time I was faced with having to help a white farmer save his farm . . . I was trying to decide just how much help I was going to give him. I was struggling with the fact that so many black people have lost their farmland, and here I was faced with having to help a white person save their land. So, I didn't give him the full force of what I could do.”[4]


Radio talk show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger, confronted with a request for advice from an African-American woman on how to deal with racist speech, used “the N-word” 11 times in the course of telling the listener, among other things, “Black guys use it all the time. Turn on HBO, listen to a black comic, and all you hear is . . ..”[5]


Speaking to Republicans at a fund raising event, Republican National Committee Chair, Michael Steele, said of President Obama, "if he is such a student of history, has he not understood that, you know, that's the one thing you don't do, is engage in a land war in Afghanistan? Alright, because everyone who has tried over a thousand years of history has failed, and there are reasons for that. There are other ways to engage in Afghanistan.”[6]


On the lawn of the White House, following a Jewish heritage event on May 27, 2010, Rabbi David Nesenoff  saw Helen Thomas, dean of the White House press corps, and asked her, “Any comments on Israel?” to which she replied into his hand held video camera, “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.” “Where should they go?” he followed up. “Go home,” she said. “Where’s their home?” he continued.  “Poland, Germany, America, everywhere else,” she answered.[7]


The most recent example chronologically, as of the time of writing, was NPR’s dismissal of Juan Williams. During an appearance on Fox TV’s Bill O’Reilly program on October 18, 2010, asked his opinion during a discussion of the potential threats from radical Muslim extremists, Williams said, “when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.” Two days later, denied a face-to-face meeting with NPR executives, he was peremptorily fired during a phone call.[8]


The Institutional Response


What these six individuals have in common, aside from their newly acquired membership in the army of the unemployed,[9] is the insight that notwithstanding the dispute regarding the comparative hurt from words versus “sticks and stones,”[10] one’s words do have the ability to do devastating destruction to one’s professional career.


Before beginning the search for general semantics’ possible contribution here, the reader should unambiguously understand that it is not the purpose of this article to judge either (a) the accuracy and propriety of the remarks in question, or (b) the rationality or reasonableness of the employers’ decisions to terminate these individuals’ because of their remarks.


It is relatively easy for a student of general semantics to point out the fallacies in what he or she would judge to be the over-reaction of a majority of the public to a casual remark. Indeed, that is the subject of much of this article.


But it is probably unrealistic and unfair to expect institutional leaders to take on the responsibility for educating the public regarding basic general semantics principles and techniques once public opinion has gelled, facts are no longer persuasive to those whose minds are made up, passions are running high, and mobs are running in the streets.


As general semanticists know, perception comes as much or more from what is inside one’s skull and skin as from what is outside. And as politicians and advertisers know, it is perception that wins elections and sells products.


Tony Hayward. BP’s flowing underwater oil well was mid-process in creating the greatest ecological disaster in our nation’s history. The amount of the company’s multi-billion-dollar civil and criminal penalties would turn in part on the degree of the company’s negligence and response. The BP board of directors felt it was important for the public to perceive the company as empathetic and caring.


The company’s CEO, Tony Hayward’s remark, “I would like my life back,” could be taken at least two ways. (1) He was sympathetic to those whose lives suffered disruption from the disaster his company caused. He, too, suffered an impact. It could have been a kind of “we’re all in this together, and we’ll all work together to get out of it together.” (2) He was so unsympathetic as to be virtually oblivious to those 11 workers who died and their families, as well as those in the tourist and fishing industries suddenly deprived of income. He was only thinking about himself, and his rather luxurious life – soon to be demonstrated with his yachting vacation. It was a kind of, “Oh, darn; I guess I’m going to have to go to work now.”


One can say that the BP board members should have been more sympathetic to someone who had led their company to some hefty profits. They should realize that the CEO of a company that size could not possibly personally provide detailed oversight of all its many drilling operations around the world. The errors on that offshore rig were not really Hayward’s “fault.” To focus on a single utterance, out of a lifetime of leadership, is unfair, an irrational over-reaction, and unnecessary.


On the other hand, one must acknowledge – with the public as well as investors turning against the company, billions of dollars of liability turning to some degree on the company’s public relations, the stock price plummeting – the decision to replace Hayward was not totally irrational. It may be unfair to Hayward (or not), but to fail to dismiss him may be unfair to the shareholders – for whom the board members have an even greater legal responsibility.


General Stanley McChrystal. One can argue whether a U.S. president’s reaction to criticism is perfectly reasonable or merely petty and petulant. However, just as a corporate board has a responsibility to shareholders, so does a president have a responsibility to maintain our nation’s constitutional “civilian control of the military.” There is a point at which information, suggestions and advice from military officers, normally provided in classified documents and closed meetings requested by a president, information for which a president should be and is appreciative, challenges that control. It may be because it is a public comment, as in this case in a widely circulated magazine, Rolling Stone.[11] It may be, also as in this case, because the comments focus on the president and his or her staff members rather than on their military policy. When comments from military leaders cross that line is a judgment call for the president. In short, the law, the president, and the public all recognize that there are different standards regarding the social acceptability, and legality, of criticism of the President by generals than there are for criticism of a president by other politicians and talk show hosts.[12]


On the other hand, unlike each of the five other case studies, there are few if any direct quotes in the Rolling Stone story of statements made by General McChrystal. Most of the quotations involve statements made by his aides in his presence, or statements from them regarding their perception of his feelings or reactions – “according to sources familiar with the meeting,  McChrystal thought,” or “says an advisor to McChrystal.”[13] This is what the law refers to as “hearsay,” and normally determines to be too unreliable for a jury to hear.[14] At the time of writing, the Army and Pentagon were still trying to figure out who actually said what.[15]


Helen Thomas. The dismissals of Octavia Nasr, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, and Helen Thomas involve some similarities and distinctions. Each is a journalist, or media personality. However, what they said, and its significance, varies.


 The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics provides that “Journalists should . . . Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.”[16] It is representative of other statements in the Code reflecting the journalism profession’s recognition of the importance of audience trust in the independent perspective behind the content provided by publishers and broadcasters. Reporters erode that trust when their activities, investments, informal comments, memberships, and reporting suggest a close a personal or financial relationship to an organization, ideology, political party, government official, corporation, or religion..


Thus, as with the BP board’s treatment of Tony Hayward, there may be perfectly rational reasons for a media employer to dismiss an employee for a comment that, made by an employee of any other institution would reasonably call for a much less severe sanction – or possibly none at all.


Note that this century’s electronics technology and networks radically impact what’s going on here. The video cameras that CBS News President Fred Friendly once described as “a 7000 pound fountain pen”[17] have continued to decline in size over the decades to something the size of a large suitcase, to heavy but portable cameras and recording decks, to large but handheld digital video cameras, to today’s cell phones, miniature and even hidden recording devices. Meanwhile, the distribution networks have expanded from the ABC, CBS and NBC networks of over-the-air stations, to cable television and satellite distribution of hundreds of channels, to local public access television channels, to You Tube.[18]


Thirty years ago, comments such as Helen Thomas’ off-hand suggestion that Israel ought to “get the hell out of Palestine,” might provoke nothing more than a rousing argument among fellow journalists in a bar or at a Washington dinner party. Today they are easily recorded and uploaded to the Internet, where they are self-propelled viral around the world and produce the dismissal of the dean of the White House press corps – especially when accompanied by her acknowledgement that her views are shaped in part by her Arab heritage.


Dr. Laura Schlessinger. Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s offense,[19] while in no sense funny, was otherwise similar to that of George Carlin,[20] with his insightful and comedic routine about the seven words you can never say on television.[21] Dr. Laura’s choice of words is so highly offensive and emotionally charged that even the author, addressing an audience of general semanticists, declines to reproduce it, choosing instead the seemingly acceptable alternative of “the ‘N’ word.” Moreover, Dr. Laura, like George Carlin, was talking about words as words. She was not using “the ‘N’ word” as an epithet directed at the caller, any more than George Carlin’s routine involved directing the seven words at anyone in his audience. (To the extent Carlin even referred to the use of the words in conversations, it was the conversations of others, not his own.) Dr. Laura says she does not use “the ‘N’ word” in that way on the air or in private conversations. Nonetheless, even though she is not a “journalist” as such, a media employer might rationally dismiss her as someone so closely identified with a hostile, mean spirited, racist orientation as to undercut her credibility in reporting about or discussing matters involving African-Americans and the civil rights of other minorities. As it was, the dismissal seemed more because of the negative public response generated for any use in any context of the word, and thus the disinclination of advertisers to associate their commercials with this radio personality.


Octavia Nasr. The issues involved in the tweet from CNN’s correspondent, Octavia Nasr (“Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah . . .. One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot”),[22] are closer to those for Helen Thomas. That is, the statement is open to the interpretation that it reveals Nasr’s bias regarding a subject, and an individual, personality, about which she needs to report impartially. Moreover, Fadlallah is a personality and history that many would not tend to “respect a lot.”


Helen Thomas cannot plausibly argue she was quoted out of context (since she provided both the quote and the context), or that her advice to Israelis (that they should “get the hell out of Palestine” and go back “home” to Poland) was ambiguous and subject to interpretation. On the other hand, Nasr can make claims of both context and ambiguity – and did in a subsequent statement. She made clear there were many things that Fadlallah did that she did not respect, even a little, let alone a lot, and that all she respected was some of what he had advocated by way of women’s rights in Muslim society.[23]


Notwithstanding, “Her explanation of the Twitter message was apparently not enough for her CNN bosses. [Vice President of CNN International Newsgathering Ms. Parisa] Khosravi wrote in the memo, ‘at this point, we believe that her credibility in her position as senior editor for Middle Eastern affairs has been compromised going forward.’”[24]


It is worth noting that Nasr, and many who suffer the consequences of offhand remarks they may claim to have been “misunderstood,” bear at a minimum at least some responsibility for the results flowing from their remarks. General semanticists tend to focus on the skills that readers and listeners might benefit from using. However, it is also useful for speakers to be sensitive to context, and as clear, precise and fulsome as necessary to ease, if not insure, understanding by those who read or hear them.


For example, in this instance Nasr might have distanced herself from those things Fadlallah did during his life which she did not respect – either by itemizing them, or by saying something along the lines of, “bear in mind, now, all I am talking about is what he accomplished to improve the lot of Muslim women.” Of course, in hindsight she might agree it would have been better to have said nothing. To some, any praise of Fadlallah was bound to come across like, “I was so sorry to hear of the death of Hitler. Of course, he did a lot of despicable things, but man, that autobahn system is really something.”


On the other hand, this was not an on-air report, it was not, to paraphrase the words of Chief Justice John Marshall, “a constitution she was expounding.”[25] It was a tweet, for goodness sakes. As such, it was but a further reminder of the change brought on by, and the danger that lurks in, today’s electronic social networks.[26]


Shirley Sherrod. Shirley Sherrod, the Department of Agriculture employee, was another victim of the new media. On March 27, 2010, she spoke at the Georgia NAACP 20th Annual Freedom Fund Banquet. An African-American, she told of the murder of her father by a white man, witnessed by three individuals, and of the refusal of the all-white grand jury to indict his murderer. She told of another occasion when an angry mob of whites gathered in front of her house and burned a cross. And she related the racist practices of the government, and local lawyers, that caused African-American Georgia farmers to lose their farms.[27]


She took the audience through her own life story of reconciliation and redemption, and the lesson she learned when she really went to bat for a poor white farmer.[28] The white bankruptcy lawyer she arranged for the farmer wasn’t providing any better service than the white lawyers provided for black farmers. As she put it,


That's when it was revealed to me that . . . it's about poor versus those who have, and not so much about . . . white and black . . .. [I]t opened my eyes, 'cause I took him to one of his own and I put him in his hand, and . . . what they did to him caused him to not be able to file Chapter 12 bankruptcy. . . . [She made an heroic, and ultimately successful, last minute effort to find another lawyer who could, and would, enable the farmer to keep his farm.] Well, working with him made me see that it's really about those who have versus those who don't, you know. And they could be black, and they could be white; they could be Hispanic. And it made me realize then that I needed to work to help poor people -- those who don't have access the way others have.[29]


The speech transcript, in its entirety, is a significant document in the historic record of civil rights in America.


But in the course of telling this story she revealed the reaction she brought to the table before coming to the realization that the struggle is primarily socio-economic rather than racial. “I was struggling with the fact that so many black people have lost their farmland, and here I was faced with having to help a white person save their land. So, I didn't give him the full force of what I could do. I did enough so that . . . he [would] go back and report that I did try to help him.”[30]


As the reader has probably guessed, it was that line – “So, I didn’t give him the full force of what I could do” – that was lifted out of context by a blogger and went viral through the Internet.


Ultimately, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Iowa’s former governor, fired Sherrod. How much of that decision was his alone, and how much a White House directive, remains shrouded in Washington-speak obfuscation.[31]


The Department of Agriculture is trying to live down a decades-long reputation of anti-African-American bias. America’s first African-American President is trying to avoid race-related controversies. Thus, however unwise, given the interests of the institution, in this case the Obama Administration, the reasoning behind the firing of Sherrod bears some similarity to that of CNN in firing Nasr and the BP board’s firing of its CEO, Tony Hayward.


But no sooner than they thought they had successfully nipped in the bud this bit of Department of Agriculture reverse racism, it came back to bite them with scorpion-like speed and sting. Once the full text of her remarks became available to the public it was clear, both that the firing was grossly unfair, and that the Obama Administration was apparently making major decisions (major in the sense of public relations) based on excerpts from speeches reproduced in right-wing blogs.


The response, not unusual in large institutions: a flip flop. Not only did Secretary Vilsack offer Sherrod her job back, he offered her an unspecified more prestigious “unique” position – along with his apology and a photo op.


She turned down the offer.[32]


Michael Steele. Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele’s remarks about the U.S. military’s efforts in Afghanistan are unique among those already discussed. They were not open to the charges of insensitivity engendered by Hayward. They did not involve the insubordination of the President General McChrystal displayed. They did not suggest his admiration of terrorists, as Nasr’s tweet was interpreted. There was no suggestion of the racism some saw in Sherrod’s speech, or the anti-Israeli overtones in Thomas’ remarks. He could not be criticized for having lied.


So what did he say? At a Republican fundraising event July 1, 2010, he said “the war in Afghanistan . . . was a war of Obama’s choosing.  . . . [I]f he is such a student of history, has he not understood that . . . the one thing you don't do is engage in a land war in Afghanistan . . . because everyone who has tried over a thousand years of history has failed, and there are reasons for that. There are other ways to engage in Afghanistan.”[33]


Perhaps Democrats could fault Steele for overlooking the role of Republican President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney in the Afghanistan war. But Republicans? Consistent with the Republican strategy of “No” (blaming Obama for all of America’s problems, while opposing his initiatives to fix them), Steele laid responsibility for the war at President Obama’s feet. (Had he been more precise, noting that Obama continued both the war and the basic strategy, while increasing the number of American troops, even Democrats would have to acknowledge the truth of Steele’s assertions.) And it’s certainly difficult to find much fault with his characterization of land wars in Afghanistan.


But it was not to be.


By the following morning, Weekly Standard editor and former Dan Quayle aide William Kristol released his letter to Michael Steele, quoting Steele’s remarks, above, and calling for his resignation:


Needless to say, the war in Afghanistan was not "a war of Obama’s choosing." It has been prosecuted by the United States under Presidents Bush and Obama. Republicans have consistently supported the effort. . . .


At a time when Gen. Petraeus has just taken over command, when Republicans in Congress are pushing for a clean war funding resolution, when Republicans around the country are doing their best to rally their fellow citizens behind the mission, your comment is more than an embarrassment. It’s an affront, both to the honor of the Republican party and to the commitment of the soldiers . . ..


There are, of course, those who think we should pull out of Afghanistan . . .. [O]ne of them shouldn't be the chairman of the Republican party.[34]


Liz Cheney, chairwoman of the conservative group Keep America Safe and daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, declared “It is time for Chairman Steele to step down. The former chair of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, Congressman Tom Cole of Oklahoma, said Steele’s comments were “totally unacceptable” and that he “should apologize and resign.” Cole continued, “He [Steele] undercut American forces fighting in the field, politicized further a war that two presidents of different parties have deemed in the national interest and embarrassed the party he purports to lead. It is time for him to go – quickly."[35]


Of course, in this instance what is relevant to Steele’s continued employment is the reaction of Steele’s employer – the Republican National Committee (RNC) – not the reaction of individual Party members, however prominent those calling for his resignation may be. Reactions to Steele’s comments by the public in general, and Republican members of the public in particular, are but a factor for the RNC to consider – as the BP board considered public reaction to Hayward’s statements.


As of this writing, Michael Steele is still Chair of the RNC.


Juan Williams. By contrast, JuanWilliams is no longer working for NPR.


His case would seem to bear more similarity to that of Nasr than of Thomas. That is to say, if his blog entry following his firing can be believed, and one examines the entire transcript of the relevant portion of Bill O’Reilly’s October 18, 2010, program,[36] Williams was not criticizing, and certainly not condemning, all Muslims; he was doing exactly the opposite – in the course of which, not incidentally, he was criticizing O’Reilly.


Williams statement was about himself, not Muslims. In the context of a discussion of the terrorists attack on the Twin Towers on 9/11, he conceded that even he felt a little nervousness when there were Muslims among the passengers on his plane. The point was, and is, as William Saletan put it in Slate.com, “Sometimes a confession of prejudice is part of a larger reflection on the perils of prejudice. That was true of Sherrod. And it's true of Williams.”[37]


Here are some excerpts from the range of his comments on the show. It was his first response (to O’Reilly’s question, “So, where am I going wrong there, Juan?”) that has caused the furor. He replied:


I think you’re right. I think, look, political correctness [i.e., in this instance, a refusal to acknowledge the reality that a disproportionate share of the terrorists wishing, and practicing, harm to America claim to be doing so in the name of Islam] can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don’t address reality.


I mean, look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.[38]


Now, I remember also that when the Times Square bomber was at court, I think this was just last week. He said the war with Muslims, America’s war is just beginning, first drop of blood. I don’t think there’s any way to get away from these facts.


However, he immediately continued:


But I think there are people who want to somehow remind us all as President Bush did after 9/11, it’s not a war against Islam. President Bush went to a mosque –


. . . Wait a second though, wait, hold on, because if you said Timothy McVeigh, the Atlanta bomber, these people who are protesting against homosexuality at military funerals, very obnoxious, you don’t say first and foremost, we got a problem with Christians. That’s crazy.


. . . [Y]ou said in the talking points memo a moment ago that there are good Muslims, I think that’s a point, you know?


. . . But, Bill, here’s a caution point. The other day in New York, some guy cuts a Muslim cabby’s neck and says he’s attacking him or you think about the protest at the mosque near Ground Zero –


. . . I don’t know what is in that guy’s head. But I’m saying, we don’t want in America, people to have their rights violated to be attacked on the street because they heard a rhetoric from Bill O’Reilly and they act crazy. We’ve got to say to people as Bill was saying tonight, that guy is a nut.[39]


After he was fired, Williams wrote in his blog:


Yesterday NPR fired me for telling the truth. The truth is that I worry when I am getting on an airplane and see people dressed in garb that identifies them first and foremost as Muslims.


This is not a bigoted statement. It is a statement of my feelings, my fears after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 by radical Muslims. In a debate with Bill O’Reilly I revealed my fears to set up the case for not making rash judgments about people of any faith. I pointed out that the Atlanta Olympic bomber -- as well as Timothy McVeigh and the people who protest against gay rights at military funerals -- are Christians but we journalists don’t identify them by their religion.


And I made it clear that all Americans have to be careful not to let fears lead to the violation of anyone’s constitutional rights, be it to build a mosque, carry the Koran or drive a New York cab without the fear of having your throat slashed. Bill and I argued after I said he has to take care in the way he talks about the 9/11 attacks so as not to provoke bigotry.[40]


CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, called on NPR to “address the fact that one of its news analysts seems to believe that all airline passengers who are perceived to be Muslim can legitimately be viewed as security threats.”[41] While that is one possible interpretation of what he said, it is at least equally possible to conclude that he said precisely the opposite; that is, that all “perceived to be Muslim cannot legitimately be viewed as security threats.”


One can observe that, like Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack’s impetuous response to the selected excerpt from Shirley Sherrod’s speech without first examining the entire videotape or transcript, NPR’s executives also weakened their case by lifting a portion of Williams’ comments without considering, or at least crediting, its meaning in context. Or one might suggest, as David Brooks did in the case of Nasr, that a fixed-time suspension might make more sense than a dismissal.[42] Or if, as NPR claimed, it was Williams’ dual role of news analyst for NPR and commentator for Fox that had been a troublesome conflict and violation of its rules for years, it might have been better public relations not to rest his dismissal on a characterization as “opinion” of his single remark on October 19, but rather wait a few weeks. (This weak rationale was made more so because Williams’ remark was a statement of fact, not opinion: what his personal feelings are when flying.[43]) Of course, this was not the first time NPR mangled what could have been a smooth departure.[44]


Williams was not fired because of his statements taken alone. He, like Octavia Nasr and Helen Thomas, is a journalist. His employer, NPR, has the legal right to fire him for any reason whatsoever. This is not a First Amendment case. More significant in this instance, NPR certainly has a right to create its own rules regarding journalistic ethics, and preservation of the appearance of its reporters’ (what they call “news analysts”) impartiality. Having done so, it also has the right to investigate, judge, and impose penalties for the failure to comply with its rules.


David Letterman and the “Do Nothing” Strategy


The RNC’s decision after considering its possible responses to Michael Steele’s comments about President Obama and the Afghanistan war – namely, a decision to do nothing – is an option all too often overlooked by boards and CEOs.


Another instance in which an institution successfully chose to do nothing about an employee’s offensive speech involved comments by CBS’ “Late Night” host David Letterman on June 8, 2009.


First, some background.


David Letterman’s “Late Night” show on the CBS Network affiliates (11:30 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday) consists of an opening stand-up monologue of jokes, followed by the evening’s “Top Ten” list, additional comments about the day’s news, interaction with the studio audience, and interviews of guests.


Sarah Palin, former governor of the State of Alaska, and Republican Vice Presidential candidate in 2008, was visiting New York in June 2009 with her husband Todd. They have two daughters, Bristol (18 years old) and Willow (14 years old). Bristol, an advocate of abstinence from sex before marriage, had in fact had sex, become pregnant, and bore a child while she was not married (a matter that attracted some attention during Palin’s vice presidential campaign). During the New York trip Palin attended a Yankees baseball game with Willow.


Eliot Spitzer, former governor of the State of New York, with a one-time reputation as a crime fighter closing down prostitution rings, had resigned the year before, following the revelation he was himself a regular customer of a high-priced prostitution business.[45] Prior to that, the media had reported that Yankees’ player Alex Rodriguez was, most charitably phrased, a womanizer.[46]


In his opening monologue June 8, 2009, Letterman noted the Palins’ trip to New York and commented, “The toughest part of her visit was keeping Eliot Spitzer away from her daughter.” As for the Yankees game, Letterman said they were sitting in the “far, far right field” and that "during the seventh inning, her daughter was knocked up by Alex Rodriguez.” And Letterman's "Top Ten Highlights of Sarah Palin's Trip to New York," included: "Keyed Tina Fey's car" (No. 7), "Finally met one of those Jewish people Mel Gibson's always talking about" (No. 3), "Bought makeup from Bloomingdale's to update her 'slutty flight attendant' look" (No. 2) and "Especially enjoyed not appearing on Letterman" (No. 1).”[47]


Sarah and Todd Palin lashed back at the inappropriateness of Letterman’s trying to make humor out of an implied statutory rape of a 14-year-old, their daughter Willow. Letterman, who had not named Willow or otherwise identified her rather than Bristol, later explained that he found nothing funny in sexual abuse of young girls, assumed it was 18-year-old Bristol who attended the game, and that she was the daughter to whom he referred.[48]


He returned to the controversy in future shows, acknowledged that his June 8 remarks – indeed much of his attempts at “humor” over the course of 30 years – were crude and in bad taste. He continued to insist, however, that he had not in the past, did not on June 8, and never would in the future, make jokes about older men having sex with underage women.[49]


And what was CBS’ response? As People magazine’s Aaron Parsley reported, “A spokesman for The Late Show had no comment.”[50]


Admittedly, although Letterman said on air at one point, “This may be my last show” and acknowledged that “It was a course joke, a bad joke,” clearly he, and CBS, could take his remarks, in the midst of a comedic monologue, as much less serious than had they been part of a news story or opinion piece.


In another context Letterman’s remarks might qualify as “defamation.” Sarah Palin’s status as a “public figure” requires that in order to establish defamation she must prove the defendant’s “actual malice,” meaning that Letterman knew his statements were false, or that he exhibited “reckless disregard” in failing to ascertain whether they were true or false. She might well be able to show that. She might be able to demonstrate harm to the reputation of herself and her daughter Bristol in their “community,” and otherwise establish the elements of a defamation cause of action.[51]


What could save Letterman and CBS, both in a court of law and in the court of public opinion, is the comedic nature of “Late Night.” For defamation is judged not by mere words alone. It is the meaning reasonably assigned to those words that matters. The general nature of the program, text of Letterman’s opening monologue and “Top 10 Lists,” and his body language and manner of delivery, remove any possibility of an audience member finding a reasonable meaning of Letterman’s words to be that either daughter was actually raped by Alex Rodriquez.


It’s not that “anything goes” so long as comments represent an attempt at humor. There are limits; for example, the acceptability of George Carlin’s monologue before an adult nightclub audience compared with its unacceptability on a daytime radio broadcast available to children. The acceptability of stand-up routines may be constrained, or expanded, by a comedian’s race or religion (compare use of “the ‘N’ word” by Dr. Laura, and the African-American entertainers to whom she referred).[52] But there are, at some point limits.


Whatever CBS’ executives thought those limits to be, and whether David Letterman had exceeded them, the institutional choice was to do nothing. It is a choice that other institutional leaders might wish to consider more often for a variety of reasons.


It may minimize, rather than drag out over time, the adverse public relations from the employee’s remarks. It may communicate a sense of calm and confidence on the part of management, an ability to put an unfortunate, offhand remark into a context of the years of that employee’s positive performance. It can create at least the appearance of a management that responds in ways that are “reasonable” and “fair,” rather than implementing a “one strike and you’re out” policy. In an age when institutions need more innovation and creativity to compete, it helps create the environment in which they can flourish. It retains employees who may be a real asset to the organization.[53] It enables management to distinguish the important distinctions between employees’ actions that can have a long term impact on a corporation’s profits, or a university’s academic reputation, from the relatively unimportant, short term impact of an unfortunate choice of words. It may make it easier to hire and retain employees at all levels if employees know that management “has their back” – rather than management’s immediate and instinctive inclination to turn their backs, or stab employees in the back -- the first time employees are associated in any way with adverse publicity for the institution.


General Semantics and the Unacceptable Remark


The ultimate response of an institution’s board or CEO to the unacceptable remarks of one of its employees may be to “do nothing” (as in the Michael Steele and David Letterman cases, above), or to punish the employee in some way, up to and including the possibility of discharge. An obvious compromise, and alternative to discharge, is a “suspension” – as Tom Friedman suggested would have been preferable in the case of Nasr.[54] Regardless of which it is, there are some basic general semantics concepts, principles and techniques that may be useful to the institution during the process of arriving at a decision.[55]


What do you mean and how do you know?[56] When an institutional executive gets a report that an employee is a “racist,” “insubordinate,” “communist,” “terrorist” – or has engaged in “sexual harassment” – an obvious first step is to ask the general semanticist’s question, “What do you mean?” What do you mean, “Shirley Sherrod is a racist?” – or that “she made racist remarks”? What, specifically, did she say? Request that the complainant move down the “ladder of abstraction” far enough to provide some examples – preferably a credible text, transcript, or recording of the entirety of what the employee said.


The next question might well be, “How do you know?” What is your source of information – first hand observation, third-hand gossip, or an anonymous comment attached to the online version of a newspaper story or blog? If it’s something being emailed around the Internet, “Have you checked it out on Snopes[57] or made any other effort to validate it?”


The search for meaning. On the one hand, what’s most relevant to the CEO, in terms of the adverse public relations for the institution, is how the employee’s remarks were understood by the audience, or could be easily spun by malevolent media. On the other hand, if the CEO wishes to appear to treat the employee fairly, he or she needs to consider the employee’s credible explanation of what the remark meant to the speaker (perhaps, as with Shirley Sherrod, by examining the context that helps to shape that meaning).


Misunderstandings occur. What’s truly miraculous is that communication between humans functions as well as it does as often as it does. As Dr. James Carlopio has observed, “Successfully communicating with the living, is only slightly more difficult than communicating with the dead.[58]


 When one considers that the process of communication is heavily dependent upon the goings on within the electro-chemical soup we call our brains and, if it is to be successful, some level of synchronization between the neurological processes within two physically separated organisms, speaker and listener, it is something more than merely miraculous.


Wendell Johnson has written of “this amazing transformation of nonverbal goings on within the nervous system, and throughout the organism, into the curiously codified motor responses that we so glibly refer to as ‘spoken words’! . . . The crucial significance of this fact is that basically we always talk about ourselves. Our statements are the verbalizations of our preverbal tensions. It is these organismic tensions – not the external reality of rooms, chairs, people, sound waves, light waves, and pressures – that we transform into words. What we talk about, then, is a joint product of reality (regarded as a source of sensory stimulation) and of the conditions existing within our nervous systems at the time of stimulation.”[59]


There are, of course, many more mundane potential barriers to understanding. Speaker and listener may have different native languages or dialects. As is increasingly true today, the listener may have been “multi-tasking” and simply failed to process a relevant part of what the speaker said. The listener may be partially deaf, or the speaker may have a physical impediment to clearly understood speech. There may be an external source of sound, or static during a radio broadcast.


But the interference with communication of greatest interest to general semanticists involves what is called “self-projection” – the tendency, indeed the inevitability, that the “meaning” one’s neurological process finds in a comment is necessarily influenced by one’s past experiences and prior associations.


Aside from a CEO’s need to divine the meaning in an employee’s remark, are there other contexts in which there is a search for “meaning”?


The law deals with meaning in a variety of contexts – the intention of the parties to a contract, or the insight into the meaning of statutory language provided by the legislators’ debates. The role of meaning in the law of defamation comes closest to the issues surrounding the most appropriate response to the unacceptable remark.


What follows is scarcely a “legal opinion.” As with any other area of law, defamation has its qualifiers and complexities in the details. But for present purposes defamation can be thought of as a spoken (slander) or written (libel) comment that is (1) a statement to which at least some meaning can be ascribed, (2) communicated to a third party, (3) that is false, (4) and among the possible meanings of which there is at least one that would be (5) about the subject (plaintiff), and (6) harmful to their reputation, (7) in his or her community. If so, it may give rise to a judgment of damages for defamation.[60]


As such, defamation requires the judge and jury to consider, among other things, the “meaning” of the alleged defamatory statement. In that sense, it is similar to what an executive might benefit from doing in evaluating the seriousness of an employee’s remark.


Words about words, however disparaging or offensive those words may be (George Carlin or Dr. Laura[61]), have a different meaning than when those words are used in a comment intended to defame or offend someone. Comments at the expense of an ethic group, or otherwise considered extremely offensive in the workplace, or a social setting, may be acceptable as part of a stand-up routine in a comedy club, especially if delivered by a member of that ethnic group.[62] This would also be true of words uttered in any other setting in which the participants were joking with each other and knew that the speaker did not mean what the words, if read in a printed transcript, would suggest – as the U.S. Supreme Court once ruled with regard to the word “blackmail.”[63]


Words spoken by, or in the presence of, a public official in a small social gathering (General Stanley McChrystal[64]) or written in a tweet (Octavia Nasr[65]) have (or at least, perhaps, should have) a different significance than words in a formal speech, official government document, or news story in the media.


Statements initially thought unacceptable when “taken out of context” may take on an entirely different meaning in context (Shirley Sherrod[66]).


Before punishing an employee for an unacceptable remark an executive would be wise to make sure that the meaning of the remark, what the speaker meant by it, was in fact what those who heard it took it to mean.

[1] “Embattled BP Chief: I Want My Life Back,” The Times [London], May 31, 2010, business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/industry_sectors/natural_resources/article7141137.ece (last visited September 4, 2010).


[2] Michael Hastings, "The Runaway General: Stanley McChrystal, Obama's top commander in Afghanistan, has seized control of the war by never taking his eye off the real enemy: The wimps in the White House," Rolling Stone , June 22, 2010, rollingstone.com/politics/news/17390/119236 (last visited September 4, 2010).


[3] Brian Stelter, “CNN Fires Middle East Affairs Editor,” New York Times, July 8, 2010, p. B3, nytimes.com/2010/07/08/business/media/08cnn.html (last visited September 4, 2010).


[4] Shirley Sherrod, “Address at the Georgia NAACP 20th Annual Freedom Fund Banquet,” March 27, 2010,  American Rhetoric Online Speech Bank, americanrhetoric.com/speeches/shirleysherrodnaacpfreedom.htm (last visited September 4, 2010).


[5] Jeremy Holden, “Dr. Laura Schlessinger's N-word rant,” Media Matters, August 12, 2010 (includes audio and printed transcript of exchange), mediamatters.org/blog/201008120045 (last visited September 20, 2010); ; DeWayne Wichham, “Dr. Laura's Use of N-Word Betrays Her True Colors,” USA Today, August 24, 2010 com/news/opinion/forum/2010-08-24-column24_ST1_N.htm (last visited September 4, 2010).


[6] John Nichols, “RNC’s Steele Says: ‘The One Thing You Don’t Do Is Engage in a Land War In Afghanistan.’ Uh-Oh, Now He’s in Trouble!,” The Nation, July 2, 2010, thenation.com/blog/37002/rncs-steele-says-one-thing-you-don’t-do-engage-land-war-afghanistan-uh-oh-now-hes-trouble (last visited September 4, 2010).


[7]Jeremy W. Peters, "Reporter Retires After Words About Israel," New York Times, June 8, 2010, p. A14, nytimes.com/2010/06/08/business/media/08thomas.html (last visited September 4, 2010). “Helen Thomas Complete (Original),” You Tube, youtube.com/watch?v=nc4OeRu7cfs. Embed as:

<object width="480" height="385"><param name="movie" value="http://www.youtube.com/v/nc4OeRu7cfs?fs=1&amp;hl=en_US"></param><param name="allowFullScreen" value="true"></param><param name="allowscriptaccess" value="always"></param><embed src="http://www.youtube.com/v/nc4OeRu7cfs?fs=1&amp;hl=en_US" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" allowscriptaccess="always" allowfullscreen="true" width="480" height="385"></embed></object> (last visited September 4, 2010).


[8] Brian Stelter, "NPR Fires Analyst Over Comments on Muslims," New York Times, Oct. 21, 2010, p. B2,

nytimes.com/2010/10/21/business/media/21npr.html (last visited October 22, 2010); Brian Stelter, "Two Takes at NPR and Fox on Juan Williams," New York Times, Oct. 22, 2010, p. B1, nytimes.com/2010/10/22/business/media/22williams.html (last visited October 22, 2010); "RAW DATA: NPR Internal Memo on Juan Williams," FoxNews.com, October 21, 2010 (Fox News publication of alleged NPR President and CEO Vivian Schiller's internal memo regarding Williams' firing), foxnews.com/politics/2010/10/21/raw-data-npr-internal-memo-juan-williams/ (last visited October 22, 2010);

Juan Williams, "I Was Fired for Telling the Truth," FoxNews.com, October 21, 2010,

foxnews.com/opinion/2010/10/21/juan-williams-npr-fired-truth-muslim-garb-airplane-oreilly-ellen-weiss-bush/ (last visited October 22, 2010).

 See “Williams: Muslims on Planes Make Me Nervous (Video),” HuffingtonPost, October 19, 2010, huffingtonpost.com/2010/10/19/juan-williams-muslims-nervous_n_768719.html (last visited October 22, 2010). Embed as:
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For a longer, 6:09 excerpt from the October 18, 2010, program see “NPR Fires Juan Williams Over Remarks Made About Muslims on O[Reilly Factor,” Media-Ite,  in Amy Davidson, “Close Read: NPR’s Bad Divorce,” The New Yorker , October 22, 2010, newyorker.com/online/blogs/closeread/2010/10/nprs-bad-divorce.html (last visited October 22, 2010).

Embeded as:

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[9] Except for Michael Steele, who has so far (October 22, 2010) withstood the calls for his resignation.


[10] “Sticks and stones/May break my bones/But words will never hurt me,” “Sticks and Stones (Nursery Rhyme),” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sticks_and_Stones_(nursery_rhyme) (last visited September 4, 2010).


[11]  Michael Hastings, "The Runaway General: Stanley McChrystal, Obama's top commander in Afghanistan, has seized control of the war by never taking his eye off the real enemy: The wimps in the White House," Rolling Stone, June 22, 2010,  rollingstone.com/politics/news/17390/119236 (last visited September 17, 2010).


[12] See Uniform Code of Military Justice, Sec. 88, 10 USC Sec. 888 (2006), codes.lp.findlaw.com/uscode/10/A/II/47/X/888 (last visited September 4, 2010).


[13]  E.g., “Even though he had voted for Obama, McChrystal and his new commander in chief failed from the outset to connect. The general first encountered Obama a week after he took office, when the president met with a dozen senior military officials in a room at the Pentagon known as the Tank. According to sources familiar with the meeting, McChrystal thought Obama looked ‘uncomfortable and intimidated’ by the roomful of military brass. Their first one-on-one meeting took place in the Oval Office four months later, after McChrystal got the Afghanistan job, and it didn't go much better. ‘It was a 10-minute photo op,’ says an adviser to McChrystal. ‘Obama clearly didn't know anything about him, who he was. Here's the guy who's going to run his f***ing war, but he didn't seem very engaged. The Boss was pretty disappointed.’" Hastings, infra note 11.


[14]  “Hearsay: (1) unverified, unofficial information gained or acquired from another and not part of one's direct knowledge: I pay no attention to hearsay.” Dictionary.com, dictionary.reference.com/browse/hearsay (last visited September 17, 2010).


[15]  “An An Army inquiry into a Rolling Stone magazine article about Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal has found that it was not the general or senior officers on his staff who made the most egregious comments that led to his abrupt dismissal as the top Afghan commander in June, according to Army and Pentagon officials. But the review, commissioned after an embarrassing and disruptive episode, does not wholly resolve who was responsible for the inflammatory quotations, most of which were anonymous.” Thom Shanker, “McChrystal Article Inquiry Leaves Questions Open,” New York Times, September 23, 2010, p. A9, nytimes.com/2010/09/23/world/asia/23military.html (last visited September 24, 2010).


[16] Society of Professional Journalists, “SPJ Code of Ethics” (1996), spj.org/ethicscode.asp (last visited September 12, 2010).


[17]  Conversation with the author, unrecorded and undated.


[18]  Youtube.com (last visited September 12, 2010). “People are watching 2 billion videos a day on YouTube and uploading hundreds of thousands of videos daily. In fact, every minute, 24 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube.” “You Tube Fact Sheet,” youtube.com/t/fact_sheet (last visited September 12, 2010).


[19]  Infra note 5.


[20]  See, georgecarlin.com/home/home.html (last visited September 12, 2010).


[21]  “Seven Dirty Words,” wikipedia.org/Seven_dirty_words (last visited September 12, 2010); FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U.S. 726 (1978), laws.findlaw.com/us/438/726.html (last visited September 12, 2010). Although the Justices decided it was appropriate for the FCC to ban the harmful words from radio  (at least during part of the day) they decided it would not harm the public to include a full transcript of the entire routine as their “Appendix to Opinion of the Court.” Id. at 751.


[22]  “CNN Mideast Affairs Editor Fired Over Hezbollah Tweet,” ChattahBox, July 8, 2010,

http://chattahbox.com/entertainment/2010/07/08/cnn-mideast-affairs-editor-fired-over-hezbollah-tweet/ (last visited September 16, 2010).


[23]  “In a follow-up blog post on Tuesday evening, Ms. Nasr said she was sorry about the message ‘because it conveyed that I supported Fadlallah’s life’s work. That’s not the case at all.’


“She said she used the words ‘respect’ and ‘sad’  because ‘to me, as a Middle Eastern woman, Fadlallah took a contrarian and pioneering stand among Shia clerics on woman’s rights. He called for the abolition of the tribal system of “honor killing.” He called the practice primitive and nonproductive. He warned Muslim men that abuse of women was against Islam.’


“She continued, ‘This does not mean I respected him for what else he did or said. Far from it.’” “CNN Mideast Affairs Editor Fired Over Hezbollah Tweet,” ChattahBox, July 8, 2010,

http://chattahbox.com/entertainment/2010/07/08/cnn-mideast-affairs-editor-fired-over-hezbollah-tweet/ (last visited September 16, 2010). And see "This Just In: Nasr explains controversial tweet on Lebanese cleric," CNN, July 6, 2010,
news.blogs.cnn.com/2010/07/06/nasr-explains-controversial-tweet-on-lebanese-cleric/ (last visited September 16, 2010).


[24]  Brian Stelter, “CNN Fires Middle East Affairs Editor, New York Times, July 8, 2010, p. B3, nytimes.com/2010/07/08/business/media/08cnn.html (last visited September 16, 2010).


[25]  “In considering this question, then, we must never forget that it is a constitution we are expounding.” M’Culloch v. Maryland, 17 U.S. 316, 407 (1819), caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?navby=case&court=us&vol=17&page=316 (last visited September 24, 2010).


[26]  For a fellow journalist’s view that the dismissal by CNN was both counterproductive and unwarranted, see Thomas L. Friedman, "Can We Talk?" New York Times, July 18, 2010, p. WK9,  
nytimes.com/2010/07/18/opinion/18friedman.html (last visited September 15, 2010) (“I find Nasr’s firing troubling. Yes, she made a mistake. Reporters covering a beat should not be issuing condolences for any of the actors they cover. It undermines their credibility. But we also gain a great deal by having an Arabic-speaking, Lebanese-Christian female journalist covering the Middle East for CNN, and if her only sin in 20 years is a 140-character message about a complex figure like Fadlallah, she deserved some slack. She should have been suspended for a month, but not fired. It’s wrong on several counts. To begin with, what has gotten into us? One misplaced verb now and within hours you can have a digital lynch mob chasing after you — and your bosses scrambling for cover. A journalist should lose his or her job for misreporting, for misquoting, for fabricating, for plagiarizing, for systemic bias — but not for a message like this one.“) And see Lee Smith, "Objectivity and Reporting on the Mideast: The Octavia Nasr Episode Speaks Volumes About Elastic Definitions of Objectivity," The Weekly Standard, cbsnews.com, July 12, 2010, cbsnews.com/stories/2010/07/12/opinion/main6669518.shtml (last visited September 16, 2010).


[27]  Shirley Sherrod, "Address at the Georgia NAACP 20th Annual Freedom Fund Banquet," March 27, 2010, American Rhetoric Online Speech Bank, americanrhetoric.com/speeches/shirleysherrodnaacpfreedom.htm (last visited September 17, 2010). The full video of the speech has been made available by the NAACP. “Shirley Sherrod: The Full Video,” You Tube, youtube.com/watch?v=E9NcCa_KjXk (last visited September 17, 2010). The embed code is: <object width="480" height="385"><param name="movie" value="http://www.youtube.com/v/E9NcCa_KjXk?fs=1&amp;hl=en_US"></param><param name="allowFullScreen" value="true"></param><param name="allowscriptaccess" value="always"></param><embed src="http://www.youtube.com/v/E9NcCa_KjXk?fs=1&amp;hl=en_US" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" allowscriptaccess="always" allowfullscreen="true" width="480" height="385"></embed></object>


[28]  When Sherrod came under attack for her  remarks and alleged racist unwillingness to help white farmers, “the farmer’s wife quickly came to Sherrod’s defense, appearing on television to say she [Sherrod] had worked doggedly to save the Georgia farm from foreclosure after the 1986 incident and was considered a ‘friend for life.’” Jonathan Weisman, "Vilsack Reviews Sherrod Firing," Wall Street Journal, July 21, 2010, wsj.com/washwire/2010/07/21/vilsack-reviews-sherrod-firing/ (last visited September 17, 2010).


[29]  Sherrod Speech, infra note 27.


[30]  Id.


[31]  The obfuscation reduced somewhat with the revelation of emails between the major players at the time, e.g.:


“Tonsager informed Vilsack in the e-mail that Sherrod had told deputy undersecretary Cheryl Cook, the official who asked her to resign, that there was a copy of the longer speech. But no one there had seen it.


“As those e-mails circulated the night of July 19, Cook was extracting a resignation from Sherrod. The urgency for her official resignation was clear as the department's White House liaison, Kevin Washo, e-mailed Cook short missives asking ‘You have it?’ and 30 minutes later, ‘Let me know as soon as it's in your inbox.’


“Later that night, Vilsack was forwarded Sherrod's official resignation, which again included her defense. She said she felt ‘so disappointed’ by the decision that she was asked to resign because of a misrepresentation of her words, and she urged them all to look at the full tape of her speech, which was not yet available. She noted she did everything she could to save the white farmer's farm and said he became a good friend.” Mary Clare Jalonick, "E-mails: Vilsack hastily decided to oust Sherrod; E-mails show Vilsack made hasty decision to oust Shirley Sherrod, despite warnings," Associated Press, October 8, 2010, finance.yahoo.com/news/Emails-Vilsack-hastily-apf-3423537239.html?x=0 (last visited October 20, 2010).


[32]  Jonathan Weisman, "Vilsack Reviews Sherrod Firing," Wall Street Journal, July 21, 2010, wsj.com/washwire/2010/07/21/vilsack-reviews-sherrod-firing/ (last visited September 17, 2010).  And see, Charisse Van Horn, “Shirley Sherrod: USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack denies White House pressure on Sherrod's resignation,” [Chicago] Examiner, July 21, 2010, examiner.com/us-headlines-in-national/shirley-sherrod-usda-secretary-tom-vilsack-denies-white-house-pressure-on-sherrod-s-resignation (last visited September 17, 2010); Mary Clare Jalonick and Ben Evans, "Ag secretary offers Sherrod 'unique' position," Associated Press/Yahoo! News, July 21, 2010, news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100721/ap_on_go_ca_st_pe/us_usda_racism_resignation (last visted September 17, 2010) (“Robert Gibbs said the administration did not know all the facts when it acted”).

[33] John Nichols, “RNC’s Steele Says: ‘The One Thing You Don’t Do Is Engage in a Land War In Afghanistan.’ Uh-Oh, Now He’s in Trouble!,” The Nation, July 2, 2010, thenation.com/blog/37002/rncs-steele-says-one-thing-you-don’t-do-engage-land-war-afghanistan-uh-oh-now-hes-trouble (last visited September 4, 2010). See MOXNews, “Everyone Knows You Don’t Engage In A Land War In Afghanistan! Michael Steele RNC Chairman,” You Tube, youtube.com/v/ei0x8iJm3F0&amp;hl=en_US&amp;fs=1[and youtube.com/watch?v=ei0x8iJm3F0&feature=player_embedded] (last visited September 18, 2010,

Embed as:

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<object width="480" height="385"><param name="movie" value="http://www.youtube.com/v/ei0x8iJm3F0?fs=1&amp;hl=en_US"></param><param name="allowFullScreen" value="true"></param><param name="allowscriptaccess" value="always"></param><embed src="http://www.youtube.com/v/ei0x8iJm3F0?fs=1&amp;hl=en_US" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" allowscriptaccess="always" allowfullscreen="true" width="480" height="385"></embed></object>]


[34] Id.


[35]   Richard A. Serrano, "Conservatives push for Steele's resignation; Liz Cheney, editor William Kristol of the Weekly Standard, and Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma say the RNC chairman's remarks about the war in Afghanistan

'embarrassed the party he purports to lead,'" Los Angeles Times, July 4, 2010, articles.latimes.com/2010/jul/04/nation/la-na-steele-20100704 (last visited September 18, 2010).


[36]  Transcript available in Ben Armbruster, "Media Accountability: NPR Fires Juan Williams After He Admits Getting ‘Nervous’ And ‘Worried’ About Muslims On Airplanes," Think Progress, October 21, 2010, thinkprogress.org/2010/10/21/npr-fires-juan-williams/ (last visited October 22, 2010).


[37] William Saletan, “Shirley Not Again,” Slate, October 21, 2010, slate.com/id/2271931/ (last visited October 22, 2010).


[38] Given the totality of Williams remarks and writing, and that he continues to fly, it's clear that, intellectually, he has a fairly accurate benefit-cost sense of the mathematically insignificant risk of any plane he's on being blow up by Muslim terrorists. Muslim extremists aside, there are individuals who have a fear of flying. They might be willing to concede that when they are on airplanes, like Williams, "I get worried; I get nervous" -- notwithstanding the fact that they, intellectually, know they are safer when flying on a commercial airline than when driving a car. Since 9/11 the government has told Americans to be on alert, to report anything "suspicious." In calculating risks, irrational attitudes about race, religion and ethnicity may play a role in one's emotional response. None other than Jesse Jackson has said, "There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery -- then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved." Remarks at a meeting of Operation PUSH, Chicago, November 27, 1993, quoted in Mary A. Johnson, "Crime: New Frontier -- Jesse Jackson Calls It Top Civil-Rights Issue," Chicago Sun-Times, November 29, 1993, and in Stephan Themstrom and Abigail Themstrom, America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible (Simon & Schuster, 1999), p. 263,

books.google.com/books?id=JTiJK0D18OoC&q=relieved#v=snippet&q=relieved&f=false (last visited October 22, 2010). An African-American friend has told me of similar feelings when she is walking at night and followed by a number of African-American male teenagers (conversation with author October 21, 2010).


[39]  See supra, note 36.


[40] See supra, note 8.


[41] “Action: Ask NPR to Address Analyst’s Remarks on Muslims,” CAIR, October 21, 2010, cair.com/ArticleDetails.aspx?mid1=763&&ArticleID=26665&&name=n&&currPage=1 (last visited October 22, 2010).

[42] Supra note 26.


[43] NPR CEO Vivian Schiller spoke to the Atlanta Press Club on October 21, 2010. Given her concern about  her “news analysts” taking “personal public positions on controversial issues” because it “undermines their credibility,” and putting aside the fact that Williams’ feelings while flying are scarcely a “controversial issue,” it is a mite ironic that  NPR itself reports she was so quick to express her own opinion and “personal public position” that Juan Williams should have kept his feelings between himself  and “his psychiatrist or his publicist.” Mark Memmott, "NPR CEO Apologizes for 'Psychiatrist' Remark," The Two-Way, NPR's News Blog, October 21, 2010,

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=130728202&ps=cprs (last visited October 22, 2010).


[44] “The decision by National Public Radio to replace [Bob] Edwards as Morning Edition anchor [in 2004] was one of the year’s more peculiar media stories.” “2005 Annual Report – Radio Content Analysis: NPR’s Bob Edwards,” Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, March 15, 2005, journalism.org/node/933 (last visited October 22, 2010).


[45]  Tom Leonard, “Eliot Spitzer Resignation Prostitute Named,” [London] Telegraph, March 13, 2008, telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/1581626/Eliot-Spitzer-resignation-prostitute-named.html (last visited September 19, 2010).


[46]  Adam Lisberg, Kathie Klarreich and Dave Goldiner, “As wife packs up, is A-Rod out at home? Rodriguez says his off-field antics won't 'be a distraction' to team,” New York Daily News, May 31, 2007, nydailynews.com/gossip/2007/05/31/2007-05-31_as_wife_packs_up_is_arod_out_at_home.html (last visited September 19, 2010).


[47] Michael Saul, “Sarah Palin attacks David Letterman over 'sexually-perverted' joke,” New York Daily News, June 11, 2009, nydailynews.com/news/politics/2009/06/10/2009-06-10_sarah_palin_attacks_david_letterman_over_sexuallyperverted_joke_on_late_night.html (last visited September 19, 2010); Jenny Booth, “David Letterman apologises for 'coarse' joke about Sarah Palin's daughter,” [London] The Times, June 16, 2009, timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/us_and_americas/article6509961.ece (last visited September 19, 2010) (“‘It was a coarse joke, a bad joke. The joke, really, in and of itself, can't be defended.’”); Aaron Parsley, “David Letterman & Sarah Palin: War of Words,” People, June 11, 2009, people.com/people/article/0,,20284295,00.html (last visited September 19, 2010) (“A spokesman for The Late Show had no comment, but on Wednesday's show,  Letterman admitted he may have gone too far – then he repeated the jokes. He also said they were not at the expense of the Palins' 14-year-old daughter.”);  “David Letterman's Sarah Palin's Daughter Jokes issues,” You Tube, youtube.com/watch?v=8Q3o6TC0qRg (last visited September 19, 2010). Embed as:

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“David Letterman's Joke About Sarah Palin's Daughter,” youtube.com/watch?v=cRM-XTgeb9M (last visited September 19, 2010). Embed as:

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[48] Id.


[49]  Id.


[50]  Id.


[51]  See infra note 52.


[52]  See supra, “Dr. Laura Schlessinger,” and notes 20 and 21.


[53]  Supra note 26


[54]  Id.


[55]  For a fuller enumeration and discussion of these “basic general semantics concepts, principles and techniques” see, e.g., Wendell Johnson, People in Quandaries (1946), chapter 10, “Practical Devices and Techniques,” pp. 205-39, nicholasjohnson.org/wjohnson/wjpinqch10.html (last visited October 3, 2010). There is neither need nor space to reproduce the entirety of that chapter in this footnote. However, the vocabulary Johnson uses (and for which he provides meaning by way of examples, exercises and discussion that are omitted in this listing) includes: extensional devices (that better enable our language to recognize differences as well as classifications: indexes (sub-scripts), dates (super-scripts), “etc.” (non-allness), quotation marks, hyphen; “no two things are alike,” “no one thing stays the same,” “one can never say all there is to be said” when describing something), two-valued language, self-projection, the “is” of identity, static language in a process world, elementalistic use of language, a number of “special terms” (plurals; quantifying, actional, operational and conditional terms; consciousness of projection terms (e.g., “to me”); underlining/italics), types vs. techniques, the language of science (“just as the better part of science is the language of science, so the better part of sanity is the language of sanity – and . . . the language of sanity is, in its basic structure, the language of science,” p. 227 nicholasjohnson.org/wjohnson/wjpinqch10.html#[227] (last visited October 3, 2010 ), answerable questions, delayed reaction (“fully conditional symbol reactions” and “stereotyped signal reactions”), semantic relaxation (optimal tonicity), the process of/levels of abstraction. Of course, as Johnson concludes this chapter, “the principles . . . and the techniques . . . may be effective only to the degree that they are applied. . . . [I]t is application that matters. Without it the techniques are useless and the principles are sterile verbal forms. The index of understanding, here as elsewhere, is the behavior by which it is demonstrated,” (p. 239).


[56]  See, Nicholas Johnson, What Do You Mean and How Do You Know? (2009), chapter 5, “You As Citizen I: ‘What Do You Mean and How Do You Know?’”, pp. 49-59, lulu.com/product/paperback/what-do-you-mean-and-how-do-you-know/5049307 (last visited September 23, 2010).


[57]   The Snopes site reports what its creators have been able to research regarding the truth of “urban legends” and other Internet-circulated stories and assertions. As the site’s FAQ declares, “Q: How do I know the information you've presented is accurate?  A: We don't expect anyone to accept us as the ultimate authority on any topic. Unlike the plethora of anonymous individuals who create and send the unsigned, unsourced e-mail messages that are forwarded all over the Internet, we show our work. The research materials we've used in the preparation of any particular page are listed in the bibliography displayed at the bottom of that page so that readers who wish to verify the validity of our information may check those sources for themselves.” Snopes.com (last visited September 23, 2010).


[58]  James Carlopio, “Management of Innovation and Technical Change: The Electronic Negotiator,” update 5, May 1, 2000, implementer.com/updates/updatedocs/5.elect.neg.doc (last visited September 25, 2010).


[59]  Wendell Johnson, “The Communications Process and General Semantic Principles,” in

Wilbur Schramm, Mass Communications (2d ed., Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975), pp. 301, 304-05, nicholasjohnson.org/wjohnson/wjcompro.html (last visited October 3, 2010).


[60]  Although scarcely a legal treatise, the Wikipedia entry provides a general overview, including, “Under United States law, libel generally requires five key elements. The plaintiff must prove that the information was published, the plaintiff was directly or indirectly identified, the remarks were defamatory towards the plaintiff's reputation, the published information is false, and that the defendant is at fault.” “Defamation,” Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defamation (last visited September 24, 2010).


[61]  Infra notes 20 and 21.


[62]  Id.


[63]  In Greenbelt Cooperative Pub. Ass’n v. Bressler, 398 U.S. 6 (1970),  caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?navby=case&court=us&vol=398&page=6 (last visited September 24, 2010),  the Court concluded that the word “blackmail” did not mean the crime of “blackmail” in the relevant context;  that indeed it would be unconstitutional  to find that it meant “blackmail.” At a city council meeting, members of the audience characterized a local realtor as negotiating with the council from a position of “blackmail.” The local paper reported the exchange accurately. The Court said,“No reader could have thought that . . . their words were charging Bressler with the commission of a criminal offense. . . . [E]ven the most careless reader must have perceived that the word was no more than rhetorical hyperbole . . ..” Id. at 14.


[64]  Infra note 2.


[65]  Infra note 3.


[66]  Infra note 4.