PBS journalist Gwen Ifill knows that no matter how riveting she is when she speaks at Rutgers-New Brunswick on May 21, students will probably have other things on their minds...
Even though she didn't go to the university, she feels connected to the school after getting involved in the flap over radio personality Don Imus' cutting remarks about the women's basketball team last year. Speaking out in a column and on Meet the Press got "such an amazing, unexpected outside response," Ifill said.And it may make a compelling topic for her speech, which she hasn't written yet.
Wow. That's like five shades of heinous right there.
The saddest thing? You know that Ifill wasn't chosen for this speech because of her accomplishments, or her expertise, or her character. No, she was chosen because she was called bad names by mean people on the radio.
That said, it doesn't surprise me that the college administrators are clinging to that last bit of positive press from April 2007. The school was portrayed in a good light, so naturally they want to squeeze their fifteen minutes for as long as they can. (From my experience, most university administrators have the same moral compass as "radio executives.")
There's also another unfortunate part to Ms. Ifill's tragic tale: it likely didn't happen. I would be inclined to believe her story if it went something like, "When I heard those words come over the car radio, I pulled into a gas station and cried." But no. She claims that she heard from a friend, who heard from another friend, who said that someone had called her a cleaning lady, maybe. Oh, and it also happened two or three years ago. So, in other words, it's like the real-life version of that REO Speedwagon song.
But what bothers me the most: I heard a rumor which stated that if this remark was ever uttered, it was said in the context of a character monologue on the program. (In other words, by a General Patton or a Dr. Phil.) Obviously, when writers and actors create a satirical monologue for a character, they try to make that point in a way that the character would make it. For example, if the monologue subject was "Hillary Clinton," a Dr. Phil character might talk about the dangers of post-traumatic stress from sniper fire. The problem is that a character's beliefs don't always match those of the writer or performer. (Yes, I know that this is Comedy 101, but there are some people who will never, ever understand this.)
We all know that comedy can be a powerful force, but rarely is it considered an oppressive one. And that's what gets me the most. When colleges pick a famous speaker for commencement addresses, they often pick those who are successful, or who beat challenging odds to achieve greatness. I'm not saying that Ms. Ifill hasn't achieved anything; she certainly has many journalistic credits to her name, and she likely overcame many obstacles to get where she is today.
But in this case, she is not being honored for being a successful black woman, or for being a high-profile journalist in a difficult field. She gets a speech because she overcame the oppression of the comedy skit. These days, surviving a joke from Larry Kenney or Rob Bartlett or Charles McCord will get you a commencement address at a major university. Some performers wonder if their work affects people, and that skit - if it ever existed - certainly did. That monologue, which probably aired in 1994 at 6:15 in the morning, is now considered as powerful an obstacle as poverty or illness or social injustice. The Imus comedians should feel honored...and that's no joke.
On another note, maybe someone will mail a tape of this speech to Mr. Garbus...