Estrich and Taylor Jr.


Estrich and Taylor Jr.

An email conversation about the news of the day.
Oct. 2 1998 1:31 PM

Estrich and Taylor Jr.


Dear Stuart:


So how come the National Journal costs so much? Because serious journalism can't survive except as an elite publication? Because the powers that be don't want the masses as an audience? I've long admired the National Journal ; I think Michael Kelly is great (sorry Marty); but unless someone sends me an article, it comes and goes without me.

Keith Olberman, on the other hand, who could miss? Just kidding, of course, but it's interesting that while a reporter is usually expected to cover something, and most columnists are assumed to know something (I'm not going too far), there is no substantive qualification for being a television pontificator, or a host, and no need to back anything you say up. Facial resemblances? Give me a break. He was a good sports guy. Maybe I should start doing sports.

But here's a story for you, from my neck of the woods. On Wednesday, 300 people showed up to picket at Paramount against a television show that hasn't begun airing yet because it supposedly makes light of slavery. "Slavery is not funny," the signs said. The show is called The Secret Life of Desmond Pfeiffer. It's about a black Englishman who is supposedly the butler to Abraham Lincoln. According to news accounts, the butler is the smartest guy in the White House; all the white people (except Lincoln, I guess/hope) are portrayed as buffoons. Perhaps you and I could organize a protest of white people who don't like being portrayed as buffoons. But seriously. Another protest is scheduled for Monday, when the show premieres on UPN. Worse. Not only was the NAACP and the Brotherhood Crusade there yesterday, but also a member of the City Council, who wants the city Human Rights Commission to sponsor a debate, and called on the network to cancel the show before it began. Anybody heard of the First Amendment here? Artistic freedom? How dare someone say "slavery isn't dead yet" in asking the butler to take his feet off the table?

According to Howard Rosenberg, one of the bright lights at the LA Times, the show isn't racist, it's just stupid and not very funny, which would not make it unique. I do believe producers and writers and directors should take responsibility for their work, should understand its power, should question themselves about issues of bias and prejudice that do permeate the media. But I hate these protests, much less government involvement in them; and dare I wonder, at a time when according to one new study five black men go to prison in this state for every one who goes to college, whether civil rights leaders might not have something better and more important to do with their time. The irony of course is that this will get attention for the series; but protests scare sponsors, and that produces the kind of mindless but politically correct garbage we see so much of on television. As for the producers of the show, they say it isn't about race at all; it was really intended as a parody of the Clinton Administration . . .

Some years ago, a friend at Disney asked me to look at The Song of the South and tell me whether I thought they should re-release it. You remember zippity doo dah, and Uncle Remus, and the little slave children . . . I watched it with my daughter, who was then about 4 or 5, and began asking me all the questions you would expect about who Uncle Remus was, and who those little children were, and why they lived like that, and were they really so happy? . . . I wrote a memo saying they'd get killed politically, there'd be protests, people would accuse them of insensitivity, and greed, etc. even though it is, of course, also a classic. Someday, I hope, we'll be able to deal with both sides, and even explain it to our kids. Anyway, after soliciting input (and realizing that black leaders who might privately support the decision would not publicly do so), they decided not to re-release it, though I'm told that Michael Eisner came to the decision reluctantly, precisely because he hated the sense of bowing to political correctness.

I might even watch Desmond Pfeiffer on Monday.

Best, Susan

PS. And not a word about the thousands of pages which you might be reading right now . . . anything there? Enough spinning to make you dizzy?

Susan Estrich is a law professor at the University of Southern California. Stuart Taylor Jr. is senior writer at National Journal and contributing editor at Newsweek.