"Preconceived notion" is a term of art in most newsrooms. It means just what you think: if you approach a news event with a sense of what will make it a great story, what will make it sell, what it really signifies or what really happened, you then have a "preconceived notion." We label it and joke about it as a tool to avoid it. (Editors, for the record, have more preconceived notions than reporters.)
When I heard there was a flap about remarks Bill Cosby made at a big Washington commemoration of the anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education, I instantly hatched a big fat preconceived notion.
Cosby used the high profile and somber setting to issue biting, direct and sometimes sarcastic swipes at things he finds unacceptable and destructive in the black community. "Ladies and gentlemen, the lower economic people are not holding up their end in this deal," he said, according to The Washington Post. "These people are not parenting. They are buying things for kids -- $500 sneakers for what? And won't spend $200 for 'Hooked on Phonics.'" Though few would disagree with what he said, few say it in public.
I heard that the twin pillars of political censorship -- liberal political correctness and black political correctness -- were taking Cosby down.
And that, I preconceived, would make a great column: Bill Cosby, an incomparable philanthropist and social satirist, gets attacked by the political correctness police for speaking his mind, telling some hard truths and airing some dirty laundry.
But the facts got in the way of a good story.
There was no chorus of criticism.
Quite to the contrary, Cosby's remarks were embraced by several of the leading black columnists in the country: DeWayne Wickham, Clarence Page, Colbert King, Leonard Pitts, Jr., and Thomas Sowell.
Kweisi Mfume, the NAACP president who was on stage with Cosby, said later that not only did he agree with Cosby, not only did he make similar points in his own speeches, but that he had just heard the same points made by the philosophers in his barbershop.
If you had listened to talk radio or read newspaper stories about "the flap," you would think Cosby was hiding from a raging mob. But there was no mob. There was a straw mob, a phony flap.
I combed the Internet, the wires and the transcripts for attacks on Cosby and came up empty.
I did discover that the head of the NAACP legal defense fund, Theodore Shaw, spoke after Cosby at the commemoration and pointed out that many problems blacks face are not "self-inflicted" and that most of the people on welfare aren't black. That's hardly a searing condemnation.
The New York Times managed to find a scholar named Michael Eric Dyson who said Cosby's comment "betray classist, elitist viewpoints that are rooted in generational warfare." Whatever that means.
I also managed to find some rather mild rebuffs of Cosby from three black columnists in St. Louis, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh. Eugene Kane of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wrote, "Sometimes beating up on defenseless people is just being a bully." Cosby called Kane up and Kane wrote a second column further qualifying his already qualified gibes.
So, yes, Cosby fielded a couple of tough grounders and did issue a press release defending himself. But overall, his remarks were well received and his courage was widely praised.
I'm taking your time with this to make a couple of points.
There is too much political correctness and the perpetrators rarely admit it. And nowhere is that more destructive than in talking about the emotional subject of race, a subject too often avoided for fear of offending.
That said, the power of the PC Police is grossly overestimated. Conservative talk-meisters and curmudgeons make good livings exaggerating the omnipotence and silliness of the virtucrats, as this case study shows.
Worse, the "mainstream media," politicians and water cooler philosophers have an enormously exaggerated fear of the PC Police.
In researching the Cosby non-flap, for example, I didn't find a column by a white writer. I'm sure there were some that I missed. But I'm also sure that plenty of white writers or editors simply avoid wading into this altogether because it is perceived to be too risky, too easy to be accused of prejudice, or meddling. (I'll get plenty of nasty mail. I'll be called a pawn of liberal bias, a capitalist tool, and a blinkered white man with no business butting in. So what.)
The exaggerated, scaredy-cat fear of the PC Police on the left and the Conservative Cops on the right is one of the dynamics that helps remove race -- and problems of blacks in America -- from the front burner of public debate: candidates don't like to talk about it, newspapers don't like to investigate it, columnists don't like to write about it, network newscasts don't like to cover it, think tanks don't like to issue reports about it and celebrities don't like to speak out on it. So the issues become even more buried. Pimp rap goes uncriticized. Schools stay bad.
I hope the phony-flap gave wider coverage to Cosby's remarks than they would have had otherwise.
And I hope more people with pulpits realize that the bogeyman of political correctness and racial censorship is not so scary after all.
Dick Meyer, the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, has covered politics and government in Washington for 20 years and has won the Investigative Reporters and Editors, Alfred I. Dupont, and Society of Professional Journalists awards for investigative journalism.
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By Dick Meyer