Posted by: Mark Wollemann: On the move | February 21, 2012

You’re fired? Really?

Anthony Federico should not have been fired.

If you don’t know Anthony Federico then you might have missed the feeding frenzy that came out of the Jeremy Lin Headline Controversy.

Lin was a forgotten NBA player until a few weeks ago. That’s when he landed in New York, led the Knicks to a string of victories and became a media darling (and the subject of countless — and awful — headline puns).

Then on Friday night, Lin committed nine turnovers and the Knicks lost. As he was finishing his shift at ESPN at about 2:30 a.m., Federico authored the lamest and most offensive headline (“Chink In The Armor”) of the “Lin era.” The word “Chink” traces its roots back more than 100 years, but for the sake of our conversation, let’s just say it’s considered an offensive and derogatory term for anyone of Asian decent.

The headline stayed on the ESPN website for only 15 minutes, but a firestorm ensued. Legitimate claims of racial insensitivity were hurled at ESPN. A day later, Federico was fired and another employee (who used the same term during a live interview) was suspended for 30 days.

I’m not excusing the horrible headline. Federico blew it. He seemed properly contrite when interviewed by the New York Daily News after he was fired. “This had nothing to do with me being cute or punny,” he told the newspaper. “I’m so sorry that I offended people. I’m so sorry if I offended Jeremy.”

ESPN’s quick action probably quelled any residual blowback. The network, no doubt, hopes the controversy fades from public view. Does the punishment fit the crime?

No doubt some believe Federico got what he deserved. If he had no idea he was using a racially charged term while trying to be witty, he missed the mark. By a lot. Good riddance. But this seems more complicated than that to me.

First, this 28-year-old website editor says he had used this headline many times. A “chink in the armor,” after all, also means a slight crack in what was thought to be impervious metal. A fitting, if cliche’-ridden headline for a suddenly hot Knicks team. Unless the player pictured above the headline is Jeremy Lin.

Second, where was Federico’s backup? A news organization the size of ESPN should have a system of checks and balances to make sure that a potentially embarrassing (or even libelous) bit of copy doesn’t see the light of day. ESPN counts its daily visitors in the millions, I’m pretty sure, so I ask you: At 2:30 a.m., is the standard “Hey, Anthony, finish up that headline and turn the lights out when you’re done?” Shouldn’t there be more than one set of 28-year-old hands on a website as big and well-read as this one? And if there was another responsible editor on duty, how come that person hasn’t also been fired?

Finally, I wonder about our ability as a society to see each of us as fallible. I worked in newspaper offices for 28 years and made countless errors, wrote numerous clunker headlines and was saved from embarrassment by talented colleagues over and over again. But I guess if you make a king-sized blunder on a big stage, let’s say at ESPN on a player from a team in the world’s largest media market, you get no second chances.

I think ESPN acted cowardly. They scapegoated an employee instead of taking the time or trouble to defend and rehabilitate him. Yeah, yeah, the organization should apologize. Of course, they should “regret the error.” But there should also be room for redemption.

After all, the Knicks put Jeremy Lin back in the starting lineup the day after his nine-turnover disaster. Everyone was moving on. Anthony Federico, too. And that’s just sad.

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Responses

  1. Is there a way to tee up this topic with your students? This comes close to something I’ve wondered more about as communication goes hyper-speed: Libel suits based on defamation that was online for maybe 5 or 10 minutes.

    • Interesting question, Paul. I’m not really doing a lot with libel and other media law questions. But it’s a fascinating subject. It can’t be long before we see some lawsuits along those lines.

      I thin i’ll talk with my colleague, who is doing a lot of stuff along those lines.


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