Paula Deen's biggest backer -- Food Network -- quickly distanced itself Wednesday from the N-word controversy swirling around one of its most recognizable stars.
"Food Network does not tolerate any form of discrimination and is a strong proponent of diversity and inclusion," said a statement issued by the network. "We will continue to monitor the situation."
On the face of it, the statement is pretty straightforward. But subtext is everything. A source close to the network said network brass were attempting to gain a firsthand look at the evidence instead of just relying on media reports.
Depending upon what that evidence looks like, and the unfolding reaction to it, the network could be in a position to cut ties with Deen. She is one of the network's most popular figures, and heads her own lucrative celebuchef empire that includes spices, cookie mixes, pots and pans, kitchenwear, cruiseline appearances and even a new line of flavored butters.
Mike Paul, a New York City crisis management expert, said the next few hours and days would be telling.
"There is no TV [show], there are no products, unless you have sponsors," he said, "and the last thing sponsors want is a phone call from [civil rights activists] like Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson saying 'Ban Paula.' "
By Deen's own admission, according to court documents, she has used the N-word and told racially charged jokes -- although not recently. She also insisted that she does not tolerate hate, according to the Associated Press.
The documents also quote her as saying she once envisioned hiring a fleet of black men to serve at a wedding she was planning, and she imagined them decked out in white jackets and black bowties.
Although for some, such attire brings to mind uncomfortable images of black history in the South, Deen was quoted as saying in the court documents that she found the formal wear impressive. The party idea, however, was nixed for fear that some would misinterpret it.
Her attorney said the Queen of Southern Cooking is looking forward to having her day in court to tell her side of the story.
In the hours after the story broke, Deen was one of the most heavily trafficked terms on Twitter and Google, with many expressing outrage.
Still, though, there was a streak of tart-tongued humor lacing some of it -- humor that could help Deen by defusing the situation -- with one social media user Tweeting: "The only 'N-word' Paula won't say is nutrition."
Paul, the crisis management expert, said all is not lost for Deen.
"There isn't a situation that I know of that can't be made better with an apology." That apology needs to be sincere, he said, with "no ifs or buts in it." He added: "She has to say, basically, 'I made a big mistake. I should know better, and I now know better' and really mean it."
What do you think? Should Food Network distance itself from Deen for good and drop her shows, including "Paula's Best Dishes"? Two other shows, "Paula's Home Cooking" and "Paula's Party," air occasionally on Food Network in reruns.
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