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Using Epithet Isn’t Bold, Fighting Censorship Is

Christopher Cole, a resident of Los Angeles, is writing a book about censorship. From 1988 to 1993, he ran the Los Angeles chapter of Refuse and Resist, a national progressive organization

Hollywood never passes up an opportunity to pat itself on the back. Even media critics often fall into this trap. Witness the normally cynical Howard Rosenberg’s column about the Lifetime series “Any Day Now” (“A Bold Look at an Ugly Word on Lifetime’s ‘Any Day Now,’ ” Feb. 2), in which Rosenberg, along with the show’s creators, applaud the series for its “daring” and “bold” episode dealing with race. The show explores the impact of the “n-word” on African Americans as one of the regular characters, a lawyer, defends a black youth accused of killing a white youth who uttered that word. (The episode also features a racist villain who’s in the Ku Klux Klan.)

“Daring”? “Bold”? I’m not sure I’d go that far. The concept for the “n-word” episode was perhaps bold when it was used in “Cagney & Lacey” 20 years ago (in an episode scripted by African American playwright Samm-Art Williams). It was a little less “bold” when it was used in at least a half-dozen episodes of “NYPD Blue” (including an episode in which a white youth’s use of the slur costs him his life during an argument), and it was probably not “bold” at all when the same story line was used in producer Dick Wolf’s 1997 CBSseries “Feds” (in which a black policeman is defended for beating a racist white youth who used the “n-word”).

In fact, I dare Rosenberg to name any TV drama of the last decade that hasn’t done an episode about racism. The quality of those programs may have differed, but to call it “bold” or “daring” when a TV drama tackles racism is pure Hollywood self-promotion.

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Oddly enough, the hype over “Any Day Now” coincided with an example of Hollywood cowardice at its worst. Following the airing of the Jan. 24 episode of “Law & Order,” which presented a fictionalized story based on the assaults following last year’s Puerto Rican Day parade in New York City, Puerto Rican advocacy groups protested the show, and NBC responded by promising to never air that episode again.

This was the single most egregious example of censorship I have seen on the part of any TV network. But more troubling than NBC’s decision is the deafening silence that has followed.

Fighting censorship is familiar territory for me: Ten years ago, I co-founded and helped run an ad-hoc committee of artists and activists who were fighting attempts by the religious right to withdraw National Endowment for the Arts grant money from “objectionable” art. Yet the same people who fought attempts to censor such pieces of art as a crucifix submerged in urine, and men with bullwhips inserted up their rectums (two examples of the art targeted by the religious right) are now conspicuously silent about NBC’s censorship.

Where is PEN, the international writers group? People for the American Way? The ACLU? Where, for that matter, is Howard Rosenberg, who was quite vocal in 1999 when the Fox network removed one word from an episode of “The Simpsons” to appease Catholic protests?

There was nothing racist about the episode of “Law & Order” in question. The Puerto Rican defendant was presented sympathetically, and other characters expressed concerns that the Puerto Rican community should not be condemned as a group for the assaults.

“Law & Order” has presented fictionalized dramatizations of dozens of real-life events, the overwhelming majority of them involving white criminals (including dramatizations of the current Kennedy-nephew murder case, the Columbine killings, the white teens who killed their newborn baby, etc.). In fact, many of the series’ plot lines have focused on white criminals who victimize minorities (racist cops, neo-Nazis, church-burners, right-wing militias, etc.).

For the Puerto Rican activists to claim, and for NBC to agree, that only non-Puerto Ricans can be portrayed as villains in “Law & Order” is an apartheid-style censorship in which actors’ skin color dictates the kind of roles they can play. (While Puerto Rican activists were protesting the depiction of a Puerto Rican criminal on “Law & Order,” Alex Nogales of the National Hispanic Media Coalition was quoted in the Jan. 31 Times as saying that Latinos should not play “losers or victims.” Because most of the guest-starring roles on “Law & Order” are either criminals or victims, that effectively eliminates Latino actors from appearing on that show.)

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Critics deride the lack of quality programming on TV, but they won’t defend a quality show when it’s unfairly attacked. Who will protest NBC’s Orwellian decision to bury an entire episode of a show without explaining exactly what was wrong with that episode, and without giving the public the chance to view the episode again to see if the charges made by the activists are accurate?

Sadly, it seems as though no one wants to criticize the minority activists who, it must be said, are the ones doing most of the censoring these days. Hollywood would rather pat itself on the back for its “boldness” in presenting shows that take the brave position that Nazis and Klansmen are bad.

If anyone in Hollywood wants to do something truly “bold” and “daring,” they will speak up against the new censors, who are neither with the KKK nor the Nazi party. They will demand that NBC rerun the censored “Law & Order” episode. So what do you say? Anyone out there want to be bold and daring?


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