Lauer's interview with Paula Deen missed the real questions

Celebrity chef Paula Deen’s tearful interview on NBC’s "Today" show Wednesday morning doesn’t seem to have changed many minds, leaving some critics suspicious that she's hiding deeper problems with racial issues after admitting that she once used the n-word.

But her 13-minute conversation with host Matt Lauer did prove one thing: journalists still often concentrate on the wrong issues in talking about the controversy currently threatening her brand.

The first problem: The n-word isn't necessarily the biggest issue. Lauer’s interview seemed to focus on whether Deen considered herself racist and whether she had used the racial epithet at any point in her past. “Are you a racist?” he asked at one point, going on to ask, “by birth, by choice, by osmosis, you don’t feel you have racist tendencies?”

But the reason this issue has become public is because Deen admitted using the n-word in her past during a deposition in a lawsuit brought by a former employee. That ex-staffer claimed an atmosphere of sexual harassment and racial discrimination existed at the restaurant she managed, which was owned by Deen and run by her brother.

An attorney for the Rainbow/PUSH organization, a civil-rights advocacy group founded by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, said over the weekend that three other people have come forward to say black staffers were treated unfairly at Deen’s restaurants.

The newsworthy question is whether an internationally known celebrity chef enabled or turned a blind eye to such an atmosphere in her restaurants. During her Today show interview, Deen seemed to blame her younger employees for such language, saying that “it’s distressing for me to go into my kitchens and I hear what these young people are calling each other.”

But as the owner, doesn’t she have the ability to insist her employees not use such language? Is it possible this was part of the environment the former manager was criticizing? And why didn’t Lauer ask about any of that?

Too much coverage has focused on the easy hook of Deen admitting she used the n-word to describe a black man who put a gun in her face nearly 30 years ago. Not enough has delved into the more substantive issues behind her admission.

The next problem: Coverage which misses details or exaggerates Deen’s testimony. In her Today show interview, Deen said the only time she used the n-word was in describing the gun incident. But in the deposition, when asked if she has used the racial epithet since then, she said  “I’m sure I have,” though she said she couldn't recall the specific circumstances.

Why was she so sure in May that she'd used the word more than once and so adamant on Wednesday that she hadn’t? Lauer didn’t ask.

If Lauer missed opportunities to challenge Deen, the original National Enquirer report that turned the chef’s admission into a public controversy offered the harshest possible reading of her words, creating a narrative other news outlets echoed before the transcripts were made public.

The Enquirer said Deen “confesses to using the N-word on several occasions and even wanting black waiters to play the role of slave in a wedding party she was planning.” But the chef said she could only specifically remember using the n-word once and resisted calling the black waiters at her “plantation”-style wedding slaves.

Too much of the coverage has missed the complicated context of Deen’s mistakes. What has some critics incensed is Deen’s seemingly casual dismissal in her deposition of having used the n-word.

When asked then if she ever used the n-word, her response was “yes, of course.” The lawyer later asked if she was aware her brother had admitted engaging in “racially and sexually inappropriate behavior in the workplace.” Her response, in part: “Have we told jokes? Have we said things that we should not have said, that -- yes, we all have. We all have done that, every one of us.”

That sounds suspiciously like defending her brother's use of racial jokes. But Deen was testifying in a lawsuit and defending a multi-million-dollar brand. Under those circumstances, it seems likely she would try to downplay the impact of her brother’s actions.

On top of this, add the complexity of a woman who seems to admit admiring the opulence and glamour of the antebellum South, saying she hoped to arrange a wedding party in that style without acknowledging that time in history means something very different for black people.

Some have wondered about Deen’s success and issues of race before this latest controversy. As Michael Twitty wrote on his Afroculinaria blog,  “We are surrounded by culinary injustice where some Southerners take credit for things that enslaved Africans and their descendants played key roles in innovating.” For some in the food world, Deen was a symbol of that dynamic, building an empire for herself and her family on a culinary style developed by black people.

As we see with so many other incidents, the furor over Deen’s controversy has opened the door to lots of commentary about race, food and Southern culture, some of it not-so-strongly connected to her current situation.

Easy as it may be to hone in on Deen’s use of the n-word, the controversy is more complex and far-reaching than that. Here’s hoping Deen eventually sits down for an interview in which the deeper questions are asked, producing journalism that informs rather than just provoking more questions.


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