LONSBERRY: Did He Misspeak, Or Is He Racist?

Is Jeremy Kappell a racist, and should he be fired?

The chief meteorologist at Channel 10 in Rochester, while speaking over some video of a skating rink on a Friday evening newscast, referenced that it was at "Martin Luther coon King park."

Social media was listening, and by Sunday night the mayor and City Council president had issued a statement demanding that Kappell be fired and that there be unspecified ramifications for the station's management.

The statement also claimed a white racism bias in Rochester news media, a dissatisfaction with the racial make up of television station promos, and called on all news organizations to join in an activist process to review the treatment of people of color.

The statement came a week after a surrogate for the mayor claimed in the "Minority Reporter" that Rochester's white reporters are racist and that news coverage of the criminal investigation of the mayor's campaign finances was racist. The article also called for the firing of "Democrat and Chronicle" columnist David Andreatta, claiming that his reporting on the suspect residency of a City Court appointee was likewise racist.

That's the context.

But what about the specific? What did Kappell say, and why did he say it?

I don't know, and he hasn't said. 

But let's look at it.

First, Jeremy Kappell is a mumbler. He speaks in a fashion that makes you think he spent time with a speech pathologist as a child. He's also a professional broadcaster, in a situation where he has to talk a lot and he has to do it extremporaneously and rapidly.

And he may have simply mispoken. 

Running from word to word, the "oo" from "Luther" and the "k" and "n" from King may have simply gotten boggled in his mind or on his tongue. There is also the unspoken word in this quote, "Junior," that is typically used and is in the proper name of the park. Maybe that's where the "oo" came from. 

It may be an honest and innocent mistake.

Or it may be a window into his soul. The phrase "Martin Luther Coon" is -- according to the "Urban Dictionary" -- a common racist phrase in the South. Could that phrase have been lingering in Jeremy Kappell's subconscious and popped out inadvertently?

In 2010, ESPN broadcaster Mike Greenberg used the phrase. He apologized, said it was a slip of the tongue, and went on with his career. 

In another instance, in 2005, a Las Vegas television weatherman made reference to "Martin Luther Coon Day" and, though he apologized in subsequent newscasts, was fired.

Mayor Lovely Warren's statement doesn't seem to indicate she'll be satisifed with anything less than Jeremy Kappell's professional neck.

If it was purposeful, her demand would be just. If it was accidental, her demand would be unjust.

So which was it?

First, it seems unlikely even the most rabid racist would say something like that on the air. Second, the persona Jeremy Kappell has portrayed during his year in Rochester doesn't seem consistent with someone who is a racist.

Kappell seems to focus his life on faith and family, with his social media profile saying he is a "follower of my God and my dreams," and also includes the Bible reference Jeremiah 1:9 -- which ironically says, "The Lord put forth his hand, and touched my mouth. And the Lord said unto me, Behold, I have put my words in thy mouth."

I'm pretty sure the Lord didn't put that word in his mouth.

I'm pretty sure it was a mistake, and I can't help but think of the verse from Isaiah which condemns those "that make a man an offender for a word."

I think Jeremy Kappell needs to apologize and explain. He needs to open his heart and show people what's in it. Perhaps a pastor -- with a real church and a real congregation -- could help him. 

Hopefully his bosses will do something other than run scared. Hopefully they and other Rochester news organizations will not let this frighten them into silence in their coverage of the mayor.

Hopefully this will be something more than white people saying he's a saint and black people saying he's a devil. 

Maybe it can just be people recognizing he made a mistake.

Maybe the mayor, whose campaign finances are currently the target of at least one criminal investigation, can recognize that people make mistakes and are deserving of forgiveness as opposed to destruction.

She is demanding that this man and his family lose their livelihood. That their life be uprooted and that his career be destroyed. That his children be moved from their school and his family evicted from their home. That is what she is calling for.

Because of a word which was almost certainly an innocent mistake.

Which calls to mind another scripture: "With what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again."

Rochester has forgiven its mayor for a variety of missteps. 

Hopefully her career will never encounter the same judgment she is imposing on this man.

Certainly, the words were said. Undoubtedly, they were hurtful to many. That hurt is real and deserves to be addressed. How horrific to be watching the evening news with your children -- particularly black children -- and have that phrase said. 

This absolutely must be addressed.

But maybe with something other than rage and vengeance. Perhaps in this matter there is room for regret, apology, forgiveness and understanding.

Maybe it can draw us closer, instead of drive us further apart.

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(NOTE: Kappell was fired a few hours after this column was originally posted)

Bob Lonsberry

Bob Lonsberry

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