"It has been erroneously reported," the newspaper correction advised, "that Ed Hotaling, the TV reporter who did the infamous interview with Jimmy (the Greek) Snyder . . . is black." Other major newspapers had made the same mistake, but few bothered to correct it. Indeed, the error had a vast audience, thereby giving the interviewer--me--the instructive privilege of being black for most of 1988 and into 1989.
I got to be a superstar, almost, launched by an editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer. It noted that the Greek, then a commentator for CBS Sports, had said those now-famous silly things--for instance, that blacks had been bred during slavery and thus were better athletes today--to a black television reporter. The editorial writer pointed out that the network's white brass was "far more outraged than Messrs. Cosby or Jackson or, for that matter, Ed Hotaling, who conducted the interview."
Some odd things happened after that. People started talking funny.
When the interview made the network newscasts, calls came from around the country. A white editor on a great newspaper kept complimenting me. His lavish words were echoed by a white reporter for another big paper. They both said that I had been "verrry calm, verrry level-headed, verrry professional throughout the whooole thing."
What, I wondered, was going on? Why were they talking as if I were 12? Did they think I was interning with "Children's Express"?
That was before I knew I was black.
"Oh, we get that all the time," one black TV anchor explained.
Whites sometimes do talk differently to blacks. If you're white, you know that, but have you felt it? This particular mix-up reminded a black commentator that when she was first hired as a reporter, the white news director sat her down and said, "Remember, you have to be a reporter first . . . and a black person second." She was nearly speechless. You can imagine managers saying that, but not to a white.
Whites rushed to praise me. An Arizona caller said it was wonderful that, in spite of what the Greek had said, I had been so tolerant, defending his right to free speech. I told the caller that I was white. The conversation pretty much ended there.
Why did people assume that a black reporter's reaction would be racial? A number of blacks told me they thought the Greek should have been fired; a number disagreed. But many whites took it for granted that black reaction would be uniformly hostile and unforgiving. Exceptions brought sighs of relief, cross-country bouquets and, in the case of Messrs. Cosby and Jackson, banner headlines in New York City.
Occasionally, my new role was uncomfortable. A writer for a monthly magazine phoned long after the interview and wondered, apologetically, if I were black. I hated to stonewall a fellow reporter, but now it seemed irrelevant. I told him I didn't care to say. He apologized again. It felt right, but rotten.
Why did they assume that the interviewer was black? The apparent answer is simple and sad. I'd run into Jimmy the Greek while I was working on a Martin Luther King Day story, asking people about the decline of civil rights as an issue. These days, I learned, if you're interested in civil rights, you must be black.
Thus, when a paper in Upstate New York got the UPI text of the interview, which began with the question, "Do you think there's anything we still need to do, or do you think we don't need to worry about civil rights anymore?" an editor inserted "blacks" in parentheses after "we." Who else would ask that?
Sadly, almost nobody. Not only do many Americans today see civil rights as a minority interest, they also remember King as a special-interest advocate.
Two decades after King's death, his opponents live in the woodwork. The day the Greek lost his job for saying something stupid, a Pennsylvania disc jockey lost his by announcing King Day in racist terms.
But it is not only in the gutter that many recall King exclusively as a black leader, the way many conclude that only a black reporter would be assigned to a civil-rights story. At a Washington dinner of veteran journalists, all white, I remarked that I was surprised so many people still view King strictly as a black hero. Hundreds of thousands of whites had supported him; Europeans had given him the Nobel Prize.
They looked at each other, a little startled. It was clear I was the one out of step.
"But that's what he was," some brilliant somebody said, as the others nodded in agreement, "a black leader."
It was good to feel black again.