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Firing of ESPN editor responsible for offensive Lin headline unjust

This will sound odd, coming from a writer who has spent much of the past week criticizing the racially insensitive imagery and statements that seemed to explode in sports media following the success of New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin.

But I don’t think Anthony Federico should have lost his job.

Federico is the editor at ESPN who crafted the unthinking headline “Chink in the Armor” for the sports media giant’s mobile website at 2:30 a.m. Saturday, describing a Knicks loss hours before.

Thirty minutes later, the phrase was yanked amid an avalanche of criticism for employing a phrase considered a racial slur against Asian people in a headline over a story focusing on Lin’s problematic play.

But Federico, a 28-year-old, self-described “outspoken Christian” and former intern, told the New York Daily News he had used the phrase at least 100 times before in headlines and didn’t think of its implications when he put the phrase on the Knicks story.

Assuming there isn’t anything more problematic in his employment history and he’s telling the truth about his motives in creating the headline – two big ifs for some critics, I’ll allow – I don’t think this was a firing offense.

It really was a teaching moment lost in Big Media backpedaling.

Federico had the bad luck to get caught in the crosshairs of our increasingly diverse sports world, where a phrase accepted as a common expression in one context takes on another meaning when used to describe a different person.

Slap the phrase “call a spade a spade” on a story about problems with black athletes, and a common aphorism now sounds like a coded racial insult.

Just ask pundits who had to apologize for pointed language about Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton during the 2008 presidential election; if you don’t change how you think about coverage when the types of people you’re describing grows more diverse, the chances of making a mistake increase exponentially.

Experts say the best route to knocking down stereotypes is talking about difference, which means talking about mistakes rooted in difference, too.

But these days, when a race-based media controversy breaks out, the outlet in the crosshairs mostly wants it to go away. Fast.

Which means Federico is out the door, dismissed with a terse reference in a six-paragraph statement from ESPN on it all, noting “The ESPN employee responsible for our mobile headline has been terminated.”

It would be healthier to talk about the mistake, why it happened and how media outlets could avoid making similar mistakes. ESPN could explain why anchor Max Bretos was suspended for a month for using the same phrase last week, outlining why one use cost a man his job and another resulted in a leave.

Maybe then we could create a culture of understanding which reaches beyond individual examples and crises. So the next time a great player of a different ethnicity surfaces, media won’t make the same stupid mistakes insulting a different culture.

Some of this is the tenor of the times, no doubt. People of color are beyond accepting deliberate, insulting stereotypes inserted into the news mix, and we all have advocacy groups prepared to make sure media outlets know an increasing proportion of their audience is watching these issues very closely.

For me, this stuff isn’t about hurt feelings or taking offense. It’s about keeping the biggest outlets in media from becoming unthinking echo chambers for stereotypes, which limit people of color in society and demean them in the same stroke.

As a critic I reserve the capital punishment of medialand – calls for someone to lose a job – for people who have repeatedly and deliberately injected prejudice and stereotyping into their work, despite past protests or attempts to discuss the issue. (Yes, Pat Buchanan, that was a reference to you.)

That doesn’t seem to fit the bill in Federico’s case, unless there’s something about his circumstances that isn’t known publicly (given the risk of lawsuit, employers sometimes can’t talk about all their reasons for firing an employee, I’ll allow).

But there is something strange about the fact that the guy who deliberately wrote the New York Post’s “Amasian” headline still has his job, while a 28-year-old guy who made a horrible mistake does not.

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the Tampa Bay (Fla.) Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. He also provides regular commentary for National Public Radio and has been published by the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed.

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