Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Mea Culpa in Alaska

Posted By on Thu, Sep 13, 2007 at 4:00 AM

We occasionally hear about BW's former editor, Bingo Barnes, now the publisher of the Anchorage Press up in Alaska's biggest (maybe only) city.

Busy times, by and large. But now his young tenure at the paper includes a controversy that is just now starting to die down.

Barnes was hoping to get a columnist to write an Alaskan version of the very popular syndicated column "Ask A Mexican." So he put an ad on Anchorage's Craigslist, looking for someone to write an "Ask An Eskimo" column.

The ad text included hypothetical questions about Eskimo life that could be answered by the columnist, including questions about Eskimo language and customs.

"What's this about the 50 different words for snow? Do Eskimos really kiss with their noses and what if you have a runny one?" read the ad, in part.

Barnes then went on vacation, out of reach by phone. And the brouhaha went from there, as angry Alaskans who thought both the want ad and the concept for the column were offensive, weighed in.

The local TV news picked it up too.

Barnes returned to the mayhem, and quickly removed the ad, and penned his first publisher's column as an apology.

Here's an excerpt from that column:

In the ad I was trying to be funny by referring to us (meaning me and not the staff of the Press) as white-cracker journalists. I even suggested a name for the column, “Ask an Eskimo,” modeled after the very popular and award-winning column in the OC Weekly newspaper called “Ask a Mexican.”

Barnes said he was expecting some resistance, but "Upon my return to the digital world, I was shocked to see what chaos I had unleashed."

"I had no idea that this issue would create such a controversy over a help wanted ad for a potential column, one dependent upon finding the right writer," Barnes wrote.

More from his letter:

I wanted to find a native writer who could educate and enlighten our readers in an entertaining way, so that readers could look forward each week to a well-written and insightful column. In the column, the author would explore controversial issues and bust stereotypes that Outsiders might have about the native cultures of Alaska. I have received several positive inquiries from Alaskan Natives interested in writing this column. But I did receive some negative feedback as well, some accusing me of being a racist.

I do not believe in stereotypes. I understand that there are multiple native tribes and many cultures in Alaska. As a newcomer, I don’t know a lot about Alaska. I did know, and the belief was reinforced, that humor in print is difficult and if not done well, it can have unintended negative consequences. To those I have offended, I apologize. My intent was honorable. My method was flawed. Can I please have a mulligan?

So far, comments to the Anchorage Press Web site have been the usual derision written by anonymous commenters. Some letter-writers, too, took Barnes to task.

Still, many other commenters said Barnes realized he'd erred, and apologized very publicly, and ought to be commended for standing up and admitting it.

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