- Community groups came out in force to participate in a open forum held at the Hayground School
Friday night, Feb. 8, to air their opinions in an open discussion regarding two controversial columns written by Rick Murphy, editor of The Independent. The meeting was attended by approximately 40 representatives of community groups reacting to the tone of the columns which attempted parody of the Democratic candidates for president, Senators Barack Obama
and Hillary Clinton
The public forum quickly transformed into a venue where any and all points of view concerning writing to The Independent publisher Jerry Della Femina were entertained. The "Low Tidings" columns were published in successive weeks in January, hitting a politically incorrect nerve among area residents and community activists who perceived the pieces to be offensive, depicting an insensitivity to race, gender, and sexual preference.
Lucius Ware, President of the NAACP's Eastern Long Island branch, an
organizer of the forum, opened the dialogue with a request that the press
refrain from taking photos in order to encourage camera shy attendees to
feel free to speak.
Lucius Ware, chapter head of the Eastern Long Island chapter of the NAACP, opened the meeting to set ground rules for the discussion, limiting speakers to a two minute platform. Emphasizing the intention of the forum, Ware cautioned, "This is not a media event, we want people who might not normally have the opportunity to speak out to not have their picture taken or to be recorded while speaking. This is a thinking process."
Community organizations in attendance included the Southampton, Riverhead, and East Hampton Anti-Bias Task Force groups, representatives of the Shinnecock Indian Nation and the East End Gay Organization (EEGO), in addition to the NAACP local chapter.
Following the precautions evident in the initial round of comments, subsequent speakers successively shed apprehensions in regards to making public their opinions as many stood to read from notes presenting concise statements to shed light on the nuances of the socio-politically charged columns in question.
Crossed The Line
"These articles have caused a lot of hurt," Ken Allen, co-chair of the East End Gay Organization (EEGO), expressed to the crowd. "They crossed the line. We want to start a healing process on this. Articles like this do not have a place in a traditional newspaper."
East Hampton Town Supervisor William McGintee spoke with Randy King,
Chair of the Shinnecock Nation, following the open forum.
Echoing these sentiments, East Hampton Planning Board member Robert Schaeffer went on record, calling the columns, "regrettable, tasteless and vulgar. These are nothing more than tawdry, discourteous and racist."
One local African-American resident offered that for the first time in her 80-plus years the controversial "Low Tidings" columns inspired her to write a letter to the editor for the first time. "In my letter I asked for Mr. Murphy's resignation," she asserted. Other members of the crowd emphasized that the actual columns were not as offensive as they found Murphy's response to the backlash. One community member called Murphy "unapologetic," adding, "it does not sound like he is sorry."
Baldwin Chimes In
Actor Alec Baldwin
, who was also in attendance, has engaged in a heated written exchange published in the letters section of The Independent with publisher Della Femina. Seated across from Della Femina and East Hampton Town Supervisor William McGintee, Baldwin was second in line to speak.
"Some of the things I heard recently advocated boycotting the newspaper," Baldwin stated. "I have read letters suggesting the community boycott [Jerry Della Femina's] restaurant. I think that's a mistake, I don't think people who work at the restaurant and the newspaper should suffer as a result of this."
Following the often heated dialogue, community members in attendance discussed
the sentiments of the meeting. Lisa Votino-Tarrant, of the Southampton Anti-Bias
Task Force stands in the foreground and former Democratic candidate for Southampton
Town supervisor Jim Henry is standing in the background.
Additional statements by the community appeared to tap into a general sentiment that encouraged Della Femina to release the editor from his duties, emphasizing that it would send a clear message in regards to the publisher's disapproval while affecting as few individuals as possible in the organization.
In response to the public comments, Della Femina offered a full page and/or open column for interested community groups seeking to draw attention to sensitive issues in the community. "The pages will not be edited or even seen by Rick Murphy. It is your page as a group. You have a page in my newspaper," he explained, adding, in terms of the two pieces in question, "Mr. Murphy is on a very short leash. This was his last chance, and from now on I will see everything he writes." Della Femina also stated that the "Low Tidings" column has been suspended from publication.
Addressing the issue later in the discussion as an overwhelming consensus continued to be forming calling for the editor's dismissal, Della Femina added, "I find it hard to fire people, but I do not fire people when they make their first mistake. I fire them the second time."
On the heels of Della Femina's comment a stir rumbled through the audience and two representatives from the Shinnecock Nation rose to bring attention to what they deemed Murphy's first mistake. Members of the Shinnecock Nation have reportedly picketed The Independent offices in the past, following previous remarks that also appeared in the "Low Tidings" column, which were perceived by the group to be demeaning and offensive.
Lance Gumbs, trustee of the Shinnecock Indian
Nation, reported an earlier instance where the
newspaper's reference to the Shinnecock Nation
Lance Gumbs, former chair of the tribe who is currently a tribal trustee,
clarified that initial good faith efforts brought them in contact with the newspaper, which was unappreciated when followed by, in his estimation, an offensive column. Gumbs explained, "I called The Independent first to discuss the plight and poverty of our tribe. According to the census, sixty percent of our people live below the poverty line. What came out in the paper following our meeting was absolutely deplorable. This has been an ongoing pattern."
Randy King, Chair of the Shinnecock Nation, concurred, adding "Two years ago I told Jerry, I said, I like your column and your paper -- but your articles and Mr. Murphy's have started to take a tone - you attacked our nation, calling us a 'dog and pony show.' I've been waiting for that apology."
One local attorney did stand to support Della Femina, expressing his opinion that the publisher "has taken some good first steps here. I don't believe that [Murphy] meant to be offensive. [Della Femina] can't control every editorialist, but he can sanction them."
Lucius Ware, who sought to keep the exchange in perspective, reminded those in attendance that there is still work to be done in terms of racial sensitivity and awareness throughout the community.
"We sit here on Eastern Long Island where there are more noose sightings than any other state in the nation. Right now, the New York State legislature is currently revising its hate crime laws, with a specific section concerning nooses." Further, he added that as recently as 1929, there was a Ku Klux Klan (KKK) slate running for office in Sag Harbor, saying, "apparently some of the robes and ropes are still in the closet."
Jim Henry, the recently defeated Democratic contender for Southampton Town Supervisor, addressed the crowd in the capacity as a civil rights lawyer, stating, "The climate of race and bigotry here [is something] we have to acknowledge and deal with." Calling the columns "propaganda," he added that they are "nodding at the attitude underlying this violence." He added he understood the columns to be part of a recurrent pattern of irresponsible behavior on the part of the editor.
"It would be so easy for me to fire Rick," Della Femina said. "My wife would be happy, my son-in-law and daughter would be happy, but I can't do that. There will be a new Independent newspaper, you can be assured of that," he concluded.
Shinnecock Nation Tribal Chair Gumbs responded, asserting, "There is nothing wrong with the paper. There is something wrong with the editor."
No further actions regarding the matter were discussed by the community members in attendance.