Oregonian Shuts Out Redskins, Braves
By Chris Kent
Chris Kent, a San Francisco-based freelancer.
"Hail to the Washington football team/Hail, Victory" may not have the same ring to it as the original Redskins fight song, but it's the version currently embraced by the Oregonian.
In February the Portland newspaper became one of the first news outlets to drop the Native American-related team names Redskins, Braves, Indians and Redmen from its sports pages. It now refers to those teams by league and city. In March, WTOP-AM and sister radio station WASH-FM in Washington, D.C., also stopped using "Redskins" and other Indian team names.
Editors elsewhere may admire the Oregonian's courage and admit the team names are outdated, but most fear that omitting the names could be construed as censorship.
Oregonian Editor William Hilliard made the change after Native Americans protested use of the names Atlanta Braves and Washington Redskins when the teams landed in the World Series and the Super Bowl. "It was felt that we were perpetuating stereotypes that were damaging the dignity and the self-respect of these people," says Oregonian Sports Editor Jeff Wohler.
While the staff's reaction was mixed, reader response has been largely negative, and about 50 angry sports fans cancelled subscriptions the day after the decision was announced. "You cannot blatantly censor the interest and enjoyment of the majority in order to pander to the knee- jerk cries of the very few," read one published tirade.
Educating the media on sensitivity to Indian concerns isn't much easier than educating the general public, says Laverne Sheppard, director of the Native American Journalists Association. "Journalists haven't been willing to take a lead role on this issue."
Journalists who wouldn't dream of using the word "nigger" in their copy can't fathom why the word "redskin" and visuals of sports fans in war paint doing the Tomahawk Chop trigger similar reactions in Native Americans, says Tim Giago, editor and publisher of the Lakota Times, a South Dakota-based national Indian weekly. "Why can't they understand that we don't want our skins used as the name of a sports team?"
The Oregonian's peers aren't sure that it's their job to alter the names of the offending teams. "It would be presumptuous of us to tell any team to change its name" within the news pages, says George Solomon, the Washington Post's assistant managing editor for sports. Solomon points out that the racial implications of the Washington team's name have been covered extensively in the paper's sports and editorial pages. "It's our job to cover the news. If our columnists want to speak out on this, pro or con, they're welcome to."
"I can understand the sensitivity to Native Americans," says Phil Wenstrand, news director of KGW-TV in Portland. "The difficulty I have is in not using the names. We're not in the business of changing the names. To me, it's an issue for the teams involved to make these decisions."
It would be difficult to write about a game involving teams with Indian names without using the names, says Ted Diadiun, sports editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "What if someone used the name in a quote? You'd have to paraphrase it. I thought we were supposed to be in the business of reporting the news, not setting social agendas."
Wohler counters charges of censorship by pointing out that the Oregonian isn't instituting a news blackout. "Look at listings of team standings in the newspaper. All you see is the city or the college name," he says. "All we are doing is eliminating four specific names that have been termed offensive."
Still, other editors believe they should err on the side of disclosure rather than leave themselves open to charges of censorship. "I may not like David Duke, but I can't go cutting him out of the paper," says Glenn Hannigan, the sports editor of both the Atlanta Journal and the Constitution. Sports Illustrated, which has no ban on team names, praised the Oregonian's decision but opined, "..it is the tail wagging the dog. It's really up to the teams using the Indian symbols to change their names."
Bill Kovach, curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University and former editor of the Atlanta papers, argues that newspapers have been and should continue to be catalysts for such social change. "The owners name their team but that doesn't mean the press has to use that name." ###