Jeanne Moos and Cultural Insensitivity

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Posted by Brian Taylor Carlson

Jeanne Moos – a national news correspondent for CNN, famous for her unique feature stories and quirky opinion pieces – has been in the spotlight over a piece she did recently.

And not in a good way.

On April 9, Moos showcased a story about a visit by Prince William and his family to New Zealand. They were greeted by the Maori people in an elaborate welcome ceremony.

I have to admit: this feature started out funny. Moos made a reference to a Maori warrior in traditional garb – with tattooed buttocks exposed – as a “royal bummer.”

Then, it started becoming stereotypical and uncomfortable. Moos equated a Maori welcoming dance as “a cross between a Chippendale lap dance and the mating dance of an emu.”

After a few more lines, it went horribly, miserably south. Moos referred to previous royal visits as “going native.”

I had to go back several times and make sure I heard correctly.

Face, meet palm. What happened, exactly?

I’ll be the first to tell you. Cliché happened. Cultural insensitivity happened. Racism happened.

Inappropriateness also happened. Oh, and did I mention the lack of taste?

Esther Bergdahl from PolicyMic writes, “Because if there’s anything Americans are good at, it’s finding new and horrible ways to make honoring indigenous traditions – and experiencing other cultures – about weird dances, things that baffle white people and butts.”

Jean Melesaine,  a journalist who uses her blog to highlight issues concerning the Pacific Islander community wrote an open letter to Jeanne Moos. Melesaine sarcastically apologized on behalf of the Maori, and all Pacific Islander peoples, simply for being themselves. 

A petition calling for Moos to apologize was posted on Change.org by Jayden Èvett, 18, of Wellington, New Zealand.

Moos responded with a most unapologetic apology: “Duly noted. I do humor and satire, and I am truly sorry if the tone of my story offended anyone.”

To me, this comes off as saying, “This is what I do. if you don’t like it, tough.”

When do humor and satire cross the line of cultural and ethnic insensitivity? How could this feature have been presented in a better way? Do you think the apology could have been more genuine? As journalists, what are ways to avoid stereotypes of this nature?

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7 responses to “Jeanne Moos and Cultural Insensitivity

  1. This is exactly what we were talking about with clichés and steering away from them. I also think this has something to do with a lack of compassion or sensitivity. She clearly was more worried about sounding “funny” and “satirical” than she was informing readers about the visit. I understand certain writers use humor in their work, but there is a line that should not be crossed because of the consequences that come about like they are now. I think her apology was generic and phony to be honest.

  2. Thank you for that, Heather. I just sat here with my mouth hanging open, trying to figure out if she was “on purpose” or not. Sadly, this journalist is out of touch when it comes to sensitive matters, such as diplomatic relations. I was also baffled as to how CNN would allow such a circus act to take place on their website. I expect this from certain other (Ahem) news websites, but not CNN. Standards are slipping, unfortunately, and there seems to be no apology for that either.

  3. I think her “apology” also highlights a massive flaw in famous journalists and maybe in journalism in general. We tend to think ourselves above reproach because we’ve done the reporting and the research. Moos’ response merely said she acknowledged the criticism, not that she planned to change or that she was remorseful! This is the response of a 7th grade writer who is told his paper sucks: a wounded ego and no improvement. As journalists, we should very highly value the opinion of our readers. They’re the reason we have a job. DUH. To think ourselves above their critiques is pathetic.

  4. Exactly, Marissa! I thought it was a bit arrogant that her apology was not an apology at all. And you are so right about learning from criticism. Our readership is the one thing we should be taking our cues from. Readers are fickle. Disappoint them once, and they will move on to other sources. It is not surprising to find that this piece turned many people away from Moos, but also away from CNN. I think this was handled very poorly and this affects the professional image of the network.

  5. We talked about humor/sarcasm in my J66 class and when it’s appropriate to use. It reminds me of a piece we read in class about Sandy Hook and the writer went over the top and made sarcastic remarks about a serious topic. Obviously sarcasm can be quite clever and humorous if its’ done in the right way, but I think that it’s easy to overdo it. This is definitely shown in the article you’re talking about. The article lapses into stereotypes and is plainly offensive. The journalist could’ve been way more sincere with the apology. It sounded more like one of those apologies that our parents made us do as kids that we didn’t want to do but did anyways. It’s all about saving face and not actually meaning it.

  6. ariellamiesner

    I kind of felt like I was watching an episode of Fashion Police. It was unnecessarily harsh and disrespectful. While I expect that from Joan Rivers, I am surprised to hear it out of the mouth of a reputable journalist.
    Jeanne’s pride was clearly the voice behind her apology.

    Jeanne’s little stabs weren’t even funny!

    It’s not like New Zealand decided last minute to put together a “Chippendale lap dance,” or a “mating dance of an emu,” welcome. It was a cultural tradition!
    I love the quote you added from Esther Bergdahl. Spot on.

  7. I agree. They were not even funny. She definitely missed the mark on this one, majorly.

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