The saga over what Jeremy Clements said is no longer about what he said. That a NASCAR driver blurted out "the n-word" to a reporter is news, although not particularly surprising or interesting news. What is interesting is how much of this story revolves around the timidity of MTV reporter Marty Beckerman and MTV in general, and how that timidity has harmed everyone around them.
Let's start with what we definitely know. MTV sent a blogger for their "Guy Code" blog (which is as awful as you imagine it is) to cover a NASCAR race. It was, in the words of Beckerman, a "fish-out-of-water story." Apparently, guys don't watch NASCAR. Or maybe just guys who have written for Salon.com don't watch NASCAR. Already we're starting with a flawed premise.
The stories seem to come from a place of superiority and derision. A female NASCAR driver is a babe and Beckerman seems to spend more time talking to 50 Cent than ever talking to fans. If he left the reserved-for-VIP infield to actually talk to any real NASCAR fans it isn't clear in his reporting.
At one point during the weekend, Beckerman also tweeted out a remark about "rednecks" at NASCAR, saying "you can either fly a confederate flag or pretend to be more patriotic than everyone else, not both." A brave statement he later deleted and, I'm guessing, he never said to anyone's face.
While walking to interview that "babe" he ran into relatively unimportant driver Jeremy Clements. A publicist for NASCAR then, according to his report, asked Clements for help in finding her trailer. Breckerman decided this was a good time to ask some questions. Here's the explanation from an MTV News story Clements was interviewed for:
"He walked us toward where she was, and on the way over, I explained to him that Guy Code is rules for guys, how you treat your friends, how you treat your ladies, things like that. I was there to do a humor piece, so I asked him what would be Guy Code for race car drivers, and he blurted out [a phrase that used the n-word]."
It's 2013. NASCAR is making a big push for diversity. It's both offensive and just plain dumb to say that anywhere, especially in front of a reporter.
Clements was suspended because someone from NASCAR reported it (we assume the publicist, who may have wrongly assumed Beckerman would have written about it). The driver admitted to other reporters what he said and he admitted that it was racial. At one point Clements called Beckerman to make it clear he felt bad about making the statement.
While there are all sorts of cultural and sociological reasons why Clements may have felt it was ok to say what he said, his response appears to be reasonable and he said he doesn't harbor those feelings.
Beckerman's response is actually what's more important here. Had the MTV reporter just taken the opportunity to report this happened it's unlikely it would have become the saga we now have in front of us (which included us chasing down possible sexist things he said). Instead, Beckerman chickened out, by his own admission. He was willing to tweet about the "rednecks" but he was unwilling even to tweet what he heard. NASCAR had to do his job for him. The self-proclaimed "beacon of luscious truth" was more a "shadow of gelatinous misdirection."
The guy who wrote a semi-satirical book about how we should be bolder and braver like Ernest Hemingway, shrank like a sissy violet from confronting the reality in front of him.
Then, when it became news because of NASCAR, Beckerman waffled even more. We were the ones who had to figure out it was Beckerman (he made it easy for us), instead of him just coming out and saying he heard it. Then he stalled all day saying he'd come out with a statement as MTV, for unknown reasons, fretted over actually saying anything. This left the rest of the world to wonder what happened. Their report still doesn't say what, exactly, Clements said.
By saying "[a phrase that used the n-word]" they're leaving it to the reader to make a judgment they can't make. Saying the word "nigger" is never comfortable. It's not even comfortable typing it. But there's such a wide range in meanings depending on how that word was used, MTV would probably do Clements and NASCAR more favors by just being honest about what was said.
But that's not the worst of this. Rather than write up what it was like to be a "fish-out-of-water," Beckerman ran to an MTV News reporter to do an interview about a story he should have written. Asked why Beckerman didn't just report it he gave this cowardly answer:
"We had not even intended to necessarily publish it, because our site is a humor site for men, we aren't the New York Times, we aren't investigative journalism. It didn't fit with our blog," Beckerman said. "The fact is that NASCAR made this a national story, and then Clements explained a bit of what he said to ESPN ... I never wanted to be part of the story."
Oh, poor guy. I'm so sorry for you for being forced to deal with the dilemma of having to actually report on something of actual importance. You don't do "investigative journalism," even though here there was nothing to investigate since the guy said it right to your face.
You just wanted to take a free trip to hang out at a NASCAR race and make fun of their backward ways and epic facial hair and real news dropped in your lap, the real evidence of people being the "rednecks" you were just chastising, and instead you punt. You deflate. You run to your editors and hide and leave it to someone else to try to explain your behavior.
If Ernest Hemingway was here right now do you think he'd applaud you? You think he'd be proud you waited for MTV higher-ups to consider how to respond? Would you pushing your own reporting onto someone else impress him?
Where, exactly, is that in the guy code?