'Shop Talk': 'Real' Housewives, Women Thrown 'Under The Bus'

Michel Martin hosts a special “Beauty Shop” roundtable, getting the views of a diverse group of women commentators on events in the news. Mary Kate Cary, editor at U.S. News & World Report, journalist and author Amy Alexander, and blogger Patricia Merritt discuss the issues, including the debut of “The Real Housewives of D.C.,” continued fallout from the Shirley Sherrod scandal, and the controversial hiring of a white fashion editor at the African American women’s magazine, Essence.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

If you listen to this program from time to time, then you know that on Fridays, we have our Barbershop segment, where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Well, there was a lot going on in the news and in the world and we thought, you know, it was time for the women to check in. So we're having a special Beauty Shop.

Joining us this week to weigh in on some recent items in the news where we just thought we needed a woman's touch - I'll just put it that way - Amy Alexander, journalist and author. Also with us, Mary Kate Cary, she's a former presidential speech writer, columnist and blogger at U.S. News & World Report. And at St. Louis member station KWMU is commentator and blogger Pamela Merritt. She blogs at AngryBlackB I can't say it, but it rhymes with you can figure it out.

Ladies, thank you all so much for joining us.

Ms. AMY ALEXANDER (Journalist, Author): Thank you.

Ms. MARY KATE CARY (Columnist and Blogger, U.S. News & World Report): Thank you.

Ms. PAMELA MERRITT (Blogger, AngryBlackBitch): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Now, this may not be the momentous issue of the week, but it's timely, so I thought we'd ask you about this. The Salahi saga continues. Not that there were any further crashes of White House events, but Mrs. Salahi - they of the famous, you know, White House crash that caused such a big stir - is starring with a few other ladies in the Bravo show "The Real Housewives of D.C." The show premieres tomorrow night. And I thought - well, we'll play a short clip. Here it is.

(Soundbite of show, "The Real Housewives of D.C.")

Unidentified Announcer: Every Thursday by Bravo the housewives are taking over the Capitol.

Unidentified Woman #1: Hello, Washington, D.C.

Unidentified Announcer: Get to know the ladies on the Hill.

Unidentified Woman #2: This town is small. Everybody has an agenda.

Unidentified Man: Life in D.C. is...

MARTIN:�Now, you know it's going to be a bummer when people start calling it this town. Anytime I hear this town, I know I'm going to be irritated. But so - because this is not a town - excuse me, major metropolitan area. Hello. But Mary Kate, you're going to be tuning in?

Ms. CARY: Oh, I don't think so. And I certainly don't want my daughters tuning in. I just think it is demeaning, and the one way that somebody put it - that Hank Stuever in the Washington Post said: There is nothing true in the title of this show except for the words "the" and "of."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CARY: And you know, they're not real they're not real housewives and they're not necessarily even from D.C. A lot of them are from the suburbs and, you know, live out in the country or whatever. They I think a lot of it's staged. I think if they were really real, they'd be doing what the rest of us real housewives in D.C. do - which is drive, and go to volunteer meetings.

MARTIN: Themselves.

Ms. ALEXANDER: Yeah. Or wait on subway platforms.

Ms. CARY: Right, right.

MARTIN: You know - and also, Amy, what about the fact that, you know, Washington, D.C., is more than 54 percent African-American. There's one so-called black there's only one housewife, so-called housewife, to Mary Kate's point -

Ms. ALEXANDER: Right, not really a housewife.

MARTIN: Who's a Harvard MBA.

Ms. ALEXANDER: Yeah.

MARTIN: So, you know, I'm kind of - on the one hand it's like, should we be irritated that there aren't more African-Americans or people of color in it, or should we be greatly relieved?

Ms. ALEXANDER: Yeah but it's sort of - you know, among the panoply of outrages around this whole franchise, right? I mean the whole if you think of the whole array of these real housewife shows, this - is that really the worst sin? I mean, so on a scale...

MARTIN: Atlanta, of course, is predominantly African-American. There's one white participant or was.

Ms. ALEXANDER: And that's the one yeah. In terms of this sort of potential for racial upset, I was more upset by "The Real Housewives of Atlanta. The whole - sort of just fighting and, you know, this whole portrayal of women as being unable to get along, I find really offensive. But The Real Housewives of D.C., you know, I probably will allow myself to peek at it.

You know, I always fall into this trap of being, you know, above it all and being high-minded. And then like, "The Real Housewives of New Jersey" a few weeks ago had a marathon and I was like, cleaning or something, and I had it on. And the next you know, I had watched like, three of them back to back.

MARTIN: What do you like about it?

Ms. ALEXANDER: It's just like a train wreck. It's either -..TEXT: MARTIN: It is a train wreck; that's a good word.

Ms. ALEXANDER: It's either a train wreck or it's like just like you've -like eating potato chips or something.

MARTIN: Right.

Ms. ALEXANDER: And you know you should stop. But it's just so...

Ms. CARY: Don't want to look, but can't not look.

MARTIN: Can't look away. Pam, what about you? You tuning in?

Ms. MERRITT: I don't know. I yeah, well, no. But I don't think it's like eating potato chips because I love potato chips. And even though I know they're not good for me, it's worth it. When I watch the I watched one episode, I think it was "The Real Housewives of New York" or Jersey, I can't remember and it was so off-putting and so unrealistic.

And it was weird to not identify with anything on the screen. And they were annoying, and I kept thinking to myself - I got 15 minutes in and I'm like oh, I might as well just watch the whole thing, but I dont like these people. And so I dont know if, you know, I might not get...

MARTIN: Which is why you watched the whole thing?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MERRITT: Of course. Of course. And thats an hour I'm not getting back in this life so thats the (unintelligible).

Ms. ALEXANDER: Right. Right.

MARTIN: But what do you think the appeal is? I mean, do you think that there's kind of I mean, I take your point, Amy. You dont want to be so high-minded about it, which is why we're talking about it, right, for all these few minutes.

Ms. MERRITT: Mm-hmm. Right. Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But what do you think is the appeal? Because my guess is that men aren't watching this.

Ms. ALEXANDER: No.

MARTIN: My guess is that women other women are watching other women do this, so.

Ms. ALEXANDER: Well, I think its popular among some gay men, you know.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. ALEXANDER: I mean, because the theatricality in and of itself is kind of stunning. I mean - and I personally find it fascinating, you know, trying to figure out, now are they like just, really laying it on because they know they're, you know, they're on a television program? Or are they really like this? You know what I mean? Its like, is this purely a theatrical affectation, the way that they plot and scheme all the time and, you know, and blow up these really trivial occurrences in their lives, or is this really how - you know what I mean?

MARTIN: You know, the other part that I find weird is that - like, with having children - and many of these women do have children, on the program - and trying to work and so forth, I'm lucky if I can see my women friends like, once a month.

Ms. CARY: Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: And so, to spend all that time beefing is, to me, you know...

Ms. ALEXANDER: Right.

MARTIN: ...I wish I had the time to have a fight with my girlfriends.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CARY: Who has time to crash the White House? I mean...

MARTIN: Yeah, there is that.

Ms. ALEXANDER: Exactly.

Ms. CARY: That's another whole project.

MARTIN: Speaking of crash and train wrecks, Amy, we wanted to continue the discussion about the NAACP and Shirley Sherrod. We dont have enough time to go into the whole back story on that, but I think many people get the particulars of the story. You wrote a very provocative blog post in which you raise the question and others have also about, you talked about the tire marks on your back put there by the NAACP head, Benjamin Jealous. But you make the point that others have also, too - about whether theres a double standard for the way women are treated.

But the issue here is not just that a lot of people rushed to judge Shirley Sherrod - the USDA rushed to judge - but the NAACP issued a very stinging statement agreeing with the decision to force her out without even investigating the context of an event of their own event. And you raised the question of whether this would've happened if this were a man. I mean, why do you say that?

Ms. ALEXANDER: Right. Well, I actually - I probably did not link more closely. I think there are two things that came into play. And one is the sort of overriding paternalism that is just laid over just about everything at that association. And I think historically, thats just been the way it is. You know, Myrlie Evers was president, CEO for a period but historically, I think, women have been kind of the support system within the association. And from time to time, they have been sort of clearly, you know, expendable - and kind of just cast aside or exploited in various capacities.

MARTIN: But the co-chairman of the board is a woman a young woman.

Ms. ALEXANDER: Well, she - yeah, and she was installed early this year. She was on the board when I was working there last summer, but she was not the chairperson. And, you know, I actually, as I wrote in the column, I have kind of high hopes for Rosalind Brock's tenure there. But she has a lot of work to do to kind of cut through some of this static - paternalism, is the best way to put it.

But the other thing that I think happened, in terms of Mrs. Sherrod being denounced so hastily, is that there really is not a kind of appreciation for a real appreciation for journalism beyond its ability to kind of bring an element of show biz to whatever the association is doing.

MARTIN: Well, that made me question whether - is the issue gender or generational - generation? In that, the younger generation, very eager to make a break with the perceived staidness of the past and thus, not doing the due diligence that an earlier generation was taught to do.

Ms. ALEXANDER: Right. Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Because in part, the reason the NAACP exists is that there was a rush to judge African-Americans, with dire consequences. And so thats one of the reasons I was wondering. And Pam, I want to hear from you on this, but Amy, if you just...

Ms. ALEXANDER: Yeah. I think - I mean, in the way that it sort of came together, you know, there simply was no mechanism there. There was no one to say well, lets call Georgia, or lets send an email down there.

Ms. MERRITT: Mm-hmm.

Ms. ALEXANDER: Or lets get someone from the Georgia branch on the line before we send this release. And I won't go into the weeds in terms of, you know, exactly what happened the night because I kind of have since I posted that -learned exactly how it happened. But its kind of beside the point because the take-away is that there was no fail-safe there, and there was no real appreciation of the due diligence, even in the heat of the moment. You know, I understand that given the fractured media landscape, its very important to be able to stay ahead of the curve. Youve got to control your narrative, but what it can't be is - these sort of sketchy, kind of - you know, reactionary measures.

MARTIN: Sure. Mary Kate, you wrote about this, too. But Pam, I want to bring you into this. What do you think? Do you think this is what do you think the failure is? Was it gender? Was it what was driving the failure with the NAACP? Was it gender? Do you think it was generational?

Ms. MERRITT: Right.

MARTIN: Amy says a lack of journalistic values or really understanding that.

Ms. MERRITT: All of that. I mean, it was - I think it was gender because, as Amy pointed out, theres that history. And I think that they carry that history. You know, most of the people I know who are members of the NAACP have been members for quite some time. So theres a legacy. And then, I love that you brought up the generational thing because, you know, it was in Kansas City this year, and I'm a St. Louis native. So I got an invitation, as a blogger, to attend. And I had a conflict, so I wasnt able to make it to the actual convention this year. But it was interesting. Id never had - you know, just in the last 12 months, I've had the NAACP reach out to me and start sending me press releases.

And I think it was - generationalism plays a role in this. But its also when youre entering into the phase of trying incorporate new media into your work, theres that give that period of time where youre trying to learn how it works and youre using it. And I think what happened is, you had people who were trying to learn how it works who were using it, and didnt quite understand what they were diving into because I would've definitely questioned the source. You know, as a blogger, its disturbing to me because we're all being lumped into the same category. And I'm thinking yeah, this source had already been denounced within the blogging world as having manufactured news. And just a Google search would have outed that.

MARTIN: Sure. If youre just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're having a special visit to the Beauty Shop. We're talking with writer Amy Alexander; editor and blogger for U.S. News & World Report Mary Kate Cary - columnist, rather, I should say; and blogger Pamela Merritt.

Mary Kate, you blogged about this. You said that there was a point that was missed here, also - from your perspective. I want to play a clip now from Shirley Sherrod's speech to the NAACP Freedom Fund Banquet on March 27th of this year. Here it is.

Ms. SHIRLEY SHERROD (Former director, Rural Development, United States Department of Agriculture: My father wasn't the first black person to be killed. He was a leader in the community. He wasn't the first one to be killed by white men in the county. But I couldn't just let his death go without doing something in answer to what happened.

Unidentified Woman: Amen.

Ms. SHERROD: I made the commitment on the night of my father's death, at the age of 17, that I would not leave the South, that I would stay in the South and devote my life to working for change.

MARTIN: Needless to say, this was not part of the edited passage that was posted on Andrew Breitbart website.

Ms. CARY: No.

MARTIN: Tell me why - a very moving passage, by the way - why did this strike you?

Ms. CARY: Well, you know, its just sort of the speech writer in me. When the story first broke and her response was that it was taken out of context, I thought well, why dont we take a look at the speech? And there's a great website, called Americanrhetoric.com. And so I went to there and sure enough, there's the speech, fully transcribed. And I read it, and the part that got taken out of context was actually not the most interesting part of the speech.

The clip that you just played is riveting. She's growing up and swears she's going to get herself out of the South and go to college up North, and marry somebody from the North and never come back. Her father gets killed by the Klan. She swears that night, you know, I've got to stay and fix this.

She ends up going to college in the South. Before she leaves for college that fall, you know, leaves to go locally, the Klan comes back to her house. Her mother has a newborn - there's a big spread in ages of the kids - and her mother goes out to the front porch and faces down the Klan and says to these guys, I can see your faces, and I know exactly who you are, and I'm never going to forget it. And her mother goes on to get elected to the school board - and I believe still serves on the school board, 30-some odd years later. Shirley Sherrod gets out of college, goes to the Agriculture Department, stays - again, you know, 20 or 30 years, however long she's been there. And it's this very compelling narrative of these two strong women who are not bowed by the Klan, and who stay and fight for change.

And you know, my blog was: Here's the most compelling part of the speech. And dont we all owe it to her to read what she had to say, and not jump on this bandwagon of, you know, craziness from this one clip that got taken out of it? And it's a fascinating story.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. It is a fascinating story. I think and hopefully, Amy, that could be your next book. Not that, you know...

Ms. CARY: There you go.

MARTIN: There you go. But speaking of it, there's a couple...

Ms. CARY: It's a missed opportunity.

MARTIN: Couple minutes left, though, I've got to ask you about this flap over Essence magazine. It's hired its first Caucasian fashion editor, and some folks are highly upset about this. Her name is Elliana Placas. She came from O, the Oprah Magazine, and US Weekly. This is - Michaela Angela Davis is the former executive director of fashion and beauty at Essence ,and she had this to say at CNN.

Ms. MICHAELA ANGELA DAVIS (Former executive director, fashion and beauty, Essence magazine): Essence is the one magazine that puts race in their brand. They say: This is the place for African-American women, the place where black women come first. But I'm saying this, also, for - literally, the black girls that called me crying that had - this is the one place. There are plenty of qualified black female fashion professionals. What does this say to them? What does this say to the industry at large?

MARTIN: So Pam, I'm going to ask you this, because youre the Angry - Angry Black...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Are you angry about this?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MERRITT: I'm angry about it. And I'm stunned, honestly, because of the last part of what Michaela said, which is there are so many qualified women of color who come to mind, that youre just surprised that in a magazine that is known for not shying away from being the magazine for black women, would take that move. But it reminds me of the same kind of controversies you see when you have a straight editor of a gay publication or, you know, here in St. Louis, the editor of the St. Louis American is not black. So it...

MARTIN: Yeah, interesting.

Ms. MERRITT: ...gives you pause. Yeah.

MARTIN: It sounds interesting. Very briefly, Amy. Are you angry or not?

Ms. ALEXANDER: No, I'm not angry.

MARTIN: Youre like, it's post-racial this, huh?

Ms. ALEXANDER: If she can do the job, then what's the issue?

MARTIN: All right. Post-racial this. That's your second blog post. Okay, I'm giving Amy all kinds of assignments.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay. Here with us - that's all the time we have in the Beauty Shop. With me in our Washington, D.C.,studio, the ever-in-fashion Mary Kate Cary and Amy Alexander.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CARY: Please.

MARTIN: And holding down the fort in St. Louis, commentator and blogger Pamela Merritt of Angry Black B - you fill in the rest.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: She joined us from member station KWMU.

Ladies, thank you.

Ms. ALEXANDER: Thank you, Michel.

Ms. CARY: Thank you.

Ms. MERRITT: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. Im Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Lets talk more tomorrow.

(Soundbite of music)

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