MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up: I have some thoughts on Father's Day. But first, on this program, we've spoken quite a bit about slights and slurs and what difference any of it makes in a society that values both diversity and free speech. And now, there's another chapter in that ongoing story.
ABC Television Network officials announced last week that actor Isaiah Washington would not be invited to continue his role as Dr. Preston Burke next season on a hit television program "Grey's Anatomy." The actor's reported use of an anti-gay slur against castmate T.R. Knight in a private conversation and his use of the slur on camera later at a public appearance led to an apology, meetings with lesbian and gay activists, and a stint in rehab.
But some gay activists felt that was not enough, and have been calling for his dismissal. So how much punishment is enough for Washington? In the post-Don Imus era, was there really any other choice? We discuss that in a moment with blogger and commentator Jasmyne Cannick. She is heading up a petition drive and a protest to get Washington reinstated. And we'll also hear from black gay writer Keith Boykin about the Washington controversy.
But first we're going to speak with Paul Katz. He scored an exclusive interview with Isaiah Washington for ew.com, the online arm of Entertainment Weekly magazine. He joins us from his office in New York. Thanks for being with us.
Mr. PAUL KATZ (Reporter, Entertainment Weekly): Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: What did Isaiah Washington tell you about his feelings about the dismissal? Was he surprised?
Mr. KATZ: He was not so much surprised as saddened. He really felt that he had done everything possible that the studio had asked of him to make things all right on the set. So he was saddened that he was dismissed from the show, because he seemed to really enjoy the work.
MARTIN: Did he seem resigned?
Mr. KATZ: He was resigned. He was ready to move on. He was accepting what had happened and was, sort of, eager to look to the future and new projects.
MARTIN: As I understand it, he was close to program creator Shonda Rhimes. Do you have any sense on whether she agreed with the decision to remove him from the program?
Mr. KATZ: My understanding from speaking with him was that Shonda was very happy with his work. This seemed to be more of a studio call than hers. And when he received the call that he would be fired from the show, it came from her. And she was the one who initially hired him, so he felt that it was full circle. He also said that he spoke with her a few days ago, so they clearly are keeping in touch.
MARTIN: Have you been able to get comments from any other cast members or anybody at ABC?
Mr. KATZ: Well, the show is on hiatus, so most of the actors are off on vacation or doing other projects. So they haven't been available for comment, and ABC has had no comment, either.
MARTIN: So we don't really know whether his removal from the program was related to his use of the F word and anti-gay slur earlier in the year, or is it just assumed that that's the reason?
Mr. KATZ: We don't know. ABC has always had the right to let the cast members go. It's part of their contract. It's standard, and that's what they chose to do in this case.
MARTIN: Now you've been writing about television for a while. Is there any precedent for this type of firing? And I mentioned Don Imus earlier in my introduction. You know, he, of course, was fired from his longtime stint as a radio host because of his repeated use of slurs against blacks and gays and Jews, etc., which he often defended as humor. So do you think that partly that Don Imus - the context created by Don Imus was partly the reason for this?
Mr. KATZ: Well, I feel that it was more a case of happiness on the set. This is a top-rated show, and they needed to have harmony there in order for it to continue, which, of course, they would like it to do for several more years.
To me, I feel that that was a strong factor. As far as precedent, many top-rated shows have had casts changes, "ER," "Law and Order." As far as something with the scandal that's tinged it, there really hasn't been something exactly like that yet.
MARTIN: And when you say harmony on the set, is it your feeling that Isaiah Washington's behavior created an ongoing wound that wasn't healed by anything he did? Is that your sense of it?
Mr. KATZ: From what he said, he felt that among his cast members, things had been settled. However, Katherine Heigl went on the record after the Golden Globe saying that she was not pleased with his behavior. And recovering from that is very difficult.
MARTIN: We're talking with Paul Katz. He's a reporter for Entertainment Weekly. And we're talking about ABC's decision to fire actor Isaiah Washington from "Grey's Anatomy." And at this point, I want to broaden the discussion. With us now is Jasmyne Cannick. She is a commentator who has been leading an effort to get Washington reinstated on "Grey's Anatomy." Jasmyne joins us from her office in Compton, California. Hi, Jasmyne.
Ms. JASMYNE CANNICK (Commentator, Blogger): Hi.
MARTIN: Also with us is Keith Boykin. He is a black gay author who's written extensively about homophobia in the African-American community. He's on the line with us from Fire Island, New York. Hi, Keith. Thanks for joining us also.
Mr. KEITH BOYKIN (Author): Hi, Michel.
MARTIN: Jasmyne, we want to note for the conversation you are also African-American and you are also gay - about which you are very public and you blog about, write about consistently. Why did you want to start this petition drive to try to have Dr. Burke's character reinstated?
Ms. CANNICK: Well, this is the second petition that I've sort of started, the first one, obviously, around when all of this sort of jumped off and there were a lot of folks in the gay and lesbian community who were calling for him to be dismissed from the show.
You know, I have a lot of feelings on it. I mean, one, you know, Isaiah is just another in a long list of minority actors that have been let go from the network in the past year and a half, two years. And it's sort of a disturbing trend that's going on over there.
I mean, not only have they let go a significant number of African-Americans, but, you know, Rosie O' Donnell, who's a lesbian, George Lopez and "The George Lopez Show," which was Latino. So, you know, that in itself is disturbing because we have very few African-Americans on primetime network television as it is.
The second thing is just sort of this sets a horrible precedent as far as I'm concerned. I mean, yes, I am black, and I am also a lesbian, and when all of this happened, this one organization sort of was spearheading the call for Isaiah to be dismissed.
And, you know, it was almost as if their word was (unintelligible), and they spoke for everyone in the gay and lesbian community, which they did not. And I was very vocal and I made sure that I was, because, you know, besides I'm just liking Isaiah, I knew Isaiah and I knew him personally. I knew where his heart was.
And, you know, I've told people over and over again that Isaiah has done more for the gay community than T.R. Knight ever has in or out of the closet so far. So for people that put out there that he's homophobic and he hates gay people is absolutely not true.
I'd be the first one to back down and say, you know, you're on your own or, you know, I disagree if I felt that was the case. But I know for a fact that Isaiah is not like that and, you know, many people may or may not know. We just came back from Sierra Leone. He took me with him to Africa for a whole week and a half. He didn't have to do that.
MARTIN: And what was the purpose of the trip?
Ms. CANNICK: The purpose of the trip was to check on a school that he's building in a rural village in Sierra Leone, and so we went back to do that. And he invited me to go with him to experience that, and that's a whole different side of Isaiah that a lot of people don't know.
MARTIN: For clarification, Jasmyne, when you talk about an organization, or organizations that claimed to speak for the entire gay community, I just wanted to ask, who were you talking about?
Ms. CANNICK: The gay lesbian, whatever the acronym - GLAAD.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Okay. Keith, what do you think about this? Isaiah Washington - stay or go?
Mr. BOYKIN: Well, I think the whole case has sort of befuddled me and baffled me from the beginning. I think when I first heard about the remarks that were made last year - reportedly that were made last year, I was a little surprised because the Isaiah Washington I knew was the Isaiah Washington who had starred in the Spike Lee film in 1996, "Get on the Bus," in which he played an openly gay man involved in a relationship with another openly gay man, Harry Lennix.
And they're two African-Americans going to their Million Man March who happened to be gay. I thought that was very bold for him to play that role back in the '90s, and I felt that he had done other similar roles in that time period, too, even playing drag queens and such.
So to fast forward to the current context in 2006, last year, when he was accused of making this remark, it really surprised me. And I had thought that that would be the end of it until it came up again at the Golden Globes.
MARTIN: Yeah. So he did make the remark. I mean, there's no dispute the fact that he did use this language.
Mr. BOYKIN: Some people have suggested he might not have made the remark the first time. And I don't know if he did it or didn't (unintelligible) even trying to get it into the whole question is really - to me, it's irrelevant. The point is there been accusations.
I think it's a serious issue when somebody uses the F-word or any other derogatory slur about a group of people. But I don't think he should have been fired in this case, because I think he was contrite. He was apologetic.
He tried to do what he could, and I think he was sincere in trying to make up. You know, I think what's the most convincing to me is a larger context of what ABC is doing. And that is really what concerns me. I watch "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost" and "The View" and I've seen black stars, all the black stars have been eliminated from those three shows in the past year and a half.
MARTIN: Let's say there were a white actor who is part of a diverse ensemble cast who called an African-American actor the N-word under the same circumstances. Do you think that an apology would be considered sufficient?
Mr. BOYKIN: I think it's a fair question, Michel. I just think in this case, you have to take into context who this person is and who his history - Don Imus is completely different from Isaiah Washington.
Don Imus had a history of racist, anti-Semitic homophobic slurs. Isaiah Washington has a history of being pro-gay, and is very supportive of the community. So the comment came out of left field for me. I think that's the reason why some people were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
MARTIN: Jasmyne, what if it were some other actor, a white actor, let's say, talking about African-Americans using a common slur?
Ms. CANNICK: I think context is everything. Isaiah didn't have a history of using that word. And he's been completely supportive of the gay community over the years, as well as the HIV/AIDS community as it relates to African-Americans.
But it also sends another message, and the message is this: in the gay-lesbian community, especially within the leadership, we're always talking about how we're out to change people's perceptions of who we are as people. But what happens when we actually do that?
So let's say, for example, that Isaiah said and did everything that he's been accused of doing. Now, he does the PSA for the very organization that, you know, is trying to orchestrate his dismissal or has successfully orchestrated his dismissal. He did that PSA for them, he met with those groups, he, you know, went to therapy, he made apology.
I mean, when is it good enough, or is it never good enough? And then the gay community is there being very hypocritical right about now, because we should be supporting Isaiah.
MARTIN: Paul Katz, you asked Isaiah Washington if you would consider a guest appearance on "Grey's" if you were asked to do so, and he seemed to indicate that he would. But is there any chance of that? Is there any chance of his being invited back either for a guest appearance, or at all?
Mr. KATZ: Well, you never say never in television. If the ratings start going down, ABC might be all right with him coming back. I think as far as the creator, Shonda Rhimes, goes, she would be more than happy to have him back, according to Isaiah Washington. So the ball sort of is in ABC's court.
MARTIN: I wanted to talk a little bit more about Jasmyne's point and the point she makes in the petition that, to her, this suggests a pattern of something being directed toward minority talent on ABC programs. And Jasmyne, I have to say, you mentioned, you know, Rosie O'Donnell. I mean, that was a contract dispute, was it not? I mean, and Star Jones Reynolds, that was a contract dispute. I mean, is it really - is there really any bigger picture than that?
Ms. CANNICK: I think there's always a bigger picture. I mean, this is what has happened. Regardless of what the setup was, these folks are gone. Now, Star has been gone for how long? I am not sure. I think, it - maybe it's been a year, maybe a little less than a year. She has not been replaced. They have guest blacks all the time "The View." But she has not been replaced. And it's just something for people to think about.
MARTIN: Paul, have you observed this trend?
Mr. KATZ: If you spoke to the creative team on each show, they would, of course, say that this was in part of the process - the creative process - to remove certain characters. "The George Lopez Show" leaving because - who caused a big gap as far as Hispanic characters on television. So there is definitely a lack of minority characters, especially in lead roles on television. But, unfortunately, that's not anything really new. That's been going on for the last, you know, several decades since television has started.
MARTIN: Keith Boykin, final thought from you.
Mr. BOYKIN: Well, just in terms of that issue, I watch all these shows. "Lost" is one of my favorite shows on television. And one of the reasons why I liked it is because of the diversity of characters on the show, including African-Americans, who's my people. They are none now. Zero. All of them are gone. They've all died or been killed off or removed. That's traumatic. And for Isaiah Washington to leave in the context of what's going on in "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives" and "The View," I think it does set a disturbing trend about the importance of black actors and black performers and talent in Hollywood.
MARTIN: And Jasmyne, a final thought from you. You're a fan of "Grey's Anatomy." If the character of Dr. Burke is not replaced, or if Washington isn't reinstated, do you think you'll still watch the program?
Ms. CANNICK: I don't think that I will, and I don't think that a lot of other people will, either. A lot of us watch that show because of Isaiah, because we'd been following his career, we were fans of his. And so no, I don't have any plans to.
MARTIN: Jasmyne Cannick is a blogger and commentator. She joined us by phone from her office in Compton, California. Keith Boykin is a writer and a host on BET. He joined us by phone from Fire Island, New York. And Paul Katz is a reporter for Entertainment Weekly. He joined us from his office in New York. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.
Ms. CANNICK: Thank you.
Mr. BOYKIN: Thank you.
Mr. KATZ: Thank you much.
MARTIN: For a link to Paul Katz's exclusive interview with Isaiah Washington, please go to our Web site at npr.org/tellmemore.