By Alan Pergament
Regular readers of this blog know I've never been a fan of Channel 2 anchor Maryalice Demler's constant need to respond to so many stories covered by reporters or anchors.
The latest example came at the end of the 6 p.m. newscast Wednesday.
You could hear her shout "what!" as sports anchor Adam Benigni read a story on the shoplifting citation that Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston of Florida State received for failing to pay for $32 worth of seafood at a Florida grocery store.
After Benigni finished, Demler followed with an inappropriate ad-lib.
"Did he have a shopping cart or were crab legs stuffed in his hoodie?" asked Demler.
My initial reaction was what!!!!!
If it was an attempt at humor, it backfired. It also inappropriately assumed facts. Winston told police he realized after he got home that he forgot to pay for the food and then didn't do anything about it.
Winston is black. Of course, people of all races wear hoodies. But hoodie has been a racially charged word since the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in Florida two years ago. Martin was wearing a hoodie when he was killed. It became a symbol of Zimmerman's suspicions about Martin and remains a symbol today.
At best, Demler’s ad-lib was in poor taste and insensitive. At worst, it was a stereotyped conclusion. But I'm not even sure she realized what she said, which you would hope would teach her to stop reacting to so many stories.
After Benigni responded by saying he wasn't sure about the circumstances, Demler added: "Clearly, that's bizarre."
Clearly, so was her ad-lib.
This is not the first time Demler’s choice of words has been debatable. In December, she posted to Twitter a photo of herself with Toronto Mayor Rob Ford at the Bills’ game in Toronto. Ford, who is in the news again this week because of a photo of him smoking crack cocaine, was being lambasted around the world for an earlier image of him doing the same thing. Demler tweeted these words with the photo: “Sweetheart of a guy. A Bills fan. Down to earth. Loves the Queen City. Sounded sincere. I don’t judge.”
Channel 2 General Manager Jim Toellner defended Demler in a text message sent to me after he became aware I was going to write about the latest ad-lib.
"Hoodies are almost a uniform among all college kids," he wrote. "It was an innocent statement and you are being a tabloid race-baiter on this one Alan. I have known Maryalice for a long time and your insinuations are way off and frankly insulting."
The dictionary definition of race-baiter is "the unfair use of statements about race to try to influence the actions or attitudes of a particular group of people."
That was not what I was doing. I also wasn't insinuating anything. I am only trying to influence Demler and Channel 2 to become aware of -- and sensitive to -- how her words could be taken in these sensitive times.
Nobody is saying Maryalice intended to offend anyone. I'm just saying her comment illustrated why anchors shouldn't blurt out ad-libs without thinking.
Reached Wednesday night, Demler said "she supposed" that she used the word "hoodie" because she lives near a school in North Tonawanda and "that is the uniform of the day" there and at a local supermarket nearby.
"I have been seeing young people wearing hoodies long before Trayvon Martin, kids of all races," added Demler. "I don’t think that piece of clothing belongs to any ethnic group."
"I can't speak to the George Zimmerman situation. I talk to a Western New York audience. My ad-libs are going to be in the context of the community where I live."
Demler added she would be "parsing every word and wouldn't be an effective communicator" if she had to put her thoughts in the context of every single national story.
She said she didn't regret using the word hoodie in her comments about a story about a young person accused of shoplifting and "hiding things in his apparel."
After I told her that there hadn’t been any initial reports that Winston hid anything in his apparel, Demler said she only knew about the story from the 20-second story that Benigni did and that she also heard about it briefly on radio.
I respect her defense and believe her intentions were innocent.
But I don't agree with her defense or her use of the word.
If the word "hoodie" has become racially-tinged nationally, an anchor in WNY should know enough to avoid it in the context that Demler used it.
And considering how little she admittedly knew about the Winston story, Demler would have been wise to avoid ad-libbing or commenting about it.
It certainly would have been a good time to at least parse her words.
ABC sent out a release after the premiere of the laughable new drama "Black Box" that noted how well its premiere rated at 10 p.m. last Thursday following an original episode of "Grey's Anatomy," especially with female viewers. Local viewers fled during the heavily-promoted hour, which got some of the harshest reviews from national critics of the so-called Idiot Box this TV season. It began with a 4.9 rating on Channel 7 and fell steadily every 15 minutes until it hit a low of 3.0 at 11 p.m. In other words, about 40 percent of viewers that started watching here abandoned it during the hour. If a pattern like that continues here and nationally, "Black Box" may be replaced quickly by reruns of "Scandal" or some other popular ABC series.
The premiere of the new CBS ""Bad Teacher," had a respectable 7.8 rating on Channel 4 last Thursday after "Two and a Half Men" but it lost about 15 percent of its audience after it started. "Bad Teacher" also got low grades from many of the nation's TV critics.