A Short History of Racist Callers to C-SPAN’s Washington Journal

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“Washington Journal,” C-SPAN’s morning call-in program that features a rotating cast of placid anchors interviewing various lawmakers and journalists, is mostly for the true political obsessives.

But the show’s callers, emboldened by anonymity, often steer the program well beyond typical Beltway chatter. The format not only surfaces viewpoints well outside the mainstream. It also generates many, many prank calls and moments like the one earlier this month, when “Anthony,” a self-identified Republican from California, phoned in to diagnose his party’s problem with President Obama.

“This is about race,” he told host Steve Scully. “The Republicans hate that nigger Obama.”

It certainly wasn’t the first time the usually tranquil program veered into racist territory – an event always cut short as rapidly as possible by the mild-mannered host. And it won’t be the last. Herewith is our catalog of these iconic moments of awfulness when the civic-minded environs of Washington Journal collide with the raw underbelly of American politics.

Uncivil Whites

On the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act earlier this year, Scully asked viewers to call in with their thoughts on the landmark legislation. Some aggrieved callers took the opportunity to complain about “the blacks.”

“They insult white people,” one caller said. “I heard it right on your own show, I heard some black call Karl Rove a ‘white boy.’ And I don’t think that’s right.”

As another caller argued that “the black man owes the white man a thank you,” Scully waited patiently, expressionless.

“OK, Terry from North Carolina,” Scully said when the caller finished.

Last Time Caller, Longtime Racist

Even the typically unflappable “Washington Journal” hosts have their limits, like in 2012 when “Richard” from South Dakota unleashed a long-winded tirade on both government social programs and cable news programming. He ended his call by explaining why “smart people” had taken their money “out of circulation.”

“They’re not fools. How do you think they got rich? They’re not gonna put up with having to take care of fat, lazy, slovenly niggers,” he said, drawing an immediate rebuke from host Peter Slen.

“Richard, don’t ever call in here again. Don’t ever, ever, ever call in here again,” Slen said, pounding his fist on the desk. “Let’s just block that number because that’s just worthless talk. We don’t need that.”

Eye-Popping Racism

Host Greta Brawner was forced to apologize for a Florida caller’s use of the N-word in 2010, explaining to viewers that C-SPAN doesn’t screen phone calls and the show doesn’t have a time delay.

“But we do ask that the conversation stay civil and appropriate, but when it doesn’t we’re just gonna move on,” Brawner said.

The more memorable reaction to the epithet came from that morning’s guest, Breitbart News Washington editor Jonathan Strong (then with The Daily Caller), whose bulging eyes said it all.

When C-SPAN Became ‘Black-SPAN’

“Washington Journal” designates a different call-in number for Republicans, Democrats and independents.

In 2010, one angry caller thought this system was being abused.

“But you have black folks calling in on the Republican line, independents, and you have so many of them, I can’t believe this is just an accident,” the North Carolina caller said. “And if you keep on with the way you’ve been programming, you should change your name from C-SPAN to ‘Black-SPAN.’ I mean, I know they have an opinion but I wish that they would be honest and call in on the right line. Everyone of ’em thinks Obama is Jesus Christ and they don’t like when anybody criticizes him.”

During the rant, host Bill Scanlan awkwardly reshuffled the papers on his desk before telling the caller that he understood his frustration and appreciated the call. That reaction caught the attention of “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart, who mocked it on his own show.

“First, to the host, when you’re stuck listening to a casually racist diatribe from a caller, that’s the best time to make sure all your paperwork is in order,” Stewart said.

“You don’t have to appreciate all input,” he added. “If somebody pisses in your iced tea, that is input that really could very well go unappreciated.”

‘I Just Wanted To Ask The Colored Man’

Robb Harleston, who is black, was manning the anchor’s desk one October morning in 2010 when he received a call from a woman who had a question for “the colored man.”

“I’m 90 years old, and I just wanted to ask the colored man, why don’t colored people, instead of saying what we did to them, why don’t they say what we did for them?” the woman from Florida asked. “They talk about the slavery, but since then, they have been given welfare, free medicine, free everything.”

Harleston responded only by saying that the woman’s call was off-topic.

“Ma’am, I think this is more of a conversation about the relationship between the administration and the people on Wall Street, and not necessarily one that’s based on race,” he said.

“Oh, OK. I’m not a racist,” she said. “That was my comment. Thank you.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tom Kludt is a reporter for Talking Points Memo based in New York City, covering media and national affairs. Originally from South Dakota, Tom joined TPM as an intern in late-2011 and became a staff member during the 2012 election. He can be reached at tom@talkingpointsmemo.com.
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