The first column I wrote for this newspaper, some seven years ago believe it or not, was a tribute to the backspace key. That’s right, I spent 600-plus words paying homage to a little piece of plastic with a backwards-pointed arrow; the one right next to the “=” and “+” key on any standard keyboard. The one that couldn’t be more valuable if it were made of platinum.
Allow me to explain: We in the broadcasting industry spend our entire careers speaking. In any given 3- or 4-hour radio program, for example, we will spit out literally thousands of words. In just a single calendar year, a typical talk radio host will utter tens of millions of words to convey tens of thousands of thoughts. And if you were to ask any one of them what their single greatest fear is, every one of them would likely tell you it’s that one of those words will be their career-killer.
One single ill-chosen word, articulated without thinking and highlighted among the millions of others before and after it, can undo an entire career of respected broadcast journalism — if the wrong person is offended by it. It’s like walking a verbal tightrope without a net. Every step can be as sure and confident as the last, perfectly balanced, until the one fateful slip that renders all that preceded it meaningless.
Unless that word is written rather than spoken, of course. Then it can be quickly destroyed without any record of its existence by the best friend of every print journalist or columnist working today: the backspace key.
What’s the point, you ask? The point is this: It’s a shame that Kelly Tilghman didn’t have a backspace key.
Make no mistake about it, if Tilghman had been writing for Golf Digest instead of speaking on The Golf Channel, her name would not have been dragged through the media mud for the last week or so and the Rev. Al Sharpton wouldn’t have made her the most recent stop on his Victimization Tour of America.
And why? Because the moment she would have typed the “h” in the word “lynch”, she would have looked at it and thought to herself, “No, that’s not the right word!” And she would have hit that little backwards arrow five times, deleting her error forever.
Tilghman has been suspended for two weeks by The Golf Channel for her mistake, which was to follow Nick Faldo’s suggestion that the rest of the PGA field “gang up on” Tiger Woods with the phrase, “lynch him in a back alley.” The suspension has been accepted by some, but considered a slap on the wrist by many, who believe the commentator should have been fired.
Clearly, Tilghman’s comment was nothing more than a pained attempt at humor, as she played off the imagery painted by Faldo of a group of golfers ganging up on Woods to stop him from lapping the field again this season. Tiger himself acknowledged as much when he called the story, through an agent, a “non-issue.”
So why is it such an issue?
It’s an issue because columnists, sports-talkers and activists such as Sharpton (who has demanded her firing) want it to be. For the past five days I’ve read and listened to “expert” after “expert” condemn Tilghman’s “poor choice of words” which is one of the most ignorant statements ever. They make it appear as though she had a list of words in front of her, and that she took her time surveying it, and then chose the most offensive word on it.
“Hmmm, what can the other golfers do to stop Tiger? I know, they should take him out and LYNCH him! Yes, they should hang him! That’s it!”
Give me a break. Tilghman simply opened her mouth too quickly following Faldo’s “gang up” remark, and didn’t take the time to think about the words that were coming out of it. Had she a backspace key, the word would have disappeared as quickly as it came, because she knew it was an error.
But it was a simple error, not a malicious one. A forgivable error. That’s why Tiger forgave her. So should we.
Sports personality Bob Frantz is a regular contributor to The Examiner. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.