THE STORY broke over the weekend on The Boston Globe's front page. The deluxe Four Seasons Hotel, to accommodate the security concerns of the visiting prime minister of India, had complied with a request that no dark-skinned employees serve him during his overnight stay in Boston. Accordingly, only whites were assigned to handle Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao's luggage, serve his food, wash his clothes, and clean his room.
The hotel's manager didn't stonewall. Deeply contrite, he admitted it had happened. Nonwhite employees who would normally have attended to Rao's delegation had been assigned to other guests. The manager apologized profusely for what he called "a gross error" brought on by his staff's "zeal" to do a good job. If he hadn't been consumed with the elaborate needs of NBC's "Today" show -- which had chosen that week to broadcast from the Four Seasons -- the blunder would never have happened, he said.
But the apologies came too late. The Globe ran a second Page 1 article on Sunday and a third on Tuesday. The episode was now a full-fledged Major Story, and the familiar rhythms of scandal coverage were set in motion.
Within hours, Mayor Tom Menino was growling, "My administration will not tolerate incidents like this" and ordering the city's Office of Civil Rights to investigate.
More ominous were the charges filed by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. A state tribunal that serves as prosecutor, judge. and jury in discrimination cases, the MCAD often seeks to publicly humiliate its targets.
"In the three years I have been chairman of this commission," said the MCAD's Michael Duffy at a Saturday press conference, "this is the most egregious charge of discrimination." By Tuesday Duffy claimed to have learned of other incidents at the hotel. Offering no evidence, he accused the Four Seasons of "widespread and ongoing" discrimination. Almost overnight, one of Boston's finest hotels found itself trapped in a nightmarish public relations disaster.
Did the story merit the hype the Globe gave it? There are at least two reasons why the paper should have muted its coverage.
One is that the offense wasn't that serious.
Duffy's hyperbole notwithstanding, the Four Seasons was hardly guilty of "egregious" bigotry. The hotel did not turn away dark-skinned guests. It did not hire or fire employees on the basis of race or refuse to let its nonwhite employees work. It simply arranged schedules so that for Rao's one night in town, his menial chores would be performed by whites instead of blacks. It did so in deference to the prejudice and paranoia of a prime minister whose country has a serious terrorism problem and two of whose recent predecessors were assassinated.
A dumb judgment call? Perhaps. A sacrifice of principle in the name of doing a good job (i.e., satisfying a guest)? Undoubtedly. A shocking outrage for which the hotel should be pilloried? I don't think so.
But there's another reason to question the big play this story was given: At the very moment the Globe was trumpeting the Four Seasons' decision to assign employees on the basis of race, it was doing exactly the same thing in its own newsroom.
On Sunday, Khalid Muhammad -- the venomous black supremacist hatemonger recently "suspended" by Louis Farrakhan as his national spokesman -- was in Boston to speak at a Malcolm X breakfast. A reporter who routinely works Sundays -- a white man -- had been assigned to cover the event.
But when word filtered out that Muhammad's people didn't want any whites in the audience (and might turn away any who showed up), the Globe's editors made a change. The white reporter was pulled off the story. A black reporter was called in -- on overtime; it was his day off -- and sent instead.
There is no important difference between the two cases. Like the Four Seasons, the Globe agreed to reassign employees on the basis of skin color, and did so to accommodate the prejudice of a third party. Globe editors, needless to say, don't share Khalid Muhammad's deranged bigotry. But they wanted to cover his speech and chose to get it by playing along with his race game.
A dumb judgment call? Perhaps. A sacrifice of principle in the name of doing a good job (i.e., reporting the story)? Undoubtedly. A shocking outrage for which the Globe should be pilloried? I don't think so.
The Globe and the Four Seasons confronted similar dilemmas last week and handled them in similar ways. In neither case was there any bigoted intent; neither the newspaper nor the hotel acted from malicious motives. The Four Seasons didn't deserve a painful black eye, and the Globe was wrong to deliver one.
Not every racial decision is a racist decision. Not every race-connected "incident" belongs on Page 1. It isn't necessary and it isn't wise -- and it frequently isn't fair -- to set off alarms every time someone trips clumsily on the color line. Sometimes, after all, you can trip in your own living room.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)
-- ## --