During a live broadcast Friday evening in New York, WHEC chief meteorologist Jeremy Kappell spoke of the weather at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park in downtown Rochester, where a Zamboni smoothed over the community ice skating rink.
When he uttered the park’s name, Kappell inserted another word that has been used as a racial slur toward black people.
It looked gray at “Martin Luther coon King Jr. Park,” Kappell said, appearing to stumble over the word “coon.”
Three days later, News10NBC general manager Richard A. Reingold announced on air that Kappell no longer worked for the TV station. Reingold said he was “terribly sorry to all of our viewers” and added in a statement online that he regrets the station “did not immediately interrupt our broadcast and apologize on the spot.”
Kappell claims his word choice was nothing more than a flub, and he has waged a campaign on social media and through formal statements defending his intent.
His Twitter account is flooded with retweets of supportive messages from fans, and he has received support from some journalists, including Al Roker.
In a video Kappell made with his wife and posted to Facebook, he called the broadcast clip a “simple misunderstanding.”
“If you watch me regularly you know that I contain a lot of information in my weather forecasts, which forces me to speak fast,” he said. “Unfortunately, I spoke a little too fast when I was referencing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”
So fast, Kappell said, he “jumbled a couple of words.”
“In my mind I knew I had mispronounced, but there was no malice,” Kappell said in the video. “I had no idea the way it came across to many people.”
Kappell also apologized to anyone who was hurt by his words. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post.
Some fellow journalists have come to Kappell’s defense.
Roker, the “Today” show co-host, wrote on Twitter that he thought the meteorologist made a “unfortunate flub and should be given the chance to apologize” on air. “Anyone who has done live tv and screwed up (google any number of ones I’ve done) understands,” Roker said.
Author and journalist Kurt Eichenwald explained the commonality of transposing words when speaking publicly.
“This may seem a minor issue, but I hate people wrecked unjustifiably,” Eichenwald said in a series of tweets. “So, I am coming to the defense Jeremy Kappell, meteorologist at WHEC in Rochester.”
The TV station, however, has defended its decision.
In a statement to The Washington Post, general manager Reingold and Robert Hubbard, president of the Hubbard Television group, said their “entire team” stands behind the decision to terminate Kappell’s contract. The meteorologist “clearly voiced a racially derogatory term,” the statement said.
“An utterance such as this, with no immediate apology, regardless of intent, is unacceptable and inexcusable,” Reingold and Hubbard said. “There can be no confusion by anyone who works at Hubbard Broadcasting or by anyone in the communities we serve, that this is unacceptable.”
The station leaders said their organization has been “caught in the middle of a vitriolic political debate” since their decision, but that they believe they have “done what is right for our station and our community.”
“We leave the hate-filled back-and-forth to others,” the statement said.
On his social media accounts, Kappell has been sharing stories of other meteorologists and broadcast personalities who also said they mistakenly inserted the word “coon” while pronouncing Martin Luther King Jr.’s name. In at least three similar incidents, all the TV personalities in question claimed they misspoke.
A Las Vegas weather reporter named Rob Blair was fired from his Las Vegas TV station in 2005 when he said the forecast would be in the mid-60s on “Martin Luther coon King Jr. Day.” Blair was fired, the general manager of the station said, because stumbling over his words was not a sufficient excuse.
In 2010, ESPN sports personality Mike Greenberg, of the “Mike & Mike” show, said he and co-host Mike Golic were “talking football with you on this Martin Luther coon King Jr. holiday.” He apologized that same day, saying he was “sorry that my talking too fast — and slurring my words — might have given people who don’t know our show the wrong impression about us, and about me.” Greenberg was not fired.
During a broadcast in San Antonio in 2014, another meteorologist, Mike Hernandez, said he misspoke when he called the holiday celebrating the civil rights leader “Martin Luther coon Day.” He apologized, as did his station, and Hernandez kept his job.
In Kappell’s case, Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren, a black woman, said the meteorologist’s word use was a symptom of a deeper issue and called for his firing. In a statement posted to Facebook on Sunday night, a full day before the TV station announced Kappell had lost his job, Warren said it was “wrong, hurtful and infuriating” that WHEC Channel 10 had aired the “racial slur.”
Warren criticized the station for being too slow to apologize and said the incident was another example of local media lacking “cultural sensitivity and competency.”
“While referring to African Americans in racially derogatory, insensitive and vulgar language needs to be addressed immediately, there are other issues at play as well that feed into this cultural ignorance,” Warren’s statement said. “Promotional videos and other productions from local media often do not reflect the diversity of our community.”
In a segment that aired Monday night, a day after Warren’s scathing criticism, the station manager joined two Channel 10 news anchors to address Kappell’s words — as well as criticism from the public that he had caved to political pressure.
Reingold denied that the mayor’s position influenced the station’s decision. He said Channel 10 leadership first learned of Kappell’s broadcast Sunday. He and others spent the day “investigating” and discussing a disciplinary plan, he said, and added that they had made their decision before the mayor stated her opinion publicly.
When the anchors asked whether Reingold believed Kappell’s word use was intentional, the station manager refused to directly answer the question and instead said his direct communications with the meteorologist should remain private.
“We believe strongly in holding our reporters and anchors to the highest standard,” Reingold said. “We are proud of our dedicated newsroom professionals and expect and require that each respects and understands that their behavior reflects directly on the station for which they work and the community we serve.”
Kappell said he has been a meteorologist for nearly 20 years. According to his LinkedIn page, he is an Indiana native who graduated from Purdue University with a degree in atmospheric science. He has previously worked at stations in Kentucky, Kansas, Texas and Mississippi. A year ago, Kappell said he and his family relocated to Rochester when he was offered a job at Channel 10.
“I’m so disappointed my career could end this way,” Kappell said, “and am extremely disappointed by the decisions made by my television station, whom I expected a certain level of support from, and I did not receive at all.”
He confirmed his firing on Twitter and criticized the station for not giving him a fair chance to defend himself. He said he asked Channel 10 to interview other colleagues who could vouch for his character. “To my knowledge, that didn’t happen,” he tweeted.
Kappell’s social media channels have been overwhelmed since his firing, both by viewers who support him and those who claim his words were racist.
In response to one person who said coon “slipped out” on air because he “definitely says that all the time,” Kappell tweeted: “For the record, I’ve never uttered those words in my life.”
In the Facebook video statement, Kappell said he stuttered while pronouncing the civil rights leader’s last name, restated “King” and moved on with the broadcast.
“That was not a word I said, I promise you that,” Kappell said, referring to the racial slur. “If you did feel that it hurt you in any way, I sincerely apologize. I would never want to tarnish the reputation of such a great man as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the greatest civic leaders of all time.”
The Rochester Association of Black Journalists asked for a “complete explanation” of Kappell’s words, reported NBC News. “We also want to know what measures will be taken to prevent incidents like this from occurring in the future,” the group said.
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