One of the most under-reported stories of the month came, ironically, at the intersection of race, sports and sex -- normally a hat trick of topics guaranteed to produce media buzz.
On the cover of Playboy Magazine's June issue, the second most provocative item -- aside from the bikini-clad cover girl -- is a teaser titled "The Black KKK by Jason Whitlock." Most journalists and writers, attracted by more than three million subscribers -- about the same as Newsweek, Sports Illustrated and TV Guide -- jump at the opportunity just to have their work published in Playboy (not to mention have their name on the front, next to the Playmate of the Year).
But even before the issue hit stands on May 9th, Whitlock, one of the country's best-known sports columnists, was livid. Why?
The answer, unlike the subjects of the pictures in the publication, lies under the cover(s).
Columnists write columns; editors write titles. This is grossly apparent in the June issue of Playboy, in which there is a remarkable contrast between the 5,000 words Whitlock wrote and what the magazine presented and promoted.
Whitlock's essay is a thoughtful and thought-provoking commentary on prison politics and policy, as well as the social and cultural effects of those policies and what Whitlock thinks should be done about them.
But while the phrase "Black KKK" appears three times in Playboy's June issue -- on the cover, in the table of contents, and in the title -- it doesn't appear once in Whitlock's story. To be fair, Playboy didn't coin the phrase; it was Whitlock's from a November Fox Sports column responding to the shooting death of Sean Taylor. But so what? Even though the phrase didn't come completely out of left field, does it really give editors from another publication justification to recycle an old column to title a new one?
The rest of the presentation surrounding the article is equally ridiculous. A strange illustration of a young black man wearing gold chains, a sideways cap and loose clothing covers three-quarters of the two-page title spread and complements the sub-title "Thug Life Is Killing Black America; It's Time To Do Something About It." The title "Black KKK" covers more than half of the remaining space, with only about 100 words from the actual article smashed into the right bottom corner. Even more conspicuous is a graphic on the following page that purports to identify four black athletes who are not good role models (Michael Vick, Eddie Griffin, Tank Johnson, Jamaal Tinsley) juxtaposed against four who are (Alonzo Mourning, Magic Johnson, Warrick Dunn, Shaquille O'Neal).
What do these additions have to do with prison politics and policy? Nothing.
Whitlock has been so angry about Playboy's ethics and editorial process that he has written two columns about what happened, one for the Kansas City Star and the other for Fox Sports. "The column was in no way specifically about black people," Whitlock wrote. "It was a story about all of us, any of us who care about humanity, any of us who care how our tax dollars are spent and what return we get on the spending."
"The piece was meant to be unifying," Whitlock continued, adding that "[Playboy's Editorial Director Chris] Napolitano seemingly had a different agenda, one that amazingly included a massive generalization about black athletes."
Whitlock is right to be upset with the way his piece was packaged and marketed by Playboy: a reader giving the article a cursory look will take away something completely different than what Whitlock intended.
Perhaps the greatest irony to this episode is that Whitlock unwittingly fell prey to the old media's way of doing things. Whitlock chose to write for Playboy because of its aforementioned circulation of 3 million subscribers and because they allowed him to write a feature-length essay about a subject of his choosing that was outside of his normal role as a sports columnist. He trusted, as any writer would, that Playboy would accurately represent what he wrote in titling and promoting his article. They did not.
But because Playboy doesn't link to the article on its website, nor does it allow anyone permisson to reprint work that appears in the magazine, Whitlock is hamstrung in correcting false impressions about an article he calls "the most important thing I've ever written."
The Whitlock-Playboy smackdown is tailor made for the online sports media and the blogosphere, but without access to Whitlock's essay online it has garnered only a few passing mentions (outside of Whitlock's own columns that have appeared online) and instead feels like a trial in which the jury doesn't have access to Exhibit A.
And despite Buzz Bissinger and other hysterical critics of the blogosphere, this is an example of where bloggers could have served a valuable function in assuming the role of public editor and creating a discussion of just how deceptive and/or misleading Playboy was with this piece and, perhaps more importantly, shedding significantly more light on an important, thoughtful piece of journalism by Jason Whitlock.