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The personal journal of technology journalist and conference speaker Randall S. Newton.

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Sunday, April 24, 2005

Financial Times Gets a Leg Up on Bob Kerrey

The Financial Times isn’t known as a humor publication, but I couldn’t help but laugh this week at an item in the FT’s Observer column—an item that was not written to be humorous.

In “Political no-go” the FT describes former US Senator Bob Kerrey’s brief tryst with the notion of running for mayor of New York City. “It turns out the first hot political story of this year’s New York mayoral race did not have legs.” Why did I laugh? Well, to be honest it was a nervous, "no, you really didn't say that" kind of laugh. Because Bob Kerrey lost a leg (below the knee, to be precise) while serving as a Navy SEAL in Vietnam. For his heroic actions that day, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

When I read that line, and after I stopped laughing, I thought, “Oh, how sad, nobody at the FT knows Kerrey’s background story.” If the writer and editor on that story had known, they would have surely avoided the obvious and awkward “leg” reference. And I was reminded what I was taught over and over in journalism school—what you don’t know can hurt you.

I continued reading; it was pretty straightforward stuff, until the last line. “Kerrey can be a lively figure out on the stump.” And I had to laugh again, at the incredible bad taste the FT was continuing to dish without even knowing it. (When a one-legged man stands to speak, he is always on the stump.) I went back into the item, and now even the more innocuous items were ignorantly loaded with extra meaning. “Kerrey had mused to The New York Times at the weekend about jumping into the race. The prospect of a Kerrey run was intriguing…” Would the FT really have used all this jumping and running imagery (normal political language, of course) if they had know of Kerrey’s disability?

For a discussion of what’s in bad taste and what isn’t when talking about a person’s disabilities, check out what BBC columnist and one-legged comedian Adam Hills has to say on the subject.


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