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Cancel Culture: How a Single Errant Syllable Can Cancel A Career

Jeremy Kappell

10 million. That’s roughly how many words or utterances that former WHEC-TV Rochester, New York weatherman, Jeremy Kappell, estimates he spoke on air during his decades-long career. 

But it was just one of 10 million, one slip of the tongue, that was responsible for the death of Kappell’s career and reputation in January of 2019.

It was during a live broadcast that Kappell miss-spoke when describing the weather at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park in downtown Rochester.  This is when he stumbled over his words. 

“Martin Luther “k’un” King Jr. Park,”  he said, forming a singular errant syllable which created a mispronunciation that could sound like the word “coon.” Kappell caught the flub and immediately corrected himself.

Two days later, Kappell was fired.

He was not given the chance to apologize or explain on air.

He was ruined. A career lost. A reputation was destroyed. He was forced to sell his home and uproot his wife and children.

Compare his fate to that of Rochester Mayor Lovely Ann Warren, a key figure in the story of Kappell’s firing. In the past two years, Warren was indicted on felony campaign finance charges.  Both she and her husband Timothy Granison were also charged with possession of firearms and child endangerment. In addition, Granison has been accused of participating in a drug trafficking ring.

Add to that the hundreds of demonstrators that took to the streets to protest Warren’s role in a cover-up in the death of Daniel Prude, who died while restrained in police custody. 

All of this, and Warren is still in office.

Felony charges. Still in office. A report showing she “knowingly suppressed” information in the death of Daniel Prude. Still in office.

And Kappell? He unintentionally flubbed his words during a news broadcast and lost everything. How does this make sense?

A well-liked TV personality in Rochester, Kappell was a 20 year veteran of the news business. His sporty good looks and family-man feel made him an in-demand personality in markets from Kansas to Texas to upstate New York.

Kappell never intended to say a racial slur. A respected newsman with a “boy scout’s” record, according to Rochester-area news blogger Richard Gagnier, Kappell had no history of racist or other adverse behavior at work or in the community.

Had he been an “undercover racist,” Gagnier said, there would surely have been evidence to surface by now from his decades-long career in the industry. In fact, the only damaging evidence against Kappell one can find is the quite unintentional tripping over words during a live newscast.

But Warren, with her damning very recent history of felony charges, remains employed. While she was defeated in the recent June primary, she is for the time being, still in office.

Interestingly, it was Warren herself who drove the push for Kappell’s firing after the video of his word flub was posted to Facebook. Warren, who was at the same time being investigated by Kappell’s colleagues for her role in multiple felonies.

Think about that.

And how many of us have tripped over a syllable while public speaking? It happens so often and is so easily understood and forgivable that we might not even remember. But in the case of Kappell, a viewer caught his mistake on their DVR, sent it to someone else who posted it to Facebook, and a second-long bungle became a viral scandal.

It was within a day of the word slip being posted to Facebook that the controversial mayor of Rochester called for Kappell’s head. Despite any evidence of malicious intent, Kappell, an innocent man, became the target of what can really be called a “witch hunt,” the victim of a larger search for someone to “blame.” A someone to blame for the years of justified anger over race relations in America.

With pressure from the Mayor and likely fear over a station boycott, Kappell was the unwitting target of that misplaced blame.

Despite the flub, support for Kappell poured in from all over. Beloved NBC-TV Today show weatherman Al Roker, an African-American, called for Kappell to be given another chance. “Anyone who has done live tv and screwed up…understands,” he tweeted. Even Martin Luther King Jr.’s own daughter, Dr. Bernice King, criticized Kappell’s firing.

And perhaps most telling of the Rochester community’s support for Kappell, sources say that in the month after his firing, WHEC ratings dropped 25%. A number of advertisers came forward to pull their advertising in response to Kappell’s termination.

Kappell’s termination is just another glaring example of “cancel culture” gone too far. If a man with no malicious intent can be ruined over tripping over his words, who is next in this cultural witch hunt?

When did “woke-ness” twist itself like this? What once pushed for better awareness and positive change is now a paranoid movement that thrives on fear.

It was just twelve years ago that former “Mike and Mike” ESPN talk show host Mike Greenburg uttered the exact same words when slipping over the pronunciation of “Martin Luther King Jr.”

At least four other TV News personalities have also made the same flub. Proof that the pronunciation of Martin Luther King Jr., when spoken quickly, can spur an unfortunate linguistics error.

And in that time before “cancel culture” was a thing, Greenburg was given the chance to apologize, was able to keep his job, and further his award-winning broadcast career.

For Kappell, his life is now a surreal movie where the good guys are framed and the bad guys win. Despite legions of community and nationwide support, including close to 70,000 signatures on a petition to reinstate him, he doesn’t have his job back. Life in a new world where he is without a stable income and best known, not for his respected career in weather, but for a viral race-related scandal, is an understandable challenge.

His first attempt to sue WHEC for breach of contract, and both the station and the Rochester Mayor’s office for defamation, was unsuccessful. The cases were both dismissed with prejudice by New York State Supreme Court Judge William Taylor, and any attempt to further investigate the situation in court was thwarted.

Kappell and his legal team are about to appeal that decision.

“The lower court overreached a bit,” said Thomas Ricotta, one of Kappell’s attorneys. While the facts are clear that Kappell uttered sounds that were phonetically similar to those in a racial slur, Ricotta said that there was no proof of intent.

The decision to fire him implied that Kappell knowingly made the racial slur, according to Ricotta, which he did not. And without their day in court, the station was unable to establish that they were damaged by the slip. No large number of emails from viewers were produced, no threats to withdraw support from advertisers were shown. These are the kinds of things that might prove that termination was necessary, according to Ricotta.

The judge made the expedient decision, Ricotta said, based on a singular errant syllable that could be interpreted as the word “coon.”

This example might also be a case of “judicial activism,” whereby a judge lets his own political beliefs influence his decisions. The judge, wanting to ensure that racist remarks of any kind are not tolerated, might have made the “politically expedient choice” of dismissal.

Ricotta, however, does not believe that judicial activism is at play here.  He believes simply that the judge’s decision to dismiss was wrong.

“Judges are human beings, “ he said. “And they sometimes get it wrong. The decision to dismiss should be rescinded. My belief system is to fight for those who have been wronged. And what happened to Jeremy was not right.”

There was no intent on Jeremy’s behalf to utter a racial slur, and there was no opportunity to prove otherwise. No chance to gather evidence that the Mayor’s office, now embroiled in their own scandal, had malicious intent to slander Jeremy, or to prove that the station would not risk losing viewership by keeping Kappell on board.

Given the opportunity to apologize, and with the widespread support of the community and Martin Luther King’s own daughter, it’s highly likely that Kappell’s slip would have been a meaningful chance for WHEC to engage and educate the public on the power of harmful racial slurs. As well as the power of forgiveness and understanding.

The station, in fact, could have better used the incident to explore real stories of race relations in Rochester, good and bad. Rochester was the early home of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, the site of major civil rights events that shaped change in the nation in the 50s and 60s and remains relevant as a difference-maker today.

For a city with a long history of pushing civil rights forward, firing a tv weatherman for a slip of the tongue is a major step backward. “Good intentions” pointed in the wrong direction.

Jeremy Kappell is the sacrificial lamb, cut to protect his former employer’s reputation in a move that only fuels a culture of negativity and exclusion.

There are very real mountains to climb when it comes to healing the racial divide in America. There are lessons to be learned in how to treat people with fairness and equality. And there are moves to make that can affect real change.

Firing Jeremy Kappell was not one of them.