Ambush! Did NPR blindside Ilyasah Shabazz?

Ilyasah Shabazz and a mural of her late father.

The blogosphere and Black news sites were buzzing over Ilyasah Shabazz, the third daughter of Malcolm X walking off NPR’s Tell Me More program after host Michel Martin asked her several questions about the revelations in Manning Marable’s new book that as a young man Malcolm engaged in homosexual acts with a White man.

Here’s the exchange from the NPR program before Shabazz ended the interview:

MARTIN: Why would Dr. Marable want to portray your parents in a negative light?

Ms. IILYASAH SHABAZZ (Author, “Growing Up X”): Michel, I have – you can’t ask me that.

MARTIN: I don’t know. But you knew him, and I don’t.

Ms. SHABAZZ: Michel, I do not say that I knew him. I said I spent time with him. I have no idea why he would do that. And if you want to continue to talk to me about this book, that’s not what you said this was going to be the focus.

MARTIN: No, no, I understand. I just – I was – I just didn’t know what you were going to say.

Ms. SHABAZZ: So I can’t sit here and answer those questions for you. I have no idea why Dr. Marable would want to do that.

My view is Martin crossed the line of solid journalism from getting the answer to getting the subject. She put Shabazz in a position of trying to answer why one dead man (Marable) was writing about her another dead man’s sex life (Malcolm) and how could she possibly answer that?

Is the only reason to interview Ilyasha Shabazz is to ask her, “So, how about that stuff about yo’ daddy gettin’ his freak on with a White dude? Whatchagottasayboutdat?” I’m more interested that Manning Marable spends years of his life writing a biography of Malcolm X and the most important thing people have latched onto is he might have sex with a man?

If you invite one of MLK’s kids to speak about their daddy how important is to ask them about his booty calls?

Who cares about the important, meaningful and historically significant things Malcolm did? Let’s talk about what he did in the dark behind closed doors. That’s what matters!

What was it Don Henley sang about how we love dirty laundry? As long as it’s the dirt on someone else. Preferably someone dead who can’t explain or defend themselves.

America is such a sex-obsessed place we care more about a great man’s penis than his deeds.

Following Shabazz’s termination of the interview, Martin and Tell Me More contributor Lee Hill discussed responses from listeners to the abrupt ending.

HILL: Not long after that, Ms. Shabazz decided that she did not want the conversation to continue. So she thanked us and left. On our website, a majority of those who posted were unhappy about the way the interview was handled.

Here’s a post from Penny. She writes: Well, I have to agree with your guest. You were out of line with your continuing to ask her questions she could not answer and focusing entirely on the homosexual affair. You should have dropped it. She obviously was blindsided by your questions. Thanks, Penny.

But we also heard this from Jean. She writes: This interview was weird. And I do not understand why Shabazz was bothered by the line of questioning. I think Ms. Martin, as always, raised some good points and necessary questions. Shabazz seemed to immediately discount anything that was in Marable’s book without providing any explanation as to why.

MARTIN: I appreciate everybody who wrote in, but I feel I must say that while I am certainly sorry when anyone does not enjoy the experience of being on this program, our guest was certainly not blindsided. We were absolutely clear that we wanted to talk about the book, among other things. And we certainly do not trick people into coming onto the program. We are certainly interested in other dimensions of Ms. Shabazz’s life. And she has an open invitation to return if she would like to.

I have been a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and read their Code of Ethics which states under the clause to Minimize Harm: ” Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.”

Even Emmy winning journalists have their bad days.

Furthermore, it states “Journalists should:”

— Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.
— Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.
— Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.

It’s a good thing for practicing journalists to remind themselves that despite not lacking a board that certifies journalists the way doctors and lawyers are, we too are professionals and should hold ourselves to a high standard of conduct.

I have great respect for Michel Martin, but I wonder if she truly believes her line of questioning of Miss Shabazz rises to that standard.

Perhaps Martin would have reconsidered pursuing Shabazz so relentlessly for a response if she had recalled in 1965, a two years old IIyasah, along with her sisters and mother witnessed Malcolm X’s assassination in the Audubon Ballroom.

It may be naïve for Ms. Shabazz to think NPR was interested in something less lurid than her father’s possible sexual escapades before she was born, but she was within her rights to be offended by it.

What does a daughter who lost her father at an early age to a senseless act of violence know or care about his sexual history before she was even born?  I don’t see why Martin felt she had to ask Miss Shabazz a question which was impossible (and obviously painful) for her to answer.

Yes, it’s important to do the job and ask hard and tough questions, but once the question has been asked and answered, move on. I want to be a good journalist, but it’s more important to be a good human being first.

I don’t know if the SPJ Code of Ethics still applies to journalism as practiced today but I refuse to be part of the pandering press looking for the next lurid headline, promoting the meaningless and dubious “achievements” of cheap politicians and empty-headed entertainers, and destroying people’s life for fun and profit. I can’t do journalism the way everyone else does it and still respect myself in the morning.

It that sounds quaint and old-fashioned, I plead guilty. And I’m fine with that.

Just as I believe Dr. Marable would have been angered that his years of research and work have been boiled down to little more than “Malcolm X had gay sex.” It is a trivialization of both Malcolm and Marable to boil this book to its lowest (and most lurid) common denominator. They both, along with Ilyasah Shabazz, deserve far better than to be treated so shabbily.

Did Marable intend to scandalize Malcolm X?

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