It’s been one eventful week at Stitches ‘n Dishes, beginning with the Paula Deen scandal that’s left millions of Americans divided, a well-respected family devastated, a town dumbfounded, and one Deen Family friend is ready to speak out about it. When I initially heard the news about Paula Deen’s alleged use of the “n-word,” I was more than surprised – that’s not the Paula Deen I know. Then when I read the details of her sworn testimony, I was bewildered. So, I declared “Paula Deen Week” at Stitches ‘n Dishes.
Reading the document led to many hours of research and additional reading. At some points, I felt I was reading a script from a legal drama. Seeing the headlines, watching the news and talk shows, and listening to the debates on national and local radio programs was even more baffling. I collected all of the documents - the letter that Lisa Jackson wrote to Paula, thanking her and praising her and her brother, Bubba, the letter to Paula from Jackson’s attorney, demanding a hefty sum of $1.25 million to guarantee that Jackson wouldn’t tell the public what horrible people they are, and of course the complaint filed in court, as well as Paula’s attorney’s response, three depositions, a litany of letters between attorneys, and an email message from a correspondent at the National ENQUIRER. Things weren’t adding up. The media reports were not lining up with the facts.
All of those documents – in part or in sum – paint a very different picture than the information in the media. What else would I expect from the National Enquirer? But this has gone far beyond that “publication.” Mainstream media actually reported that story.
The stories are all complete with quotes from the source documents, and in some cases, they’ve actually linked to the documents themselves. Only, none are accurate. Some were paraphrased, some were taken out of context, and still others were completely misquoted. What made matters more confusing were the apology videos – the now infamous Paula Deen apology videos. I sat, watching and asked, “what are you apologizing for?” I guess I hoped that somehow Paula would spring to life in that YouTube video, and explain to me why she felt she owed a grave apology at all.
Believe me, I’ve met with fierce debate on this topic numerous times over this week, but with each argument, I revisited the documents – the very documents that the media has repeatedly quoted and based its reporting on. Each time, the person who’d raise the debate would eventually cease fire, having been shown the evidence. Almost every time, that is. There have been a few who, regardless what I showed them would insist on their positions, say some very nasty things to me, and end by telling me I’d burn in hell. Wow.
In all of the conversations I’ve had regarding Paula Deen, there hasn’t been even one person who could oppose my opinion based on the merits of this set of documents – not one. And it’s occurred to me that very few people actually even understand what this case is about. They’ve argued with me based on what they saw on The View or jokes on late night television or an “official” CNN news report. Yet, these are the same people who accuse the media of bias and worse, lying about every other topic. I find that … perplexing.
Most people appeared to blindly either accept or vehemently deny the cruel allegations of racism in Paula Deen’s family. Several Facebook pages were created in support, and one became an overnight sensation. Today, only a week later, the page touts over 500,000 supporters and has initiated a Butter Wrappers for Paula campaign. Possibly millions of fans are placing butter wrappers into envelopes, and sending them via US mail to Food Network and partners who have severed ties with Deen in a massive, organized effort to stand up for Paula, thanks to John Schmitt, a loyal Paula Deen fan in Indianapolis.
I’ve engaged in far more positive conversations about Paula and the initial story that I wrote than negative. Many fans have expressed appreciation and gratitude for my clearing the air and validating something they had suspected all along.
Yesterday, Stitches ‘n Dishes published my story about The Bag Lady Foundation, a charitable organization that Paula launched in May. That story includes a list of sponsors and partners who have stayed the course with Paula, and those who haven’t, as well as a very impressive list of people, organizations and publications who have spoken out in support. That’s not really enough though, is it?
The businesses – the sponsors, partners, and even Food Network – are only looking at their image. We can’t necessarily fault them for that. After all, they’ve got a great deal invested, and can’t afford the association. I read a fantastic piece by Daniel Gross at The Daily Beast that actually gives some very valid insights on this topic. That doesn’t mean that fans shouldn’t put those butter wrappers into the mail – they absolutely should. Their decisions to sever ties with Paula really have nothing to do with racism or the words the media claims that Paula spoke. It’s about the public’s perception of those media reports.
It’s a vicious cycle, though. Media feeds a twisted and distorted story to the public – a story that intentionally lights a fire and divides groups – in the name of ratings. The public responds, and the media keeps feeding the story, until the public grows tired of it. As sponsors and partners sever ties, they have no choice but to state their position publicly which validates one side of public opinion and incites rage on the other. Media steps in to feed another dose… rinse and repeat. Eventually, the story withers away, leaving only a memory of the devastation for the public, but a lifetime of rebuilding to those put in harm’s way.
I have no doubt having worked in Corporate America for well over 20 years that each of these businesses understands every detail of the documents filed in court. They’ve all thoroughly read and reread the depositions, and they’ve had extensive discussions with their PR representatives. They’ve carefully monitored the media reports, as well as the public responses. It’s business. Their opinions are not as important as the public’s perception.
The list of really impressive names like, President Jimmy Carter or Donald Trump is great, but what about regular people? Sure, we’ve seen the exchanges on Facebook and Twitter. I’ve been involved in many of those. But, reread the paragraphs above – they’re all opinions of people who have a few things in common. Nobody’s read the documents, and they’re all forming opinions based on yellow journalism.
Pastor Gregory A. Tyson Sr., First Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia spoke out in support of Paula. He knows her. Everybody in Savannah knows Paula.
I talked to Medea Hall in Savannah yesterday. Medea’s 47 years old, and she’s lived in Savannah for almost 30 years. She’s known Paula and the family for almost 24 of those years, and she’s known Michael Groover, Paula’s husband for even longer. You can even say she’s part of the family.
Medea had been to a funeral for her friend, Theresa’s mother the night before, and Paula, Michael, the boys, and of course, Hollis were all there. She’s known her friend Theresa Fueger for just as long as she’s known the family. In fact, Medea recommended Theresa for a position at Paula Deen Enterprises many years ago. Theresa eventually moved up the ladder to become the Director of Operations.
“I was surprised to see [Paula] there, but that’s the way she is. She’s supportive that way,” Medea told me. “She looked tired, I cannot believe the absolute look of shock I saw on her.”
We talked for more than two hours, and Medea broke down several times during the call. “She was like a battered woman who’s just submissive. That’s just not her. She’s strong. She told me, ‘I can’t believe they all dropped me. They think I’m a monster.’”
I asked her how she came to know Paula all those years ago. Medea has held positions in marketing and PR throughout her career. As part of her job, she would often bring catered services to meetings. She hired The Bag Lady, Paula’s first catering business to provide lunch, and loved Paula’s food. As Paula’s business grew, “we’d see Jamie and Bobby come around in their lunch truck. They were always easy on the eyes and everybody loved them,” Medea reminisced.
Walking around Savannah, Georgia, you can’t not be aware of the situation. People around town have posted lawn signs in their front yards in a show of support; the community is standing with Paula. “Everybody knows Paula; I’m not special. She does her own shopping. She goes to the store, and she talks to everybody,” Medea said. “When you hear someone talk bad about Paula, it’s usually someone who’s not from here; someone who doesn’t know her. This place gets into your blood and doesn’t get out. It’s a small town.”
“They don’t know her, and the genuine kind person she is,” said Azure Rountree, of Statesboro, Georgia in an interview with Meredith Ley, reporter for the local NBC affiliate. ”To me, the best part of success is what you can do for someone else. And she has set the best example of that.” Azure credits her own business to Paula’s generosity. The gift store at Lady and Son’s, Paula’s restaurant now stocks Azure’s sweet treats. She says it’s a true testament to Paula’s kindness
In my Wellness Wednesday article this week, I talked about Paula’s diabetes, and how stress affects blood sugar. Paula’s family and friends are standing by her, and doing all they can to keep her spirits up. ”Everybody’s supporting her and being positive; doing all they can. The family is staying on it – she hasn’t been eating well,” she said.
But the community is standing strong and showing their support. “You cannot move a car in Bubba’s parking lot from 10:00 am until 10:00 pm – it’s overrun with customers. I’m so glad to see the support,” Medea told me.
A philanthropist, Paula spends a great deal of her time giving back to the community. Medea said, “This whole racial thing is what’s so stunning…” (a long pause) “…I’m at a loss for words. I just don’t understand it. That’s not – that’s just not her. It’s so ironic that she’s being persecuted for the things she’s fought for. She’s done so much for race relations here. I don’t think anyone’s even read the deposition.”
Sonny Dixon, a local newscaster on a CBS affiliate spoke out on the air in defense of Paula Deen. “He really stood up for her,” Medea recalled. “But you don’t need anybody to tell you what a great person she is. She’s not gonna come out and tell the public what she’s done for people – it’s ludicrous. I can’t even think of the words… at the end of the day, this isn’t even about her, but you don’t hear anything about the lawsuit.”
I think there is still a common misconception about the South, the racial divide, and the N-word.
“Nobody can believe this. I’m 47 and originally from Atlanta,” Medea said, “You just wouldn’t hear the word. You just didn’t hear it. Moving from Atlanta – the racial tension there is twenty-times worse than Savannah. Our mayor is a black female, and there’s been a transition here. To walk into any party or social situation in this area – and i mean Savannah – it’s not a word that’s said. People think we walk around saying the word, or we hate gays, and Indians or whatever. We’re not like that. You just don’t hear the word. It’s not a word that you tell your kids, ‘we don’t say that word’ because we just don’t say that word to begin with.”
What’s to happen next for Paula Deen is still unknown – I don’t think even she knows the answer to that question yet. One thing is for certain, it will play out and when the story is bled dry, it will fade away. While sponsors and partners may sever ties, and the story may fade away, Paula Deen will persevere and move onward as she always has. She is, and always will be an inspiration and a legend.