News and Tribune

July 2, 2013

MAY: Words in the spotlight

Local columnist

Almost 11 months ago to the day, a news story whispered its way across the Reuters newswire. No fanfare. Most news outlets passed it by; only a handful of specialty websites chose to carry the story.

The fourth-highest money-earner among chefs in the United States is Paula Deen. Starting with recipes served in a restaurant in Savannah, Ga., the Food Network cannon-balled the motherly cook to stardom. Her calorie-rich Southern cuisine and her vivacious personality and Southern drawl endeared her to fans. 

The Food Network began in 1999 to place her with guest spots on several programs and finally awarded her a headlining show in 2002. Restaurants, cookbooks and furniture and accessories that emphasize Southern living are the ingredients for the Deen food masterpiece.

At the moment, Paula Deen finds herself helplessly staring at the oven while the cake — complete with rich butter — burns. The Food Network was the first to announce that it would not be renewing the contract of one of its first bona fide stars. Other chains and retail outlets are choosing the same route. Last week, Caesars casinos, which had been home to Paula Deen Buffets, declared they would be severing ties with the embattled chef. 

It was not the fat- and calorie-ridden bacon-cheeseburger meatloaf — or even the hamburger on a doughnut sandwich bun — that did her in. It was her mouth, and the very media that created the superstar in the first place. 

Words spoken as long ago as 30 years, a lifestyle that harkens back to Southern plantations, and the lack of grace under pressure is the heat that is causing her empire to crumble in the oven, leaving behind the stench of burning food welded to the hot oven coils.

There isn’t a one of us who haven’t said things that we later wish had never entered our minds, let alone crossed our lips. Words can bring intense pain to a spouse or tears to the eyes of a child. They can prevent us from receiving the promotion, or cause a canyon-like gap between friends. 

Deen is not the first celebrity to find that words spoken in the spotlight are magnified, displayed, examined and replayed. The media enjoys building an unknown to the grand pedestal of stardom, but they take equal delight in covering the tumble and fall. Right or wrong, fair or not, the media has the power to create and the power to destroy.

The unspoken lesson from Paula Deen is that we are all in the spotlight. The eyes of those in our circle — of those we care about — are always upon us. The watchful gaze of a daughter, the critique of fellow-workers, the glimpse from our peers is inescapable. But today’s social media — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and a tsunami of other outlets — has the ability to make a celebrity out of us all. 

Recent survey data from ExecuNet found 90 percent of recruiters used Web search engines to research candidates and 46 percent said they had ruled out individuals on that basis.

Perhaps that is a part of the reason, Jesus encouraged us to have our “yes” be simply “yes” — no embellishment, no oaths, no perks, no trade-offs, no manipulation, no expectations. He advised our “no” to carry the same simplicity. 

The apostle Paul challenged his readers to always speak the truth, but to do so with love. Be known for your honesty, your gracious spirit and your wise and sparing use of words. The spotlight is much bigger than you imagine.

— Tom May is the Minister of Discipleship at Eastside Christian Church in Jeffersonville. He is an adjunct instructor in the Communications Department at Indiana University Southeast.