On December 8, 1989, Ted Frederickson heard what he called a "crude racist joke" told by Dave Johnson, then director of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation.
At the time, Frederickson, an associate professor of journalism at Kansas University, was working as a reporter for the Kansas City Times. After hearing Johnson use the word "nigger" in the joke, Frederickson went directly to his computer terminal and typed in notes about the joke that he used in an opinion page column the Times published Dec. 9.
Dec. 8 was Frederickson's last day as a correspondent in the Topeka bureau of the Times.
Johnson resigned from the KBI a few hours after the column was printed. "What should a reporter do when an important public official tells him a crude racist joke?" Frederickson asked his readers in the Times column.
Frederickson elaborated on that ethical dilemma Wednesday as speaker at the University Forum at Ecumenical Christian Ministries.
A CROWD of about 120 attended Frederickson's talk on "A Journalist's Dilemma A Racist Joke and Its Aftermath." Frederickson's column has spurred both positive and negative response from fellow journalists and the public.
Although Frederickson said Wednesday that he stood by his original decision to report the joke to the public, he did say that he wished he had given Johnson a copy of the column and allowed Johnson to write a corresponding column reacting to Frederickson's.
"Hindsight is 20-20," Frederickson said. "I wish I would have done that. I didn't. I regret that."
WHEN JOHNSON told the joke, he, Frederickson and an Associated Press reporter had been talking about the murder of three elderly people in Topeka. Tyrone Baker, one of the teen-agers who has been ordered to stand trial for the crime, was black. Johnson told the joke to Frederickson and Lew Ferguson, the AP reporter, without making any transition from their discussion about the murders, Frederickson said.
Johnson has confirmed he told the joke, but has denied that he is a racist.
"Racism has largely gone underground," Frederickson said. "It's our dirty little secret. It is less institutional, less visible and more difficult to report. It exists behind closed doors. I've come to learn that there is an unwritten code of silence about racist jokes. We're supposed to laugh politely. I've broken that code of silence.
"Why did the KBI director think he could walk into a newspaper office in the state Capitol and tell a racist joke? Why?"
DIANE SILVER, a Statehouse reporter for the Wichita Eagle, said she personally agreed with Frederickson's decision to report that Johnson told the joke. She attended the forum and said it was a reporter's job to report the news.
But Ray Call, managing editor of the Emporia Gazette, said today that he thought Frederickson made a mistake by not talking to Johnson before writing the Times column. Call wrote an editorial after Johnson's resignation that was critical of Frederickson's decision.
"I think we all deplore the fact that it was about racism," Call said. "We all hate racism. But I think he blindsided the KBI director. Johnson was in a journalism environment with unwritten rules. My understanding is that he felt safe with Lew Ferguson there."
Mike Kautsch, dean of the School of Journalism, attended the forum and in an interview said he thought the forum was important for Frederickson.
"It's bound to lead to broader understanding of journalism," Kautsch said. "A lot of issues were raised for the public, practicing journalists and public officials."