THE N-WORD took another complicated and controversial trip through the world of context yesterday during the civil trial of a white Fox 29 anchor who contends he was fired for saying it during a news meeting in 2007.
Current and former Fox 29 employees, both black and white, testified that they were both offended and shocked when former anchor Tom Burlington chimed in about colleague Robin Taylor's story on symbolic burial of the notorious racial epithet by the Philadelphia Council of the NAACP.
"Does this mean we can finally say 'n----r'?" Burlington said during the meeting.
Burlington, who is white, claims the station discriminated against him because of race when they declined to renew his contract on July 12, 2007. He claims there was a double standard that allowed other employees to use the word and other racial epithets with impunity. He is seeking unspecified damages.
Burlington's former colleagues differed on whether the word should ever be uttered, in any format, even if not directed at a particular person.
Former editor Becky Rogers, who was in the meeting with Burlington and other employees that day, said she doesn't feel there's a difference between "n----r" or "n---a" and if she hears the latter uttered in a hip-hop song, she turns it off.
"It's a horrible word and it makes me feel uncomfortable," Rogers, who is white, said in a deposition read aloud yesterday in U.S. District Court.
Former Fox 29 employee John Jervay, who is black, said he could differentiate between the reality of the word and how it's used in television and movies.
"The word is offensive to me no matter what, unless it's fantasyland," Jervay said in his deposition.
Jervay said he knows what it's like to hear the word in the real word, directed toward him with hate. He said he'd been called a "n----r" twice in his life, both times by white people. When Burlington used the word several times in the meeting and later in an attempted apology, Jervay said he was mostly in shock.
"I feel if he was black, it would have been the same outcome," Jervay testified. "I would have been offended no matter what they looked like."Jervay said he "was not sure" whether Burlington was racist or not.
Nicole Wolfe, a Fox 29 producer who is black, testified that Burlington's use of the word cast a weird, uncomfortable vibe through the meeting.
"The tone of the whole day changed," Wolfe testified.
Burlington attempted to apologize to Wolfe as well but she said he repeated the hurtful words.
"I said, 'Tom, you really need to get away from my desk'," Wolfe said.
On Wednesday, another former Fox 29 employee at the meeting said he didn't believe Burlington's apology was sincere.
The all-white jury will hear closing arguments in the case on Monday.