When is a column poking fun at hip-hop not really a story about the music or culture?
When it becomes a minstrel show.
At least that's the reaction some had recently after reading a Dec. 2 column in the Naples Daily News satirizing the speech patterns of rap fans in an effort to describe a hip-hop concert that failed when the promised headliner didn't show.
Writer Brent Batten decided to tell the story using hip-hop slang and providing what he called an "English translation" as "a public service."
"See, da brotha had some phat new school playaz lined up. Cris was in da house but 5-0 came down hard, wit Macs an' dogs sniffin fo' bud so da peeps all bailed."
His "translation": "The promoter had assembled an impressive lineup of popular hip-hop artists, featuring headline act Ludacris, but a heavy police presence, complete with guns and drug-sniffing dogs, deterred many would-be attendees."
According to a column written by Daily News editor Phil Lewis, the article didn't get much reaction in Naples, where rap shows draw a crowd of mostly white teens. But once the story circulated on the Internet - including on Jim Romenesko's Media News, a journalism Web site presented by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, which owns the St. Petersburg Times - readers from across the country responded, including me.
Eventually, the National Association of Black Journalists wrote a letter to Lewis calling the column "patently offensive, intellectually condescending and journalistically unfocused." (Full disclosure: As a longtime association member, I provided feedback on the issue to the group's leadership before it drafted the letter.)
Lewis apologized to readers in a Dec. 14 editor's note, mentioning criticisms from the association and myself, and expressing regret for an unintentional offense.
Batten presented his own mea culpa Dec. 16, saying he received more than 100 mostly negative e-mails about the column. He concluded it "too closely parallels the racist vernacular of previous times to lend itself to harmless parody."
It was a classic case of two types of people seeing different things in the same story. What seemed a harmless, saucy satire to Batten and his editors felt like shameless, stereotypical clowning to others.
What Lewis said he didn't realize before publishing the column was the context.
Though hip-hop fans include people of all races, the music and its culture come from black culture. Black artists and producers still dominate the form. And the patterns of speech come directly from black culture.
For this black reader, seeing Batten's parody felt like watching an Amos and Andy routine. Forget about the tenuous connection between hip-hop slang and a failed concert; the story felt like a veiled racist joke, implying that the limited intelligence of people who talk a certain way was the real reason the concert failed.
Batten and Lewis have stated publicly that the column was supposed to satirize hip-hop culture, not black people. And some wondered why an offhand story in a small Florida newspaper would draw such attention, pronouncing the controversy another example of political correctness run amok.
But some of us remember a time, not so distant, when such humor often appeared in mainstream publications. And we know it's important to note such missteps whenever they appear.
In the end, the Daily News learned something about handling race and culture stories that will help it if it tries such satire again, which I hope it does.
Because the lesson isn't that certain topics deserve immunity from ridicule.
It's that context and a sensitivity to different readers' perceptions can mean everything in modern journalism, when any story can ride the Internet around the world in a heartbeat.