By John Schaffner
johnschaffner@reporternewspapers.net

This is an apology from me to Grady Hospital Chief Executive Officer Michael A. Young.

Mr. Young, had I thought—even in my wildest imaginations—that your humorous remark during a speech Oct. 14 to the Buckhead Business Association regarding the health of Grady Hospital would have been so misunderstood and distorted by some in our community, I likely never would have reported the remark.

In reporting the large amounts of money you have saved the hospital by changing its operations and culture, you said the people of Fulton County should want “to shine my shoes. In 2007 Fulton County gave Grady $76 million. This year, Fulton County is going to give $50 million. So I have reduced you tax exposure by $26 million.”

Apparently someone—probably not anyone in the audience that morning—read my coverage of the meeting in our newspapers and decided it was an insensitive “racial” slur, an attack on the black residents of Fulton County and metro Atlanta.

I say the quote became an issue because of my coverage of the BBA meeting. It only became an issue almost two weeks after the meeting and a few days after our newspapers were distributed on Oct. 22.

Young issued a formal apology Oct. 27 for his “insensitive” remark. He was quoted in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Oct. 29 saying: “Oh man, that was not how I wanted to say that. It was hurtful to folks and didn’t get the right message out. We’re about teamwork and building bridges.”

If those critical of Young’s remark had been at the meeting and heard the remark in context, maybe they would have understood there was absolutely no racial undertones to the remark.

Of course, if I had reported what he said leading up to the printed part of the remark and quoted him precisely through the full context of the remark, perhaps it would not have been looked upon as racial.

As part of his speech, Young said on his way to the meeting that morning at the Buckhead City Club, he noticed there is a shoe shine booth in the lobby of the Atlanta Financial Center building. He made his now controversial reference to saving Fulton taxpayers $26 million and added that if any of the Fulton residents in the audience wanted to show their appreciation, they could meet him downstairs after the meeting and buy him a shoe shine.

There were a significant number of chuckles throughout the audience and not a single hiss or boo.

BBA President Heather Wright and incoming president Lolita Browning have said they did not receive any complaints about Young’s speech.

Perhaps State Sen. Vincent Fort, a Grady Coalition member, would not have been so quick to declare Young’s remark as arrogant. Fort reportedly told the AJC, “For him to use that term in the South…tells me he really doesn’t get it.”

I first knew Young was facing criticism for his remark when WSB-TV reporter Richard Belcher e-mailed me asking if I had a tape recording of Young’s remarks from which he could take a sound bite. Belcher apparently knew I was the only member of the media who covered the meeting. So, I was the only media person who actually knew what Young said and the context in which he said it.

In his apology, Young acknowledged his words were insensitive to Fulton County taxpayers. “Please accept my heartfelt apology for this mistake and please keep in mind that it came from an innocent place. I often get excited about the changes we’ve made at Grady and the impact the health system is having on the community, and sometimes my words get ahead of my brain.”

Words ahead of the brain or not, I know Mr. Young that there was certainly no racial intent and, in fact nothing racial at all, about the now controversial remark. I certainly hope the controversy does not overshadow in any way the incredible good he has done at Grady Hospital.

I feel I should apologize for my insensitivity in reporting the remark and not recognizing that it could have been misinterpreted as racially insensitive by some in our society—a bit of humor labeled as a racist remark—rather than looking for the good in people.

Get a grip, people. Let’s try to work together and live together as humans who are not always perfect, but who seek a better, if not perfect, community.