Walt Baker told NewsChannel 5, in a Saturday sitdown interview, "I want to apologize to the people of Tennessee, and to anybody that has either seen or been affected by this email."
by Brent Frazier
Nashville, TENN. - The CEO of the Tennessee Hospitality Association is playing damage control, amid controversy over an email he forwarded, but did not author, last Thursday. The email, through graphic images, draws an unflattering parallel between first lady Michelle Obama and a chimpanzee.
"I am sorry that I did that," Walt Baker told NewsChannel 5, in a Saturday sitdown interview. "I want to apologize to the people of Tennessee, and to anybody that has either seen or been affected by this email."
Baker said he received the electronic message in his inbox and forwarded it, from home, to roughly a dozen friends, including the mayor's office and Butch Spyridon, president of Nashville's Convention and Visitors Bureau. Spyridon issued a statement, via email, Saturday announcing the CVB's contract with Baker's public relations firm, Mercatus Communications, was being severed.
Baker admits the parting of ways will mean a serious hit in his pocketbook. He said Nashville's tourism industry was one of his firm's biggest accounts.
"I have never considered myself bigoted, or racially insensitive, or a racist," Baker said, admitting that forwarding the email was a grave mistake.
"For that person to send that email - that was racist - to me, was just appalling," said Jerry Maynard, a Metro at-large council member. "It was hurtful."
Maynard commended the CVB for the swift action against Baker. Maynard wishes to take Baker's repair campaign a step further, by stressing that Nashville is a city that enjoys diversity and welcomes visitors from all cultures.
"But I want to tell the world that this is a great city, it's a welcoming city," said Maynard, who is African American. "It's a city you can come (to) and feel comfortable here: whether you're black, white, Hispanic, Asian, doesn't matter. And the actions (Baker) took is not reflective of our values!"
Spyridon's sanctioning of Baker terminates a 22-year relationship with the convention and visitors bureau, according to Baker. His official, contracted relationship with CVB was finalized in August 1995, roughly four months after Baker, who's co-owner, founded the company Mercatus Communications.
Baker insists he is issuing handwritten - not emailed - apologies to the lives he's affected, personally. He admitted even an apology to Michelle Obama herself would not be out of line.
"I regret having done it," Baker said. "I wished I had not pushed that button. I just hope people that know me - they probably won't forget, but I hope that they find it in their hearts to forgive."