clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Read an Excerpt on the Paula Deen Scandal in From Scratch: Inside the Food Network

New, 18 comments

If you buy something from an Eater link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics policy.


Here now, an exclusive excerpt from the upcoming book From Scratch: Inside the Food Network by Allen Salkin. Written with "extensive inside access, documents, and interviews with hundreds of executives, stars, and employees all up and down the ladder," the passage below is pulled from a chapter on the Paula Deen scandal, a last-minute addition to the book as the story broke this Summer.

The passage mostly chronicles what Salkin has put together about what happened on June 21, 2013. That was the day Paula Deen was supposed to go onto the Today show to discuss a leaked deposition in which she admitted to among other things, having used the N-word in the past. Deen bailed on the interview, releasing a string of bizarre apology videos later that afternoon before being informed that the Food Network would not be renewing her contract. Salkin tosses in some additional gems into the chapter as well, like the fact that the Food Network was "blindsided" by Deen's diabetes announcement and pharma deal, or that she had negotiated shows for her sons the last time her contract was up.

Salkin tells Eater that "while Deen's official spokespeople did not return calls seeking comment at the time I reported this chapter, the information in this excerpt was gathered from numerous sources inside the Deen camp, Deen's business associates, and well-placed sources inside Food Network." So keep that in mind while reading. From Scratch: Inside the Food Network comes out from Putnam Adult on October 1 (pre-order on Amazon).

Excerpt: From Scratch: Inside the Food Network by Allen Salkin

The National Enquirer ran the first story in June 2013 about a deposition in a racial- and sexual-harassment suit against Paula Deen and her brother: "Paula Deen's Racist Confessions Caught on Video!" With the transcript online, a media storm ensued. "Paula Deen On Her Dream 'Southern Plantation Wedding" Talking Points Memo announced. Opinion pieces attacking her followed.

There was controlled panic among Paula's team. The timing was particularly awful for them because Paula's contract with Food Network was expiring that very month. The previous time her contract had neared its end in 2010 her agents Barry Weiner and Jonathan Russo had played hardball, putting Paula on the open market and making Food Network bid for her against other suitors. Part of what they won was an agreement for the network to give her sons Jamie and Bobby each a season of their own shows.

The situation was different this time around, even before the N-word revelations. She had blindsided the network a year earlier with her announcement that she was suffering from diabetes and had signed a multi-million dollar deal with pharmaceutical company to endorse a treatment. Food Network executives were so peeved that Paula's Best Dishes was put on hiatus and no new episodes were shot for about a year. In that time, Nielsen ratings for her shows still being broadcast were down almost 25 percent.

Jonathan had been negotiating with Food Network for months over a new contract for Paula. Her team was so sure an agreement would be reached that Follow Productions, the producer of her shows, had already begun preparations to shoot new episodes.

But as with Emeril, she had become an increasingly expensive star who was no longer pulling audiences like she used to, and it was taking awhile to come to an agreement. She was not alone in losing viewers. The only shows seeming to hold their own in the network's In The Kitchen block were Pioneer Woman and Trisha's Southern Kitchen: new faces. And in primetime, the news was also dispiriting, with a 15 percent decline in total households for the 2012-13 season.

From Food Network's perspective, much of Paula's decline was her own fault — at least some fans had not forgiven her for the diabetes deal. Her shows were no longer comfort food. Even before the latest debacle, the two sides were talking about the need to "freshen" Paula's show, with proposals not unlike those that had been tried with Emeril Live years earlier: invite interesting guests to cook with her, move the show out of her kitchen and into new locales.

Now it was all in doubt. A decision was made by Deen's team, which included the California-based public relations due of Jeffrey and Elana Rose, to offer Paula as a guest that Friday on the Today show, the broadcast outlet where she had made the diabetes revelation and other more successful appearances.

Their hope was that on the Today show Paula could explain that she was not a racist, that she was simply honestly answering questions put before her in a lawsuit brought by a disgruntled employee. The racial slurs were not who she was.

But Barry, who was down in Savannah with Paula, was growing concerned as he watched her grow more agitated. It was as if she had been told one of her children had been in a bad car accident. She could not believe that she was been pilloried like this.

To be on the Today show requires getting out of bed around 4:30 am and being at the studio and all made up and composed by 7 a.m. When Barry saw how sleepless and disheveled Paula, a 66-year-old woman, was as the time approached to leave for Rockefeller Center, he advised her not to show up for the interview. He knew it would not be a softball interview and she might completely fall apart. You can't put someone in a position to be skewered like that. It might haunt her for the rest of her life, he thought, and she, having followed Barry's advice successfully for more than a decade, agreed.

As the Today broadcast started, Matt told viewers, "We just found out she's a no- show."

Rather than quelling the fires, this fed them. Paula's situation was now a mess playing out across all the points of mass media — TV, cable news, celebrity and food gossip web sites and social media.

Exactly what Paula's team needed to do became clear when a call came to them from Cynthia Gibson, the chief legal officer for Scripps in Knoxville, a respected executive in the parent company. "What we need," she instructed, "is an unconditional statement of remorse and apology."

There was no promise that if Paula made such a statement, all would be forgiven by her employer, but it offered hope.

Inside Food Network and Scripps, a frenzy had been growing. Emails and phone calls were ripping back and forth. What should they do? Food had little stake in Paula's side businesses. Barry had resisted network efforts to get in on her action. Food did not get a cut of her clothing line or her new deal endorsing flavored "finishing butters." Not that they would have wanted it. What good was it that she was occasionally giving a nod to her new slimmer lifestyle by cutting down the fat in her recipes if she was endorsing a brand that showed you how to add it back? Didn't she get it? Brands need consistency. What did she stand for?

Besides being a publicly traded company that complied with all equal opportunity and anti-harassment laws, Scripps Networks Interactive maintained its stated core values, among them "compassion and support," and "diversity." A debate raged within the company about what to do and when to do it. Some wanted her gone immediately. Her contract was up. She had two major strikes against her, the diabetes fiasco and now the N word. Why wait for the third strike? Others counseled patience. Even if they were going to let her go, why do it in the heat of moment? Better to investigate for a few weeks, see how it played out, and do whatever they were going to do calmly in their own time.

Consulting on this trouble was the crisis management expert Jesse Derris. To him this was a moral question. And if that was the case, if Food Network had decided Paula was conclusively on the wrong side of the moral line here, she would have to begotten rid of sooner or later. The time to do it was now, when she had taken all the hits and given no significant response. Do it at her low and move on.

Even as this decision was nearing inevitability inside the network, Paula's team was scrambling to do what Cynthia had suggested, grasping at the idea that a complete apology would redeem her in Scripps' eyes.

They set about preparing to record their own video apology, something they could control. After noon, a photo was tweeted of Paula preparing to record the video. When it was released soon after, it struck many as strange. Although less than a minute long, there were three spliced together segments that seemed repetitive and generic: 'Please forgive me for the mistakes that I've made," was the final line. It almost seemed like a rehearsal -- and it was. That video had been accidentally posted on a YouTube account, and then quickly pulled down. Nothing was going right.

Two more videos were then posted intentionally. They showed Paula apologizing more thoroughly and without edits, one to her public:

"The pain has been tremendous that I have caused to myself and to others, and so I am taking this opportunity now that I've pulled myself together and am able to speak, to offer an apology to those that I have hurt."

And another to Matt for not showing up. "I'm a strong woman, but this morning, I was not."

Both were done very amateurishly. Paula was sitting on an office chair with what appeared to be a makeup tray, a can of Coke and a partially unfurled roll of paper towel strewn haphazardly on tables behind her,

SNI was a multibillion dollar, publicly-traded company. This would just not do. The company made its decision, and it was approved at the highest levels. Food Network president Brooke Johnson called Barry and told him the company would not be signing another agreement with Paula.

Moments later the network released a short statement and said it would not elaborate. "Food Network will not renew Paula Deen's contract when it expires at the end of this month."

Paula retreated to her home in Savannah over the weekend with her sons and husband. Her career seemed to have fallen apart in a few days, all because of what she and her family saw as an extortionate lawsuit against her. On Monday, Smithfield, the ham maker, announced it was ending her endorsement deal. Other commercial partners issued statements saying they were considering what to do. Jeff and Elana Rose stopped returning reporters' calls.

Even as she was abandoned, a groundswell of Paula defenders was starting to grow. One of the co-hosts of The Chew, Carla Hall tweeted, "I love you and I support you @Paula_Deen!" Of more concern to Food Network was a new Facebook page, "We Support Paula Deen," which, by midweek, was nearing half-a-million followers.

Inside Food Network, there was fretting. had they acted too quickly? As legions of fans posted comments on QVC's website, demanding she be kept, Food Network worried it would lose swaths of female viewers, lowering ad rates. The network pulled back on its own social media: it was not the time to cheerfully tweet links to brownie recipes. Bobby Flay, making a regularly scheduled appearance on Good Morning America, sidestepped the issue expertly, saying "You know it's a real unfortunate situation, but I'm not going to comment on it. I'm here to talk about some ribeye..."

Lee Schrager, about to open up ticket sales for the fall Food Network New York City Wine & Food Festival, faced the problem of whether or not to keep Paula's Gospel Brunch in the lineup. When tickets went on sale Monday, it had stayed.

Tiny victories, but Paula's future as a public figure was still at stake. Would any broadcaster or corporation ever want her again?

Reprinted by arrangement with G.P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company Copyright 2013 by Allen Salkin.

· From Scratch: Inside the Food Network [Amazon]
· All Paula Deen Coverage on Eater [-E-]