Friday, December 06, 2013

Watch Your Mouth

So Martin Bashir is no longer at MSNBC.  (He says he resigned, but I get the impression the channel resigned him.)  It's due to a statement he made about Sarah Palin. She'd compared the national debt to slavery and he responded.  Let me give you the full response, since general descriptions tend to miss the full flavor.

BASHIR: It’ll be like slavery. Given her well-established reputation as a world class idiot, it’s hardly surprising that she should choose to mention slavery in a way that is abominable to anyone who knows anything about its barbaric history. So here’s an example.

One of the most comprehensive first-person accounts of slavery comes from the personal diary of a man called Thomas Thistlewood, who kept copious notes for 39 years. Thistlewood was the son of a tenant farmer who arrived on the island of Jamaica in April 1750, and assumed the position of overseer at a major plantation. What is most shocking about Thistlewood’s diary is not simply the fact that he assumes the right to own and possess other human beings, but is the sheer cruelty and brutality of his regime.

In 1756, he records that “A slave named Darby catched eating canes; had him well flogged and pickled, then made Hector, another slave, s-h-i-t in his mouth.” This became known as Darby’s dose, a punishment invented by Thistlewood that spoke only of the slave owners savagery and inhumanity.

And he mentions a similar incident again in 1756, this time in relation to a man he refers to as Punch. “Flogged Punch well, and then washed and rubbed salt pickle, lime juice and bird pepper; made Negro Joe piss in his eyes and mouth.” I could go on, but you get the point.

When Mrs. Palin invoked slavery, she doesn’t just prove her rank ignorance. She confirms that if anyone truly qualified for a dose of discipline from Thomas Thistlewood, then she would be the outstanding candidate.

And now he's gone.

Bashir follows Alec Baldwin out the door.  The star of 30 Rock had hardly gotten his show off the ground before they fired him for screaming at a photographer he felt was hassling him, allegedly calling the man a "[colorful adjective] fag." Both men apologized, but it was too late.

No one is guaranteed a job, and unless you have some sort of discrimination claim, or some specific contractual clause, the employer doesn't have to have a reason to fire you, much less a good one.  The question is when should someone, particularly a pundit whose job it is to make public pronouncements, be let go for what he says.

People say foolish things all the time.  It doesn't seem right that a stray comment (or two or three) should get you canned, especially if you do a good job otherwise.  In both cases, I'd just as soon see them kept on. I mean, while I prefer a civil conversation, they're in a business where outrage and hyperbole is practically the coin of the realm.  Just how much worse was what they said compared to what's out there, where calling someone a racist or a fascist or a traitor has become commonplace?

The two cases are different, of course.  Baldwin's outburst was made in private (though it wasn't the first time he spoke this way) and there should be, if anything, more leeway for statements made in one's personal life, especially in the heat of the moment.  Bashir's statement was not only on the air, but was a prepared statement.  In addition to tasteless, I find it arrogant and stupid.  But was it so far beyond the pale that he had to go?

There's another factor here. Neither got high ratings (and Baldwin's show always seemed a bit of a lark).  I have to wonder if they'd still be on if they got the numbers?  Yet another factor is the heat the channel was getting.  Was keeping them on worth all the bad publicity?

Anyway, I don't have any answers.  I guess I'd prefer a rule of thumb that favors tolerance, even tolerance of intolerance. But everyone's got to draw the line somewhere.


Blogger ColumbusGuy said...

Channeling Big Don Rumsfeld, there are four kinds of tolerance. You have tolerance of tolerance . . .

2:52 AM, December 06, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Its a ratings decision. The channel reacts to public perception about the comment. Retaining either Baldwin or Bashir in the face of criticism (from different actors) was not a hill that MSNBC was willing to die on.

On the other hand NPR probably engages in values-based analysis when it cans talent

3:48 AM, December 06, 2013  
Blogger ColumbusGuy said...

Very interesting distinction and I'm tempted to agree with it.

Ultimately, though, I don't think I do. In nearly all cases, the "pressure" from the public is ephemeral, so the public perception about the comment is probably not apt or not salient. (And note it's entirely distinct from ratings--they might even reinforce each other in the opposite direction, i.e., it would tend to drive ratings up)

In the end, that leaves me thinking NPR and the private companies both do what they want to do (that is, the suits do), and the biases or presumptions built into their operations (not necessarily public "newsy" biases, just general corporate or operating biases) are probably pretty similar.

5:22 AM, December 06, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rick Santorum's comments equating YPUSA's opposition to Obamacare with Nelson Mandela's struggle against apartheid might lead to yammering to brink back Martin Bashir. (I can see it now "Fight crap with crap!")

7:42 AM, December 06, 2013  

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