07.01.11

Mark Halperin Got a Bum Rap

The journalist’s four-letter shot at the president was inappropriate. But no more so, argue Doug Schoen and Judith Miller, than NBC’s response.

At first blush it seemed like an easy call.

Mark Halperin, an MSNBC contributor, had apparently used profanity to describe the president of the United States on air. A suspension was clearly in order.

But as is so often the case, a review of the facts of this media tempest and of the videotape of the incident presents a different, and arguably more troubling, complicated story. Indeed, our conclusion is that NBC gave Mark Halperin a bum rap.

Let’s examine the facts.

Halperin, a senior political analyst for Time magazine, veteran political reporter, and the author of the bestselling Game Change was appearing on Thursday, June 30, on Morning Joe, a talk show that celebrates freewheeling debate about politics.

Halperin prefaced his remarks that morning by warning his colleagues that NBC might need a seven-second edit button after he said what he was thinking about how President Obama had handled his press conference the day before. A veteran ABC television reporter, Halperin knew enough to warn the network that he was going to be, at best, more irreverent than usual and probably profane. The smile on his face suggested that he was going to be speaking tongue in cheek.

Joe Scarborough, the seasoned host, a former member of Congress, played along, telling him to have at it—say what was on his mind. Halperin took a deep breath and called President Obama a “dick” on live TV. He then quickly apologized, saying that he meant no offense, apparently recognizing that his attempt at humor had failed.

Scarborough’s new executive producer had apparently failed to hit the seven-second edit button in time, despite Halperin’s warning and Scarborough’s egging his chief analyst on. Many who saw the show that day agreed that Halperin should not have said what he did.

But then MSNBC decided to suspend Halperin indefinitely, apparently after a phone call from White House Press Secretary Jay Carney expressing his displeasure with the analyst’s language.

On reflection, none of this makes sense. First, however awkward and inappropriate, Halperin was making a bad joke, which he made clear in advance. Second, as soon as he recognized that the joke had fallen flat, he immediately apologized on air. Third, the fail-safe warning system that NBC always has in place, as does every other network, didn’t work, notwithstanding Halperin’s warning that the network might need to use it. And fourth, it seems pretty clear that Halperin’s suspension by NBC was motivated as much by fear of the White House as it was by what Halperin said.

The fact that NBC appears to have been so easily intimidated by a phone call from the White House press secretary seems at least as reprehensible, if not more so, than Halperin’s profane reference to Mr. Obama.

We are not friends of Halperin. Nor are we sympathetic to what he did or the political judgment, or lack of judgment, that it reflected. We both feel that from a political standpoint, President Obama handled his press conference on Wednesday as well as any of the public statements he has made recently. Sure, he engaged in considerable rhetorical excess, and yes, he was playing politics with the debt crisis just as almost every other player involved has done. And yes, we agree that Halperin shouldn’t have said what he said.

But give the guy a break. He was just using a colloquial, profane expression to make a point. In this day and age, as Jon Stewart argued, stopping the use of profanity on TV borders on the weirdly quaint.

In this day and age, as Jon Stewart argued, stopping the use of profanity on TV borders on the weirdly quaint.

Halperin did not do so badly, and his mistake was not so egregious as to  require an indefinite suspension or even suspension or punishment at all. Time magazine’s editors stood by their man, kind of, sort of. While they called their political editor’s comments on MSNBC “inappropriate and in no way reflective of Time’s views,” and said that the magazine had issued him a warning that such behavior was “unacceptable,” Halperin had “appropriately apologized on air, via Twitter and on The Page.” Enough was enough.

But then again, maybe the White House didn’t get around to calling Time.

Indeed, the fact that NBC appears to be taking its cues from the White House and effectively chilling speech it finds objectionable speaks volumes about the state of political discourse and dialogue in America. That should trouble Americans more than Halperin’s potty mouth or an MSNBC producer’s inability to push the proper button.