Let’s stipulate at the outset that MSNBC’s resident potty-mouths, Martin Bashir and Alec Baldwin, ought to have their tongues scoured. The ugly things they said—Bashir on the air about Sarah Palin, and Baldwin in the street to a pesky paparazzo—were shameful and repulsive; both, quite rightly, have apologized.
Yet Bashir’s future as an afternoon anchor on the left-leaning cable network is suddenly up for grabs, and Phil Griffin, MSNBC’s president, has suspended Baldwin from his Friday night show for two weeks, with the possibility that Up Late With Alec Baldwin—which, after all, has hardly been crushing it critically or ratings-wise since its Oct. 11 launch—may be canceled altogether.
Of course, the apologies and suspension haven’t appeased the arbiters of good manners and political correctness (to say nothing of emotionally wounded tabloid hacks and Republican political operatives), who are now demanding, in essence, beheadings in the town square. But in each case, for different reasons, the crime is unworthy of the proposed punishment.
In the aftermath of Bashir’s on-air expression of contrition—an abject, self-flagellating, panicky performance that resembled a hostage video—Palin’s political action committee, SarahPAC, fired off a letter to Griffin and NBC News President Deborah Turness, applauding Baldwin’s suspension “for his recent use of an anti-gay slur” (who knew Palin and her followers were so concerned about the hurt feelings of homosexual Americans?), but added: “We would like to know what disciplinary measures you are taking about Martin Bashir’s appalling statement… that someone should defecate and/or urinate in Governor Palin’s mouth because she used the word ‘slavery’ to describe the burden the federal debt will have on future generations of Americans.”
Even worse, the former half-term governor of Alaska promptly canceled a scheduled Today show interview with Matt Lauer, who’d been preparing to fly up to Wasilla.
Admittedly, Bashir’s outburst, in which he also identified Palin as “America’s resident dunce” and a “world-class idiot,” was something you’d expect from a boorish drunk at closing time rather than a well-paid television professional reading scripted commentary off a teleprompter. The London-born Bashir—who gained fame for his scandalous 1995 interview with Princess Diana about her broken marriage to Prince Charles, and his even more scandalous 2003 documentary on Michael Jackson, complete with disturbing revelations about his contacts with teenage boys—joined MSNBC three years ago as a substitute host and ultimately obtained his eponymous 4 p.m. show. Martin Bashir was notable for its namesake’s insulting and prosecutorial interviewing style with the rare Republican guest and the ad hominem attacks of his “Clear the Air” segments.
Griffin was undoubtedly aware that Baldwin, enraged, can resort to nasty insults, occasionally homophobic ones.
Given that MSNBC’s management seems to have applauded and rewarded his performances, Bashir can be forgiven for believing that ratcheting up the rhetoric on Palin—suggesting that she should be subjected to the horrific abuses of an 18th-century slave master because she had the gall to compare the national debt to slavery, hardly a novel Tea Party construct—was a key to continued success. Indeed, MSNBC was still actively promoting Bashir’s Palin takedown on Twitter the day before he was forced to fall on his sword (apparently with the assistance of his superiors: “I will guarantee you,” MSNBC morning host Joe Scarborough said to a radio interviewer, “he didn’t write all that by himself”).
As the outrage over Bashir’s commentary grew, it must have come as a shock. Even a staunch Democrat, former Clinton White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers, joined in the Bashir-bashing, tweeting the hashtag “GotToGo” while musing, “Honestly, where do such thoughts even come from.” But the MSNBC ethos hardly penalizes vitriol. After all, before his spectacular implosion in 2010, Keith Olbermann became the network’s prime-time star—and suffered zero negative consequences±from such antics as shouting at President Bush to “shut the hell up!” and merrily comparing conservative pundit Michelle Malkin to “a mashed-up bag of meat with lipstick on it.” True, Ed Schultz had to take a week of unpaid leave after calling Laura Ingraham “a right-wing slut,” and David Shuster was suspended for even longer during the 2008 presidential campaign for accusing Bill and Hillary Clinton of “pimping out” their daughter Chelsea, but those punishments have been applied, at best, inconsistently.
If Bashir were suspended now or, worse, sent packing, the inescapable conclusion would be that his bosses, far from acting on principle, put their wet pinkies in the wind and waited to see which way it was blowing before bending to outside political pressure.
Concerning Baldwin’s latest barbarity, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, not a fan, asked during a panel discussion on AC360 Later: “Why does he get a pass?” The 30 Rock star, an outspoken supporter of gay rights and same-sex marriage, had the misfortune of being recorded while allegedly shouting “cocksucking fag!” at a New York Post photographer who was door-stepping him, his wife and their baby in front of their Manhattan apartment building. (Baldwin cops to “cocksucking” but persists in claiming that he didn’t utter the f-word despite the convincing evidence of TMZ’s enhanced audio.) Blogger Andrew Sullivan, my former Daily Beast colleague, seconded Cooper’s disapproval, calling Baldwin “a textbook case of being homophobic.” Cooper added: “If Alec Baldwin had yelled the n-word to that photographer, or yelled some anti-Jewish slur, it would be over!” Of course, he didn’t.
Cooper, who only recently came out as gay after years of declining to address the issue, can hardly be blamed if he was even more annoyed that Baldwin’s modified, limited mea culpa in the Huffington Post featured a boast and a backhanded dig that his 10 p.m. MSNBC show—opposite AC360 Later—“beat CNN in the ratings each of our nights. (I forget who they had on at that time.)”
Baldwin’s breach of socio-cultural decorum is perhaps easier than Bashir’s to understand. In losing his temper during a moment of high stress—a criminal trial at which an obsessed female stalker had just been convicted of harassing Baldwin and his wife—he could have been atavistically channeling the playing fields of Massapequa, Long Island, where he grew up with three brothers and two sisters, the son of a high-school football coach, at a time when schoolyard insults relating to masculinity and sexual orientation were not only common but de rigueur. That’s neither an excuse nor a defense; simply a plausible explanation.
It is also true that the New York Post practices the celebrity equivalent of bear-baiting. Over the years, the tabloid has gone out of its way to provoke Baldwin into providing its loyal readers with entertaining, cover-ready confrontations, sending reporters and photographers to invade his space on the sidewalk in order to get a heated reaction to the flap of the day. That is easily accomplished, for he has a famously short fuse (and probably could benefit from anger-management training and more rigorous instruction from his yoga-teaching wife).
In the current controversy, it’s ironic that the lefty-actor’s most ardent defender, other than his and ex-wife Kim Basinger’s 17-year-old daughter Ireland (herself an erstwhile victim of Daddy’s hot temper), is right-wing provocateur Ann Coulter. Make no mistake, Coulter and Baldwin normally have no use for each other. Years ago, when he was asked by a saucy women’s magazine if he’d rather hop into bed with the leggy blond pundit or Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, Baldwin answered: “I gotta go with Feinstein. With Coulter, we’d have sex and I’d have to jump out the window. I wouldn’t even get dressed.” To which Coulter later retorted: “That’s the only reason I can think of for wanting to have sex with Alec Baldwin.”
Yet in a spirited apologia this past week, Coulter—a recidivist offender of what she disdainfully calls “the word police”—made common cause with her adversary and chided her ideological brethren: “What are conservatives doing demanding Baldwin’s head for calling some pestilential paparazzi [sic] a ‘c*ck-s*cking little f*g.’ It is perfectly obvious Baldwin was just cursing the guy out with whatever bad words popped into his head, not engaging in ‘homophobia’ against an actual gay person. Conservatives attacking Baldwin for his latest fit of (justified) anger are being small-time and shortsighted. You think this sets liberals back? They don’t care about Baldwin. You’re just reinforcing their worldview, where careers are ended over a word.”
In the age of gridlock and polarization, this is a moment to be celebrated—Coulter and Baldwin in perfect harmony!
Coulter—whose delight in obnoxious language is so over the top that people often wonder if she’s pranking us with self-parody (she famously referred to a group of 9/11 widows as “harpies” who are “enjoying their husbands’ deaths”)—has also been down the same road as Baldwin. In 2007, she came in for heavy fire from the organized gay lobby and politicians of both parties after joking in a speech to fellow conservatives that Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards was a “faggot.” Arguably, she wasn’t referring to Edwards’s heterosexual philandering.
In the present situation, MSNBC’s Griffin obviously knew what he was hiring when Baldwin agreed to anchor a weekly interview show: a gifted actor, comedic and otherwise, a witty conversationalist, an earnest activist with a deep interest in progressive politics and a tendency to fly off the handle. Griffin was undoubtedly aware that Baldwin, enraged, can resort to nasty insults, occasionally homophobic ones, as when he tweeted after an unsatisfying customer experience at Starbucks that a certain barista was “an uptight queen” or, more recently, that a slanderous British tabloid reporter was “a toxic little queen” who deserved Baldwin’s foot up his behind—“but I’m sure you’d dig it too much,” he tweeted at the hack.
So Griffin couldn’t have been surprised when his new host, once again, flew off the handle. Presumably, Baldwin will have an opportunity to explain his lapse in self-control to MSNBC viewers when and if he returns to his show next Friday. No doubt gay advocacy organizations like GLAAD—of which Baldwin has been a supporter—will do their darnedest to keep the controversy alive as a teachable moment (and possibly as a fundraising tool). But it would be deeply unfair, and not a little craven, for MSNBC’s management to kill Up Late with Alec Baldwin for reasons other than disappointing ratings and inadequate production values—a judgment that in any case would seem premature after only a month on the air.
It would leave Baldwin, who didn’t need the job in the first place, with a stain that he doesn’t deserve.