21 July 2007

Comments on Comments

Thursday, April 12, 2007

So once again we have a bona fide media frenzy over some so-and-so's controversial "comments." It seems like this type of story is taking up an ever-greater proportion of our news media's collective headspace. It goes like this: some random celebrity makes some "comments" that some other person or persons deem offensive, or pretend to deem offensive; said celebrity is subjected to a public berating by news anchors, talk show hosts, heads of advocacy organizations, etc.; celebrity responds with disavowal, defiance, or remorse, as appropriate; celebrity is punished or exonerated or the whole thing is forgotten after somebody else says something stupid, thus restarting the whole cycle.

The latest of these tempests, of course, surrounds radio talkshow host Don Imus, who last week in the midst of what otherwise seems to have been a harmless rant about the Rutgers women's basketball team, offhandedly referred to some of the players as "nappy-headed 'hos." The "comments" generated a firestorm that has led CBS radio to suspend Imus for two weeks and MSNBC to drop his show entirely amid growing calls for his firing by the likes of Al Sharpton and Bob Herbert. There can now be no doubt that it is a very, very bad thing to refer to women of color as "nappy-headed 'hos."

Well I guess we can all agree on that. Still, I can't help but wonder what it is about such trivial incidents that triggers such a grotesquely disproportionate response in the national media. I've never listened to Imus much, but it seems like a good part of his appeal comes from his propensity for just the sort of cartoonish jag that got him in trouble this time. Obviously, his remarks can be construed here as racist, sexist, or just plain tasteless, but they certainly weren't malicious, which prompts the question of exactly how low the threshold is for one of these week-long spirals of sanctimony.

The whole incident highlights a few other noteworthy contemporary phenomena that I'll no doubt be returning to in this space. In brief:

1. The Career-Threatening Gaffe In which a public figure commits some sin of speech or action that seriously damages his/her credibility, either reparably or irreparably. Other recent examples range from John McCain's ill-fated stroll through a Baghdad market to Mel Gibson's drunken anti-Semitic rant.

2. The Public Apology Imus has apologized repeatedly for his comments, but it's unclear if he'll be forgiven. Michael Richards attempted to apologize for his racist tirade, but just kept digging himself in deeper. Other sins may be forgivable: John Edwards has apologized for his vote authorizing the war in Iraq and seems to have been taken seriously by most Democrats; Hillary Clinton has refused to apologize for casting the same vote. Is this actually significant? Will the "apology issue" matter in next year's primaries?

3. The Ritual of Public Humiliation Sometimes it's not enough merely to apologize. Some sins are so bad that one must submit to a public berating by some recognized dispenser of justice. As author James Frey willingly submitted to the demands of his Oprah moment, so did Imus dutifully report to Sharpton's radio on program on Monday to get his tongue-lashing in what was otherwise an unfathomable act of masochism.

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