In media, like in politics, the cover-up is often worse than the crime. It’s not to diminish the crime – but what comes next, the way a person reacts to the adversity of their action, is often more important and memorable.
Which brings us to the latest two MSNBC hosts to make offensive comments, joining an illustrious list of current and former MSNBC hosts to do the same. There’s Martin Bashir in the Ed Schultz category, an offensive commenter still Leaning Forward in 30 Rock, and there’s Alec Baldwin in the Keith Olbermann category, let go before the Christmas Tree outside his former office is even lit.
There’s a key difference between the cases of Bashir and Baldwin, and it has nothing to do with the substance of their offensive remark: it’s about contrition, and humility.
Actor Alec Baldwin leaves criminal court in New York, Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2013. Baldwin testified Tuesday that he never had a sexual or romantic relationship with Canadian actress Genevieve Sabourin, who accused of stalking him. He said that after they met she began leaving dozens of voice mails for him a night and eventually started threatening to show up at his homes. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
One of the comments in question will resonate and offend more than the other, depending on who you ask – offensiveness is subjective. Is Baldwin calling a paparazzo a “c***sucking fag” (or maybe c***sucking something else) more offensive than Bashir saying Sarah Palin deserves to be defecated and urinated on?
What matters more, especially away from the politicization, is in the sphere of public opinion. And the public has great affinity for someone who takes responsibility for his or her actions, owns up to mistakes and admits wrongdoing. Americans believe in second chances (or in some cases third or fourth chances). Olbermann is still employed, after all.
But Americans can’t stand remorseless, unaccountable, arrogance. Which brings us back to Bashir and Baldwin. The British 4pm host took to his next show to offer a full apology. “I deeply regret what I said, and that I have learned a sober lesson,” he said. “The politics of vitriol and destruction is a miserable place to be, and a miserable person to become. And I promise that I will take the opportunity to learn from this experience.”
We can’t judge his sincerity, but his humility is obvious. It was a terrible thing to say, he owned up to it, and MSNBC, it seems, has moved on. Some will compare the lack of media scrutiny to the massive one that came after Rush Limbaugh’s Sandra Fluke comments, in a role reversal of political persuasions. It’s true – but that has less to do with what either said or political parties, than about how much more influential Limbaugh is than Bashir. Literally millions more people listened to Limbaugh live than were watching Bashir.
[sharequote align="center"]Alec's an egomaniac who refuses to accept responsibility when he makes a mistake.[/sharequote]
While Bashir appeared contrite, Baldwin has taken the opposite tactic. He has engaged in an odd, over-compensatory public push to assert his gay-acceptance. He went on a Twitter crusade to prove he actually said “fathead” instead of “fag” but quickly abandoned that line of counterattack. He played coy about what he was implying with the other word.
When the news of his “mutual parting” became public today, the amicable nature of the split was made clear, with well-wishes and joint confirmations. It was handled with grace and care. Then came Baldwin personally lashing out in an interview with Gothamist.
“Martin Bashir's on the air, and he made his comment on the air! I dispute half the comment I made,” he said. “But you've got the fundamentalist wing of gay advocacy—Rich Ferraro and Andrew Sullivan—they're out there, they've got you. Rich Ferraro, this is probably one of his greatest triumphs. They killed my show. And I have to take some responsibility for that myself.”
“Some responsibility?” “Fundamentalist wing of gay advocacy?” This sounds like something Jack Donaghy would say to Liz Lemon.
I don’t think Alec Baldwin is homophobic, and he didn’t lose his show because MSNBC thinks he’s anti-gay. He’s an angry guy who doesn’t like the paparazzi. Fine. He’s quick to drop slurs in his anger. Fine. But more than anything, he’s an egomaniac who refuses to accept responsibility when he makes a mistake.
He’ll learn, eventually. And America will move on. We’re a forgiving society – you just have to ask for forgiveness.
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