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The Washington Post's Pulitzer Prize-winning critic blogs at TVWeek.com with wit, humor and strong opinion.

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Tom Shales


January 2008 Archives

Cheap Shots Cheapen Airwaves

January 27, 2008 9:00 PM

Bad media drives out good; cheap cracks get more attention than serious discussion. “You can’t jump out of a cake on fire every day of the week,” Phil Donahue once said in assessing what he considered the limited staying power of manic Morton Downey Jr. But Donahue forgot that you don’t have to do it every day. To get attention in the new-media jungle, you need do it only once in a while to win the notoriety that people now equate with fame.

Some people even think “fame” and “infamy” mean exactly the same thing. And maybe by now those people are right, and the words are equals.

Occasionally the audience is just too touchy and its sensitivity antennae are extended too far. Hillary Clinton isn’t the easiest person in the world to defend—if one has an irresistible urge to do that—but her comment about LBJ putting into legislation the principles espoused by Martin Luther King Jr. was clearly not meant to slight Dr. King. It was at worst a case of imprecise language and of that old bugaboo (first defense of the guilty as well as the innocent) “being taken out of context.”

On the other hand, in fact the other arm: A case like that of John Gibson, high-haired and long-winded commentator on the windy Fox News Channel. Gibson’s offense was much more clear-cut and Gibson, who bears a certain facial resemblance to Roger Rabbit, seems utterly impossible to defend.

As you might possibly have heard … it happened last week on Gibson’s radio program. He was musing about the tragic death of young actor Heath Ledger, whose films included the iconoclastic Western “Brokeback Mountain.” Gibson played a clip from the film in which Ledger tells fellow cowboy Jake Gyllenhaal, “I wish I could quit you,” followed on the air by a chuckling Gibson pretending to address Gyllenhaal and saying, “Well, he found out how to quit you” after all.

In terms of bad taste it was comparable to the Washington, D.C., disc jockey who, on the day an airplane full of passengers, most of whom died, crashed into the 14th Street Bridge after takeoff from what is now Reagan National Airport, joked about new special fares from the airport into the Potomac River. The guy was fired but bounced back eventually on another station.

Gibson’s snide remark was said to have been offensive to Ledger’s friends and family and to gay leaders, groups, spokesmen, etc.—but why limit the number or nature of victims? You only have to be decent, fair-minded and civilized to find a young man’s death to be improper material for attempted hilarity, especially within hours of the body having been discovered. It’s not just sick, it’s sickening. Or as MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, a member of the Fox enemies’ list, said afterward, “This is about as callous and harsh as anything I ever heard.”

Joking about death is not unheard-of, by any means. David Letterman will often celebrate the demise of a despot by saying Saddam Hussein, or whoever, “should be arriving in Hell just about now.” It’s a Letterman perennial. One well may wince, but there are still gibes about the way in which such celebrities as Mama Cass expired—in her case, allegedly by choking on a sandwich, the way in which a fat person would least like to go.

Unfortunately, the standards on harshness and callousness have been stretched out of shape in the era of shock jocks, narrowcasting and niche cable channels. Remarks that once would have been unthinkable on a public medium have become fairly common. This is not, repeat not, a call for censorship nor in any way a commendation for our nit-witted FCC, self-appointed guardian of American morals. Potty-mouths, while maybe objectionable, are essentially harmless. But people who trash the dead to get a cheap laugh, and then dismiss anyone who objects as a bleeding-heart liberal, deserve no consideration or forgiveness.

Gibson, for the record, issued a facetious “apology” the next day: “I’m sorry some people were offended by my comments,” he said in a carefully worded statement. Note that Gibson wasn’t sorry he made the loutish remarks, only that some people took offense. The apology can be interpreted as blaming the offended rather than the offender; Gibson may well have been saying that it’s not his fault if the lily-livered or weak-kneed are irked by character assassination, bigotry and cruelty.

It appears Gibson also has trouble distinguishing movie stars from the roles they play, or that he is so narrow-minded that he not only hates homosexuals but also any actors who might play them. Ledger was, from all available evidence, heterosexual, but Gibson finds him fair game and guilty by association.

One expects cable TV’s and talk radio’s gallery of gabbers to take on topical stuff, but an actor dying from an apparent overdose of prescription drugs (unintentional, until proven otherwise) isn’t the kind of news item that most jesters feel obligated to joke and giggle about.

Even today, in 2008, there remain in place a few rules, even a few good manners. Gibson is, of course, a mere symbol of his time. Many of MTV’s reality shows encourage competitors to insult, defame and debase one another. Fox’s new hit “The Moment of Truth” makes entertainment out of invading privacy—the nastier and more hurtful, the better. Gibson perhaps saw a challenge in being foul-mouthed and foul-minded enough to stand out from the crowd.

America is a republic, not a democracy, because pure democracy is unmanageable and can become mobocracy. But radical radio, talk TV and, of course, the Internet have great potential for rabble rousers and demagogues. Any idiot can say almost anything; hence Gibson’s departure from decency.

He will probably get the last laugh; sending a nasty little rocket into the ionosphere brought attention to himself and his channel. If even bad publicity is good publicity, and even if his bosses take the unlikely step of reprimanding him, Gibson will come out of this more famous, or infamous, or notorious, than he was before it happened.

He’s out of the cake and burning, and so everybody in the room looks over to see the funny fiery freak.

Once it was considered a privilege to talk into a microphone on radio or television and to be given a public platform that sent you into thousands, millions, of American homes. Now, in the age of the Internet and the 1,000-channel universe, it’s being thought of as a right, with Neanderthals, Luddites and Philistines just as entitled to an audience as scholars, authorities and humanitarians. Maybe it’ll turn out that, of all the movies ever made predicting what the future holds for the planet and its population, the most prophetic will have been “Planet of the Apes.”