What qualifies as a fireable offense?

BEFORE THE INEVITABLE race to blanket the next scandal begins, a few notes on the last two or three.

Chris Albrecht’s ouster as HBO’s CEO — following Alec Baldwin’s voicemail outburst at his kid; Don Imus (and this week the team of JV and Elvis) losing his radio gig; various errant athletes, actors and pop stars; and foot-in-mouth dustups featuring the unlikely trio of Mel Gibson, Michael Richards and Isaiah Washington — have kindled debate over what presently qualifies as a fireable offense.

Unfortunately, the distinction doesn’t boil down to simply determining the level of bad behavior — criminal, boorish, stupid, insensitive or merely naughty — and then pursuing an appropriate remedy. In these cases justice isn’t blind, but it can be maddeningly inconsistent.

Like assessing a diamond, several variables must be weighed when evaluating scandal blowback — including the relative worth of the asset involved, the story’s likely endurance and, most significantly, not only who is being embarrassed higher up the food chain, but when.

Such multifaceted analysis, of course, is too nuanced for many pundits, especially those who approach their tasks with a specific left- or right-wing agenda. To them, every transgression becomes a question of moral equivalency of the “If Sean Penn can survive jumping off the Empire State building, why can’t… ?” variety, railing about why Imus got fired and Rosie O’Donnell or Rush Limbaugh didn’t.

Nice try, but refereeing this game doesn’t work like that.

ALBRECHT, FOR EXAMPLE, had the unfortunate timing to get arrested for an ugly public altercation with his girlfriend right before the Time Warner shareholders meeting, and after the company weathered an alleged sex scandal involving another senior exec. Moreover, a Los Angeles Times report implied that TW president Jeffrey Bewkes — who is in line to succeed CEO Richard Parsons — and others at the studio tolerated an earlier 1991 incident. In other words, this story needed to go away quickly and looked like it might not, despite the fact the HBO chief was a major asset.

For his part, Imus was worth considerably less to CBS or MSNBC (which shared his morning show on radio and TV, respectively) than talent such as CBS’ King World stars Oprah Winfrey or Dr. Phil, who would have to run over a bus filled with nuns and orphans to get whacked. The joint parentage allowed NBC’s Jeff Zucker to cut Imus loose first, placing CBS’ Leslie Moonves in the unenviable “Oh, so racist comments don’t bother you as much as they do Zucker?” position.

Both Imus and Albrecht thus violated the “Don’t embarrass the wrong people” rule. The Albrecht affair was also poorly timed, while Imus wasn’t valuable enough to justify further headaches — and compounded his problem by helping keep the story alive in foolishly visiting Al Sharpton’s radio show.

Under such circumstances, the only savvy response is to curl into a fetal position and hope some fresh outrage emerges to supplant and deflect attention away from the existing one.

AS FOR THOSE who would apportion blame to the press — as Endeavor’s Ari Emanuel did in a blog posting defending Albrecht — that’s usually a tired canard, but the dynamics of crisis control have undeniably changed.

The advent of online coverage has altered the rhythm of such stories, since bad news keeps coming in persistent waves — arriving not just when newspapers hit the driveway each morning, but updated on a near-hourly basis. If the sin is juicy enough, the relentless pounding can become debilitating, triggering a form of corporate paralysis until the distraction is eliminated.

The once-respectable media, meanwhile (in this context the term “mainstream” is clouded by political overtones), increasingly obsess over tabloid hooks to spur Web traffic and links to the Drudge Report — a development Times columnist Tim Rutten lamented regarding recent Paris Hilton mania and his own paper’s plans, amid staffing cutbacks, to establish a “celebrity justice” beat.

Even if such stories often defy sympathy, then, the lack of clearly delineated guidelines makes it easy to understand the frustration and helplessness felt by those suddenly caught within media frenzies, when it’s already too late to follow the best advice of all: Stay out of trouble in the first place.

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