Bill Cosby once jokingly described women’s fickle approach to romance as “Come here, come here, come here. Get away! Get away! Get away!” Adapting that dance for the cable news/talkradio era would go something like “Be provocative, be provocative, be provocative. Pull back! Pull back! Pull back!”
Almost every day, some cable news or talkradio personality seems to step on his or her tongue, resulting in suspensions, apologies and the occasional termination.
Yet while this is treated as an anomaly, the inherent tension has actually become a regular cost of doing business — an intermittent certainty, given the pressure to say things that generate attention and the absence of clarity as to where the line of appropriateness and good taste resides.
In the world of punditry, squeaky wheels get the air time. As for imposing guidelines of decorum, oratorical fire-throwers are perhaps to be forgiven when they occasionally miss the strike zone, which has a way of shifting not just from one network to the next, but from the greater latitude afforded established stars to the lesser leeway for mere mortals.
Some have blamed social media for this outbreak of foot-in-mouth disease, with media figures such as CNN’s Roland Martin getting in trouble for offensive Twitter postings. Publishing plays a role, too, as MSNBC dropped analyst Pat Buchanan after taking heat for his latest book.
Still, when it comes to personalities getting into trouble, one doesn’t really need to look beyond the intemperate and incendiary opinions voiced on air.
Take the suspension of John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou, an afternoon-drive duo on KFI-AM in Los Angeles, for calling the late singer Whitney Houston a “crack ho.”
Station program director Robin Bertolucci told the Los Angeles Times their comments “just violated our standards. You know it when you hear it.” Except that based on outrageous statements the hosts have uttered through the years — many directed at entire groups, as opposed to individuals — one can’t help but find imposing discipline for this transgression a trifle arbitrary.
Perhaps unintentionally, KFI’s explanation sounded an awful lot like former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s much-lampooned quote about indecency, saying while he couldn’t articulate what qualifies, “I know it when I see it.”
Only “it” varies, depending on the venue and how much clout the talent wields, which is why lines of propriety are usually scribbled in chalk.
Frankly, one has to admire Fox News in this regard, if only for its consistency. The channel seldom takes action against its talent, and bouts of outrageousness are generally dispatched with tepid apologies or “I was just kidding” disclaimers. Eric Bolling issued the latter, for example, after saying of California Rep. Maxine Waters, “Congresswoman, you saw what happened to Whitney Houston. Step away from the crack pipe.”
By contrast, MSNBC suspended Ed Schultz for referring to another syndicated radio personality, Laura Ingraham, as “a right-wing slut” — and that was on his radio program, not the network. And contributor Mark Halperin delivered a mea culpa for calling President Obama “kind of a dick.”
What’s most disingenuous in this equation are employers time and again expressing chagrin and disappointment. Having drawn elastic, near-invisible boundaries, it’s hard to convincingly express dismay when a member of the flock strays outside them.
Nor does this scenario offer much solace to groups seeking more sober discourse, such as Faithful America, which recently urged MSNBC to stop booking Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council — an organization prone to strong anti-gay rhetoric — as a representative for Christians.
Perkins, and others like him of all ideological stripes, serve a clear purpose: They’re enlisted to articulate polarizing viewpoints, thus ensuring conflict and a zesty debate.
Perhaps no one better embodies the commercial aspect of “crossing the line” better than Howard Stern, who became less interesting once he no longer had to worry about fending off censorious corporate bosses or the Federal Communications Commission’s efforts to muzzle him. So the “shock jock” escaped into the wilds of satellite radio, where virtually nothing is off limits — or, alas, particularly shocking. And where’s the fun in that?
Because the truth is, the talk universe thrives on its own form of crack. And despite protestations to the contrary, inhaling — and the threat of it — is good for business.