As public-relations disasters go, the one that enveloped Nick Cannon last week was fascinating to watch unfold—and instructive on the limited powers of public apologies.
The downside of having a showbiz career as impressively diversified as his was that all of his many projects threatened to tumble like dominoes all around him. One production partner pulls out, which puts pressure on the next, and then the next, and so on.
That’s what Cannon appeared to set in motion Monday after anti-Semitic comments he made on his own podcast, and the absence of a subsequent apology, triggered ViacomCBS to end its long-standing relationship with him. It seemed like just a matter of time before other partners got in line behind ViacomCBS.
But then damage control finally kicked in. After mishandling his first apology, Cannon issued a second, lengthier mea culpa echoed by Fox, home to hit unscripted series “The Masked Singer.” The broadcast network cited his apology and his professed willingness to engage in dialogues with Jewish leaders to educate himself better as the reasons the company was standing by the actor.
Maybe the network was acknowledging a genuine sense of contrition that came over Cannon a little later than it might have hit other people in his shoes. But skeptics might suggest Cannon’s change of heart really was the delayed realization of how much else he had to lose once ViacomCBS severed ties after his first half-hearted attempt at addressing his despicable podcast commentary.
It just goes to show how something as cheap and easy as choosing the right words in the wake of controversies like this can make all the difference between avoiding the kind of blow ViacomCBS dealt and engendering the kind of support Fox delivered.
With Fox now at his side, Cannon was able to avoid the downing of the next dominoes: his morning radio program and upcoming new talk show scheduled to launch in the fall. If Fox had followed ViacomCBS’s lead, he very well could have lost both of those gigs as well.
Instead, Cannon’s other partners were able to make moves that showed they were being responsive to his bigotry but their actions might be charitably deemed as slaps on the wrist: Meruelo Media, owner of his radio home, Power 106, put his appearances on his program on “pause” for some undetermined amount of time. Then his talk show producer, Debmar-Mercury, announced its own decision to postpone Cannon’s bow to the fall of 2021.
A year-long delay might seem like a steep price to pay for Cannon, but it’s really the only move Debmar-Mercury could make short of axing the program entirely. The cloud that would have hung over the launch from his bigoted remarks just months earlier would have made it impossible to cultivate the less controversial image a show like this requires, an image Cannon effectively blew to smithereens.
The companies that are standing by Cannon are making a calculation that in the controversy-stuffed hyperspeed news cycle that is American culture, the missteps he just made that seem so appalling now will be a distant memory not too long in the future. All Cannon really needs to do in the coming months is what he failed to do this past week: keep his mouth closed and let the public’s collective amnesia kick in so that he can re-emerge at some later point and work the charms that made him so popular in the first place.
Cynics might suggest that strategy will work well enough to restore Cannon’s career. After all, all it took was a reworded apology to position him for a comeback.
But maybe the Cannon comeback won’t be that simple to pull off. Perhaps his critics won’t let him off that easy when he gets back behind the microphone at Power106 or on stage at “The Masked Singer.”
If Cannon is truly serious about putting this episode behind him and not ruining his career, he should consider leveraging the platform his many showbiz connections afford him to truly demonstrate the evolution he claims to be making.
If he’s consulting with rabbis to better understand the fallacies he spouted on his podcast, why not use his radio show, for instance, to share that education with the public rather than just telling us about these conversations. As we’ve seen from the words of NFL star DeSean Jackson, Cannon isn’t the only one out there expressing ridiculous views about Jews that could stand to actually see the interview he did with Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Wiesenthal Center.
The truth is, there’s a segment of the audience that’s never going to embrace Cannon for what he’s said this week. But if he not only wants to salvage his mainstream appeal but make an actual difference in the world, backing up his words with true action is the only way to go.