Monday, July 4, 2011

Mark Halperin's Calculated Naughtiness

One of the most thriving spectator sports in the country seems to be pundit-watching: waiting for the next mouthpiece of the left or the right to say something outrageous about either a political leader or a fellow member of the chattering class. This week, the culprit is Mark Halperin, an editor-at-large at Time and frequent contributor to MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” show. Asked to comment on President Obama’s performance at Wednesday’s press conference, Halperin smirked, asked if there was a seven-second delay on the broadcast, and proceeded to say he thought the President “was kind of a dick yesterday.” But the delay didn’t happen, and Halperin’s comment was broadcast.

Oh, the humanity! The incident has attracted far more attention than it deserves: Halperin issued a very strange on-air apology including the words “I became part of the joke, but that’s no excuse,” and followed it up with a tweet that seems to imply that the unfunniness rather than the offensiveness of his remark was what merited an apology. Joe Scarborough, having promised to “catch” Halperin if he “fell” proceeded not to do so. Presidential press secretary Jay Carney, apparently having nothing better to do, was quickly on the phone to the MSNBC muckety-mucks, demanding… well, whatever it was he demanded. And the cable network execs promptly suspended Halperin indefinitely, as if an editor-at-large at Time really needs the gig to make ends meet.

All this, frankly, was pretty predictable, except for the details of Halperin’s measured and evasive apologies. Nor were there any surprises that, say, the Daily Kos crew went apoplectic, or that Rush Limbaugh, conflating propinquity with causality (which is actually more honest than usual for him), declared the Dow Jones average went up 145 points because of Halperin’s comment.

It is, moreover, certainly true that Halperin isn’t the only one to look bad in this incident, and I understand the arguments that Scarborough and Alex Korson, the producer who couldn’t figure out the intricacies of the bleep button for the seven-second delay (only a staple of every live broadcast for generations), bear as much or more of the responsibility for the kerfuffle. I even get it that Carney looks bad, although without knowing the details of his conversation with MSNBC execs, I’m not ready to condemn him overmuch: clearly, if he demanded that Halperin be fired (or else…), that would be inappropriate. But I’d object far less had he said, simply, “c’mon, guys, really? Criticism is fine, but let’s keep the tone and the vocabulary above 10-year-old level, OK?”

But I confess myself intrigued at a motif in the defenses—or, more accurately, partial defenses of Halperin. These come from the left, the right, and the non-partisan; from those I respect, those I don’t, and those I’ve never heard of; from professional journalists and amateur bloggers. Here’s a sampling from a multitude of options:
Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune: “I think we need to avoid banishing him or anyone else from the airwaves forever for a minor slip—especially after he was specifically told that he would be bleeped by censors.”

Judith Miller and Douglas Schoen at NewsMax (quick, name someone less qualified to judge journalistic ethics than Judith Miller… no, Jayson Blair doesn’t count): “Halperin prefaced his remarks that morning by warning his colleagues that NBC might need a seven-second edit button after he said what he was thinking about how President Obama had handled his press conference the day before. A veteran ABC television reporter, Halperin knew enough to warn the network that he was going to be, at best, more irreverent than usual and probably profane.”

Brian Stelter and Jeremy W. Peters on the Media Decoder blog at the New York Times: “Before Mr. Halperin made the quip on ‘Morning Joe,’ he had asked if there was a seven-second delay available, a feature of television control rooms that can be used to bleep out stray curse words on live TV.”

Gloria Goodale of the Christian Science Monitor: “Mr. Halperin asked if the seven-second delay was available, and the cohosts urged him to ‘go for it.’”

Leah Lax on “Halperin's gaffe came on Thursday, when he was commenting on Obama's Wednesday press conference. He first asked host Joe Scarborough, ‘Are we on the seven-second delay?’ implying that he wanted to speak freely but not have his comments broadcast.”
Trouble is, that request makes Halperin’s behavior worse, not more excusable, because it shows premeditation. You don’t go on national television as a pundit and expect not to have your words broadcast. You don’t pre-figure your remarks with cutesy talk about seven-second delays unless you are so enamored with the delicious naughtiness of what you are about to utter that you have made a conscious decision to be outré. This is emphatically not a situation like that described by Robert Thompson of the Bleir Center of Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University (he’s quoted in the Goodale piece linked above). Thompson says that “Halperin’s use of the word was tasteless, but he was just reaching for a word where language is more exciting.” Bullshit. He wasn’t “reaching for a word.” He had decided, probably before even going on the air, that he was going to call President Obama a dick. Such a clever boy.

I do understand that occasionally a word will slip out in a moment of anxiety or lowered guard. I’ve been guilty of this myself. But, as in the case of my use of the word “bullshit” a moment ago, the overwhelming majority of incidents like this one are quite intentional. Halperin wanted to be edgy or whatever. And, significantly, he rather skillfully built anticipation for his use of the… erm… penile noun by announcing his purported need to be bleeped. [Side note to Judith Miller and Douglas Schoen: “dick” is indeed a noun, not an adjective, as you described it. You’d know the difference if you came to my colleague’s production of Schoolhouse Rock Live!.] His entire presence on “Morning Joe,” then, was designed with the primary if not sole attention to calling attention to Mark Halperin. Curiously, few observers—the only exceptions I’ve found being being Jon Stewart and Salon’s Alex Pareene—have caught on to what to me is a rather transparent ploy.

Indeed, Pareene’s description of Thursday’s carefully staged event is pretty much perfect:
When you have a wacky “cocktail party” morning show where “anything can happen,” sometimes what will happen—especially if your guest list features a lot of useless tools like Mark Halperin—is that someone will call the president a “dick” because he thinks it's endearingly naughty. There was even a big, smirky buildup to Halperin calling the president a “dick.” It didn't just slip out. Everyone got really excited that Halperin was about to use a bad word, because these people are children, and Halperin looked very pleased with himself after he said the bad word on the TV. Chuckle chuckle chuckle! Faux-outrage! Fun and high jinks! High-quality political analysis, everyone.
In other words, Halperin told everyone watching the show that he was about to be ever-so-trendy: nothing says “street” like a guy in a charcoal grey pin-stripe suit and a Tom DeLay haircut, after all. He knew that the cameras would be pointed at him, knew that the audience was primed for him to say something outrageous, knew they could lip-read that much. In other words, he wanted to become the guy whose “honest” assessment of the dickitude of the President of the United States was “censored.” Only the incompetence of the show’s executive producer prevented Halperin’s little wet dream from coming to full fruition.

Or was it incompetence? Are you seriously telling me that someone producing a show at a major cable network can’t handle a delay button, especially when he’s forewarned? That kind of failure would have gotten you fired from my college radio station 35 years ago. So perhaps there was more collusion than ineptness. Certainly that would explain the curious “I was part of the joke” comment. If Korson still has a job next week, we’ll know.

But the centerpiece of this little pseudo-tempest is, must be, Mark Halperin’s self-promotion. Seriously, Gentle Reader, if you’re not a devotee of “Morning Joe” (I watched about five minutes of it once and have so far kept my vow not to make that mistake again), could you have told me a week ago who Mark Halperin was? I confess that hearing his name conjured only vague recollections of the guy who co-authored a best-selling book, Game Change, on the 2008 election. I also dimly recall his being the guy who repeated a mischaracterization of then-candidate Obama’s statement about Henry Kissinger during a debate, and who has certainly often been quite critical of the Obama administration (The Media Matters rebuttal, which of course must be filtered through its own less-than-nonpartisan lens, is here).

Perhaps Halperin is over-rated as both a journalist and a pundit. But if we took everybody who fit that description off pseudo-news talk shows, then the so-called “news networks”—CNN, Fox, and MSNBC alike—would have to do some actual reporting or face huge chunks of dead air: clearly unacceptable options as far as they’re concerned. What’s important to me—both because it gives an all-too-chilling view of the state of contemporary journalism and because it is so clearly of primary importance to Halperin himself—is that he went from a relatively but not completely unknown journalist to a 15-minutes-of-fame variety celebrity by speaking a single word. It bothers me not a whit what that word was. But just as I won’t watch a college basketball game announced by Dick Vitale (he would be named “Dick,” wouldn’t he?) because he thinks he’s more important than the game, I also won’t pay any attention to Mark Halperin because he wants the story to be about him.

But he doesn’t need me. He called the President a dick. He’s a made man. The offer from Fox News is no doubt being negotiated as we speak.

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