Sliding Standards: What Are the 'Rules' for Celebrities and Fireable Speech?

Posted: Jun 01, 2018 2:55 PM

Roseanne Barr, a well-established crackpot and loose cannon, published a racist tweet about former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett earlier this week, precipitating the prompt cancellation of her (very successful) ABC sitcom.  I'm generally not a fan of people losing their jobs over controversial or objectionable speech, but outright racism is a pretty bright line that ought not be crossed.  Barr's explanations and excuses fluctuated wildly after sending the now-infamous message, but the fact is that comparing a person of color to an ape has been an established racist trope for decades.  ABC was within its rights -- and in this case, was right, I think -- to severely punish her action.  Freedom of speech does not equate to freedom from consequences; I believe that to be true, even as I resist our society's increasing impulse toward lowering the bar for said consequences, which are too often pursued for cynical ideological reasons.  

Nevertheless, while most Americans would agree that broadcasting bona fide racism into the public sphere is unacceptable, the vile speech of other prominent figures is now coming under renewed scrutiny.  While come critics are looking for double standards, I'm simply interested in discerning...any standards, really.  For example, several months ago, The View's Joy Behar compared Vice President Pence's orthodox Christian beliefs to mental illness.  Shortly thereafter, she offered a chastened apology:

Behar was not fired by ABC for a spasm anti-Christian bigotry, which she articulated in the context of jokey ridicule, and for which she quickly expressed contrite regret.  It's not a defense of Rosanne Barr to note that she also made a very inappropriate joke (not on the air, I might add), then apologized very soon thereafter.  she lost her job, as did everyone on her show.  Racism is indefensible, yes.  Is religious bias a lesser moral offense?  Does the targeted religion make a difference?  Meanwhile, recently re-signed ESPN/ABC employee Keith Olbermann has an extensive history of venomous, profane and abusive tweets -- including one especially vile attack on conservative commentator SE Cupp, in which Olbermann suggested that her mother should have had an abortion or prevented her pregnancy:

Despite his well-known nastiness toward colleagues, this man has found gainful employment at multiple major television giants over the years.  What are the outer limits of excusable public online conduct for ABC employees, exactly?  The network rightly decried Barr's racist "joke" as "abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values."  Racism is its own distinct evil, but does mocking Christians or crudely wishing aloud that women with certain political views had never been born fall within ABC's "values"?  Is such conduct not "abhorrent" or "repugnant"?  To be crystal clear, I am not advocating for more firings; I'm trying to discern where the line is drawn, and why.  Meanwhile, over at Turner Broadcasting's TBS, Samantha Bee is calling the president's daughter perhaps the worst word in the English language due to a political disagreement (about which Bee is naturally confused, misinformed, or lying).  And as others are pointing out, it wasn't an ill-considered, spur-of-the-moment outburst.  It was planned in advance:

This is materially different than racism, but it's not a stretch to imagine mainstream television executives reacting very differently if the ideological roles were different, and the targets of such venom were from the other ideological tribe.  Under pressure, Bee has now apologized.  Is that sufficient under these rules?  Finally, even more wacky and offensive content has been discovered in the archives of hyper-liberal MSNBC host Joy Reid's now-defunct blog.  Before, it was homophobia.  Now, it's 9/11 trutherism. Rather than apologizing for hurting anyone's feelings and explaining that her views have changed, Reid responded to the last round of this controversy by ludicrously claiming that she was somehow hacked -- which nobody believes because its absurd on its face.  With destructive conspiracies now added into the mix, will NBC continue to look the other way at Reid's dishonest evasions?  Relatedly, will large scale corporate advertiser boycotts be demanded or launched against any or all of the personalities or shows mentioned above?  A few sponsors have "suspended" ad buys.  Or are such sanctions generally (but not always) reserved for people outside "the family"?  

I'll close by reiterating that I am not an advocate of the intense policing of speech and seeking to exact political revenge on adversaries via outrage-mongering pile-ons.  The game of partisan scalp collection is soul-crushing and joy-sapping.  But if there are to be lines that cannot be crossed, and rules of the road that will be ruthlessly and instantly enforced against some offenders, it would be useful to know what those regulations are.  Given some of the examples I've touched on in this post, I find myself scratching my head.  And are conservatives even allowed to ask these questions without being scolded for "whataboutism"?  That seems to be the go-to phrase that pays whenever unevenly-applied or confusing standards are questioned.  I'll leave you with headlines from the two most prestigious newspapers in the country, each of which plays a form of defense on Ms. Bee's behalf -- one by ghettoizing the backlash, the other by bemoaning selective pouncing, or something:

What framing! Can you imagine the Times lamenting the injustice of people ignoring the context of Conservative Celebrity X dedicating "nearly seven minutes to the issue of helping veterans before using a crude term to describe Michelle Obama"?  Neither can I.

UPDATE - Here's my discussion of this very topic on Fox last night: