Tuned In

Tricky D—: On Halperin's D-Bomb

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I’m sure this happens to you all the time: you go on vacation for a few lousy days, and next thing you know, one of your coworkers calls the President a dick on live TV.

For those of you who haven’t followed the story, TIME’s Mark Halperin went on MSNBC’s Morning Joe Thursday morning and made that characterization of President Obama’s performance at a press conference over the budget and debt-ceiling negotiations. MSNBC suspended Halperin as a commentator; Halperin apologized on-air; TIME issued a statement calling his remarks inappropriate but didn’t suspend him.*

Not having seen the entire original press conference, I can’t really speak to the substance here, though Halperin’s explanation (that Obama is somehow a “dick” for “blaming” Republicans, who seem to be playing at least as tough as he is in their negotiations) was confusing at best. As a principle, though, sure: presidents can be dicks. One could argue that effective ones have to be sometimes. (Likewise senators, congresspeople and reporters.) I would guess that, say, LBJ, was called worse and was glad to be, and I would wager that most of us have used stronger language about politicians, off camera.

But I will go out on a limb here: if your remarks start a national conversation on “Is the President in fact a dick?” you are not really making a huge contribution to public knowledge.

I happen to be a fan of swearing. I’ve never agreed with the idea that profanity is the sign of a limited vocabulary; the most articulate adults I know swear a lot, colorfully and with great precision. “Dick” says something that “jerk” doesn’t. But it also has a different effect used by a journalist about the president on a cable news show than it does, say, by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.

Halperin must have already known that; thus the tittery, I’m-going-to-be-bad-now intro he gave on Morning Joe, asking if the show had a seven-second delay. Really, the most uncomfortable thing about the whole segment is less the word itself than the awkward reactions of Joe Scarborough, Halperin and everyone else afterward, which captures the Imus-with-training-wheels vibe that is maybe the most annoying aspect of the show. (And maybe the silliest part of the whole incident is the idea that it would all have been fine if someone had just hit the bleep button.)

You can call me an apologist for my bosses, but I’m glad Time didn’t suspend Halperin over something like this. After Rick Sanchez, Octavia Nasr, Juan Williams &c, I think we need to step back from the whole culture of calling for the death penalty after every inopportune tweet, joke, opinion or publicly shared photo. (I’m biased, of course, because I’m sure I will say or write something equally offensive some day, and I would not mind keeping my job.)

In the end, we should probably care less about one d-word than the context: namely, one more cable-news politics segment that was more concerned with the theater of a debate than its substance. How “strong” or “weak” was Obama’s statement? Who won the news cycle? Who had the best messenging (as opposed to the best actual message)? There’s enough worth discussing about the actual budget without being fixated on how mean or nice a certain press conference was. If you’re going to go on a news show and be a–well, you pick the word–at least let it be about something that matters.

*(I’ve made a general point of not commenting on the decisions of TIME or its staff, on the grounds that I’m not the magazine’s ombudsman, and that I would never be considered entirely credible commenting on the publication I work for. But [1] this seemed like a conspicuous enough story that it would seem weird to ignore it, and [2] I’m posting this unedited, with the assurance from my editors that as TIME’s media critic, I’m free to say what I want. Believe that or not.)