Tuned In

Journalistic Disgrace 2.0

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When the story broke about Washington journalist Helen Thomas getting into trouble for saying Israeli Jews should “go home” to countries like Germany and Poland, I thought about Mike Wallace. My first year at the University of Michigan, there was a controversy over his being asked to speak at commencement. At issue were some racist remarks he’d made on videotape, while shooting a story six years earlier about blacks and Hispanics who had allegedly been conned with difficult-to-read savings and loan contracts. Wallace, not knowing the tape was rolling, joked that the contracts had to be tough to read, “if you’re reading from over watermelon and tacos.”

Wallace apologized, gave his speech, moved on and continued to have a career in TV journalism into his 90s. Thomas resigned from her column within a few days of her video going viral.

I tell the story not to pick on Wallace or re-open wounds–or to say his and Thomas’ remarks were exactly equivalent–but as an example of how much quicker, and more damaging, the repercussions are when journalists say or do stupid things, especially on camera today. Wallace weathered the controversy, and I don’t know if many people think of it anymore when they think of him.

But if there had been YouTube in the ’80s? It’s not as though social media and online video invented the journalistic foot-in-mouth meltdown. CBS fired Jimmy the Greek in 1988 after he made a remark on camera about black athletes having been bred for physical ability; also in the ’80s Howard Cosell got in hot water for referring to an African American football player as a “little monkey” on Monday Night Football. Those and other instances showed the danger of a live mic and TV cameras. But the ability to spread and replay a video moment, over and over, can make the reaction more intense and the consequences swifter.

Plenty of journalists have done stories on how politicians like George Allen (of the “macaca” video) have been tripped up by the speed and immediacy of social media. But it can happen just as quickly to journalists as well. In some cases, their subjects are now empowered by the ability to self-publish on the Internet. When Sarah Palin learned that investigative journalist Joe McGinniss had moved in next door to her, she posted on Facebook and roused the fury of her supporters. When rapper M.I.A. felt burned by a New York Times magazine profile by veteran showbiz reporter Lynn Hirschberg, she tweeted Hirschberg’s phone number to her followers, and released audio excerpts from an interview that she felt the writer quoted from out of context.

Like any public figures, journalists are now subject to the possibility of their worst moments going suddenly global. (And I can only imagine more potential incidents like this in the future; political opinions aside, journos are a pretty salty bunch when they believe they’re off the record.) Yet they work in a media environment in which outrageous statements are rewarded—flip on cable news at any time—and provocative pieces get attention (not a new thing, but at least as true as ever). But cross the porous boundary from outrageous to inexcusable, or pick the wrong target for a provocative piece or book, and you can instantly become the story. Not the sort of thing, I’m guessing, any of these journalists’ first editors taught them about.

It’s the same, of course, for politicians and other celebrities, so I’m not asking anyone to shed any special tears for journalists caught in a sudden Internet storm. But it is interesting that we live in a moment that, on the one hand, encourages outrageousness both in the media and in politics, and that on the other quickly rises up in sudden storms of outrage. You could imagine an outcome in which it’s common for public figures to have careers that burn bright for a while, then suddenly flame out in a Helen Thomas- or George Allen-like moment. Or you could imagine one in which public disgrace becomes ever more common, but, because more common, more temporary.

Evidence of the latter: reports are floating around that CNN is considering signing former New York governor and high-class-hooker client Eliot Spitzer as on-air talent. The key is: get disgraced first—then go into journalism! Then your options are endless.