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MSNBC’s disparate treatment of Baldwin and Bashir

Staff Columnist

Published: Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Updated: Tuesday, December 3, 2013 21:12

In recent weeks, Alec Baldwin and Martin Bashir, both hosts of shows on MSNBC, were embroiled in scandals after making comments that many found deeply offensive. Though the comments themselves are troubling, perhaps more alarming is MSNBC’s disparate treatment of the two situations. Alec Baldwin yelled at a photographer outside his apartment, using anti-gay slurs. In response, MSNBC fired him and canceled his show. Martin Bashir, on the other hand, responded to comments Sarah Palin had made relating the burden of the national debt to slavery. He described horrifying punishments a British landowner in Jamaica inflicted on his slaves in the 18th century. The punishments involved brutal beatings and forcing slaves to defecate and urinate in each other’s mouths. He concluded by stating “if anyone is truly qualified for a dose of (such) discipline … she would be the outstanding candidate.” Though he apologized on air and has taken a “vacation” that some speculate to be a suspension, MSNBC has not publicly announced any disciplinary action and continues to refer to Bashir’s leave as a “vacation.”

There are several possible reasons why MSNBC would treat these two situations so differently. Alec Baldwin’s show had been on air for less than a week and Martin Bashir has been working at MSNBC since 2010. Perhaps MSNBC was more willing to dismiss a new employee displaying inappropriate behavior than one with whom they had developed a long working relationship. Yet a longer period of work with MSNBC should not protect Bashir in this instance. Bashir’s comments were made on the air, whereas Baldwin’s comments were made privately and in a fit of passion. Baldwin demonstrated the poor judgment and lack of consideration that most humans, regrettably, fall victim to in their private lives. Bashir clearly felt that his comments were appropriate and acceptable, not only in private, but in the public arena of political discourse. This indicates an astonishing lack of regard for the respectability and professionalism of the press that should trouble MSNBC more than an offensive indiscretion committed in a private character.

Perhaps they were more disturbed by the outright vulgarity of the language used by Baldwin than by Bashir’s comments, as he did not actually use foul language. This possibility is troubling. While MSNBC is right to be concerned about their hosts’ use of offensive language, vile ideas and suggestions do not become less vile because the particular words chosen to convey such ideas are not themselves vulgar or offensive. MSNBC should be concerned with the sentiments Baldwin and Bashir are expressing, rather than the actual words. Some ideas are so horrid that the chosen diction of the speaker is irrelevant.

The most alarming possibility is that MSNBC made the determination that Baldwin’s comments would be more offensive to their core viewership than Bashir’s. The fact that many of their viewers likely see Sarah Palin as a political rival does not excuse the type of savage vitriol employed by Bashir. Cruel and inconsiderate comments are not mitigated by the identity of their target. In political discourse, everyone should be treated with respect and civility, not only the people you agree with or the groups you support.

The deplorable actions Bashir describes should remind us of the great callousness and depravity that humanity is capable of and inspire us to treat our fellow man with kindness and respect. Yet Bashir misses this great lesson of human history and suggests resurrecting the sadistic relics of an inhumane institution to punish Sarah Palin. If a host may remain employed after expressing the same wishes as a cruel plantation manager, a dangerous precedent is set for the standards of the press and public discussion. Alec Baldwin’s outburst was certainly inexcusable, yet it was expressed out of personal frustration with a photographer. Martin Bashir’s comments were made as journalistic commentary and MSNBC’s lack of response illustrates a severe misunderstanding of the seriousness of his comments. Deplorable statements, whether made in public or private, deserve censure, and the inconsistency between MSNBC’s vocal opposition to Alec Baldwin and their silence concerning Martin Bashir greatly damages their reputation among all who value courteous and respectful political discussion.


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