By the time Rick Sanchez, now a former CNN anchor, made his remarks about Jews controlling the media, there was a well-established process for how to deal with these types of situations. Within 24 hours, he was summarily fired, with a curt thank-you for his service to the network.
Call it crisis management on steroids. Sanchez’s firing on October 1 is the latest in a string of incidents in which prominent journalists have been dismissed in the blink of an eye for off-the-cuff remarks that have been perceived as hostile toward Jews.
Before Sanchez there was Octavia Nasr, CNN’s senior editor of Middle East affairs, who was sacked in June for publicly praising — via Twitter — a Muslim cleric associated with Hezbollah. And before her there was Helen Thomas, the 90-year-old veteran White House correspondent who lost her job this past summer when she said that Israelis should “get the hell out of Palestine” and go back to Poland and Germany. In her case, she quit, but there was little chance of her staying on in her job after the uproar began.
There have always been journalists who have undermined the appearance of objectivity and therefore hastened the end of their careers. And there is no shortage of public figures who have stuck their foot in their mouth.
What distinguishes these recent incidents is the speed with which the ax was wielded and the problem that was solved by the firing.
Sanchez made his remarks about Jews while he was criticizing comedian Jon Stewart, who is Jewish and has frequently mocked Sanchez on his TV program, “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.” Sanchez called Stewart a “bigot.” He laughed at the notion that Jews were “an oppressed minority” and went on to say that “everybody who runs CNN is a lot like Stewart, and a lot of people who run all the other networks are a lot like Stewart.” By the next afternoon, Sanchez was no longer an anchor with CNN.
Though the comments by Thomas, Nasr and Sanchez each have their own particularities and degrees of offensiveness, they all were perceived to be slighting Jews. And at first glance, one can imagine that the rapidity with which the three were dismissed might have to do with our culture’s changing sensitivity toward anti-Semitism. But even Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League — the organization that sees itself as responsible for keeping tabs on this particular sensitivity — doesn’t think the speed is indicative of any new kind of vigilance or awareness.
“It’s more a function of the communications revolution than the result of a different conscience,” Foxman said. “I think the values are still the same, the standards are still the same. How you implement them, how you deal with them in terms of crisis management has changed, because it’s much more difficult to make things go away or control them.”
Other media critics backed up Foxman’s point. The Internet and 24-hour cable news has changed the way information is disseminated. Ten or 15 years ago, the media used to act as a filter, parsing out news and placing it in a certain context. A story about a controversial comment like the one uttered by Sanchez would have been reported out. The offended parties would have had their say. Sanchez could defend himself, and his bosses might make a point, as well. By the time it reached the news consumer, the incident would arrive as a “packaged debate,” said Clint Hendler, a staff writer at the Columbia Journalism Review.
“What’s changed is the speed with which everyone can see the raw remark, the actual, controversial comment,” Hendler said. “With Helen Thomas, we had it on YouTube. With Nasr, she Tweeted it and people re-Tweeted it. It was instantly available to everybody. And with Sanchez, this audio clip was online right away. I listened to it before I read a newspaper story that described it. It comes at you completely unmediated.”
As a result, Hendler and others said, media executives know that a protest can build very quickly and create real challenges. So they choose to act, and fast. Rather than try to weather a crisis or even defend comments that potentially could be explained away — Nasr, for example, did have a reason for her kind words about the cleric whom she was happy to defend — the safest choice is to throw the offender overboard.
And this is not just the case with anti-Semitic comments. Lately, there have been other incidents involving race, with similarly speedy denouements. Laura Schlessinger, who had a popular radio show offering advice, was chased off the air in August after she used a racial epithet and made offensive comments about black people. And in an episode that illustrated the drawbacks of responding so reflexively to a perceived controversy, Shirley Sherrod, an employee at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was forced to resign from her job in July, shortly after a video surfaced in which she seemed to be expressing racism against whites. The full video in fact showed her to make remarks that were the exact opposite of what she was accused of saying. The White House apologized profusely.
But though it certainly seems to be the case that technology has made it easier for these incidents to become explosive very quickly, those making the decision to immediately fire an employee are responding to what they imagine to be an engaged community that will loudly protest any offense.
In this sense, perhaps, Jews have done more than other groups to make it clear that they will not suffer lightly the public slights like those made by Sanchez — let alone by those with even bigger mouths, like Mel Gibson.
As Foxman put it, “We are a community that is sensitive, and — have no doubt — we’ll respond.”
Contact Gal Beckerman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gal Beckerman is the Forward’s Opinion Editor. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. Beckerman was also the New York bureau chief of the Jerusalem Post during the Lebanon War of 2006. He spent 2008 living in Berlin on an Alexander von Humboldt fellowship. His history of the movement to free Jews from the Soviet Union during the Cold War, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” was published in the fall of 2010 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone” was named the 2010 Jewish Book of the Year, receiving a National Jewish Book Award from the by Jewish Book Council. In 2012, he won the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. Contact Gal Beckerman at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter at @galbeckerman