May 2009 Ethics Dunces
Anderson CooperCooper could also be this month’s Liar of the Month, but we are over-run with liars lately.
On April 15, 2009, as supposedly neutral broadcast reporters almost unanimously ridiculed the “tea party” protests organized to call attention to the unprecedented debt being piled onto the budget by the Obama Administration, CNN’s Anderson Cooper set a new low by invoking a crude slang term for oral sex in a discussion about the protests with David Gergen. “It’s hard to talk when you’re teabagging,” the star of “Anderson Cooper 360’” said, launching snickers on the part of slang-literate liberals, outrage from savvy conservatives, and puzzlement from everyone else. Naturally, coming out of the new, unprofessional “anything goes” environment where what once was journalism dwells, Cooper’s comments didn’t appear to bother the network at all.
Now, more than a month later, Cooper was asked about the comment after he had delivered a lecture at UCLA. He called it a "stupid, silly, one-line aside," which is more or less accurate—“unprofessional breach of journalistic standards and inappropriate on-air conduct” would be more descriptive. Then this:
"I think it’s an incorrect statement to say I was, in any way, trying to disparage legitimate protests. I don’t think it’s my job to disparage, or encourage, which oddly other networks seemed to be doing. Protest is the great right of all Americans, and it’s not my job in any way to make fun of people or disparage what they’re doing."
This statement includes not one, but two astounding statements.
The first is of the “what are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?” variety, as in the joke about the husband who is caught by his wife with a comely and naked blond in his bed and still claims innocence. Except, in this case, it is ears and eyes. The professional news anchor directly compared those participating in the tea party (which in many cases involved the symbolic use and display of teabags) with those engaging in a oral sex. But he was not disparaging the protests or encouraging others to disparage them? How does this work, exactly? Jokes that compare individuals and activities with subjects that could not be discussed in polite company are a form of ridicule and disparagement. That’s what they are. Everybody knows it. Everybody who saw Cooper knew that’s what he was doing. Denying it now is transparently dishonest, or suggests that he really doesn’t appreciate how inappropriate his comment was. It was more than “silly and stupid.” It was offensive and wrong.
The capper, however, is Cooper’s “…which oddly other networks seemed to be doing.”
OTHER networks, like rival MSNBC, were disparaging the protests, like when MSNBC show host Rachel Madow did her own extended riff on “teabagging,” but not CNN, because Anderson’s “teabagging” joke was, well, different, somehow.
Meanwhile, it was a CNN reporter, Susan Roesgen, who disgraced her network and profession by pummeling a tea party protester with partisan talking-point retorts and then declared the protests to be “anti-America and anti-CNN.” This was, by many furlongs, the worst example of the media doing exactly what Cooper now says he and CNN would never do. But he did do it. Clearly, so did Roesgen. And the network made no apologies, or even indicated that their reporters’ conduct was contrary to CNN policy.
Anderson could have used his disparaging joke to reaffirm a dedication to high standards of broadcast journalism. Instead, he denied that there was a problem. This suggests that he doesn’t realize that there is one.