Topic: Media

The Unethical Humiliation of Alec Baldwin

It is tempting to take pleasure in the spectacle of actor Alec Baldwin being raked over the coals by pundits and public opinion because of the nasty voice-mail he directed at his twelve year-old daughter, Ireland. Baldwin, a talented and versatile performer, is also a favorite of the Angry Left, an arrogant and self-righteous political attack-dog of whom it can be fairly said that whatever his assessments of national issues may lack in temperance, they make up for in simple-mindedness. All irrelevant, unfortunately. Baldwin is the victim, not the villain, of the latest cyber-gotcha, in which his estranged family has broken every rule of fairness and decency in order to harm his reputation and cause him emotional, and quite possibly financial, pain.

The Scoreboard is not going to quote from Baldwin’s angry rant that he left for his daughter, who had mistakenly or intentionally failed to be available for a scheduled phone chat. Those who want to read it will have no difficulty finding it elsewhere on the web, but the most important reason you won’t read it here is that none of us have any right to know the details of a undeniably private exchange. Yes, even celebrities have some areas of privacy.

Baldwin, engaged in an extremely nasty custody battle over his daughter with ex-wife Kim Basinger, became enraged because he apparently felt that Ireland’s unavailability was an intentional snub, and he expressed his rage in the kind of harsh words that no parent should utter to a child, but that most parents, in their worst moments of frustration, do. Although the route by which his message ended up on the gossip website TMZ is not confirmed, it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to divine what happened. Ireland, miffed at her father’s reprimand, played the recording for her mother, and Basinger saw it as useful weapon of mass destruction to use against Baldwin in their legal and PR battles. She almost certainly gave it to the voracious, amoral celebrity media machine (probably violating a court order in the process) and let the internet do the rest. Now Baldwin is frantically issuing apologies and trying to prevent the public from turning on him, or tuning out his successful NBC comedy, “30 Rock.”

There is no way, none, to see Basinger’s action as anything but a vicious violation of trust and confidentiality. She knew that Baldwin’s words to Ireland were private, a conversation between father and daughter. This was not some public dressing down in a restaurant or airport, over-heard by strangers. Though Baldwin’s family is estranged, fractured and dysfunctional, it is a family still, and there is an implicit understanding in families that what occurs among family members will not be shared with others without consent. Basinger knows this, just as all of us know it; does anyone doubt that she has said and written many things to Baldwin that she would never want broadcast to the world? Is there any one of us who cannot recall angry words to a child, sibling or spouse that would horrify our admirers if plastered on the front page of USA Today? We have here the essence of a major Golden Rule infraction, for this is something we would never want done to us and could never imagine a circumstance when it would be fair to have this done to us. Yet people all over America, including radio and television talk show hosts and scores of bloggers, are leaping to condemn, not Basinger, not the media that has aided and abetted her unethical tactic, but Baldwin.

Was Alec Baldwin wrong to direct such harsh language against his young daughter? Of course, just as I and my wife have been wrong on more than one occasion to lose our tempers and berate our wonderful but stubborn and challenging twelve year-old son. The difference is that I have had the opportunity to cool off and apologize without having my words emblazoned on a website under a headline like “ethicist verbally abuses young boy.” Parenting is hard work; perfect parenting in the midst of marital warfare may well be impossible. One does not have to excuse or approve Baldwin’s conduct to agree that he should have the right to make mistakes as a parent and, like the rest of us, address them in the privacy of his family without being exposed to national humiliation.

Is it reasonable to expect online and broadcast media to resist an opportunity to bring to light unflattering conduct by a celebrity in his private life, even when the media knows that it is furthering the destructive agenda of angry ex-spouse? Sadly, no. But once the recording becomes widely available, it is reasonable to expect political enemies of Baldwin not to use his ill-chosen words to his daughter as cheap-shot weapons of revenge. Conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, among others, had a field day with the Baldwin message, and shame on him. Baldwin political posturings can be attacked on their own terms; using a personal family dispute to discredit him is unforgivable. Limbaugh doesn’t like Baldwin based on his political statements: fine; nobody would expect that he would. But those whom we dislike still deserve to be treated fairly. Limbaugh should understand that; he’s had ideological adversaries exploit his personal problems, and he knows it doesn’t feel good at all.

It is time, in short, to show a little care, empathy and kindness towards Alec Baldwin, who did not deserve the national humiliation that has come his way. But if his ordeal prompts parents to think about how their angry outbursts at their children would sound to a stranger, it might do some good after all. Any of us could be Alec Baldwin. Luckily, he’s the only one who had the misfortune to be married to Kim Basinger.

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