Topic: Sports & Entertainment
Late Night Ethics: Letterman vs. Palin
As everyone knows by now, David
Letterman finally apologized to Sarah Palin and her daughters.
It was too late. Weve seen the
ethical essence of David Letterman, and theres nothing funny about it.
Comedians are supposed to say amusing
things, and whether their comedy is in good taste or bad, appropriate
or inappropriate, benign of offensive, is usually a judgement call. Jokes
that appeal to an audiences baser instincts, such as sexism, racism or
just meanness, may cast doubts on the character of both the jokes transmitter
and receiver, but funny is still the key word. Comic Wanda Sykes, who
got President Obama to chuckle when she wished kidney failure on Rush
Limbaugh at the Washington press corps dinner, would have received less
criticism had she actually said something funny or clever enough to compensate
for her cruel tone.
There are jokes, however, that
may cause actual harm because of their setting or the identity of the
joke-teller. A joke that may be hilarious and harmless at a private party
could be disastrous on national television, and while a Jay Leno gag about
the Special Olympics might be easy to shake off as momentary bad taste,
when President Obama uses the competition in a quip (as he did to make
fun of his own bowling skills), it was a regrettable gaffe. Sensitive
and innocent people were hurt.
The culture has evolved some fairly
straightforward ethical rules about jokes in the national media. Public
figures are fair game. Private citizens who have made the news by doing
something illegal, crude, unusually stupid or strange are also legitimate
targets. Clearly taboo: making jokes about non-public figures only because
of their age, gender, sex, disability or race, and ridiculing children,
the disabled and others who are unusually vulnerable or unable to defend
Letterman has made many fairly
crude and mean-spirited jokes about Governor Palin, though he is not the
only one. It is clear that Letterman believes his ideological differences
with the Alaska Governor justify especially nasty treatment. In this he
is usually on safe turf, given his audience and the current tilt of the
national media, though Letterman dishonestly persists in claiming that
he is an equal opportunity offender, in the words of Don Imus, another
wit who has different standards for those he likes and those he doesnt.
Daves Palin-bashing finally appeared
to cross the line with his joke about the governors trip to Yankee stadium
and his quip about her daughter getting knocked up by Alex Rodriguez
during the seventh inning stretch. Palins 14 year-old daughter was her
companion at the game, so Lettermans joke had the effect of suggesting
that the statutory rape of a child was amusing. Palin appropriately called
Letterman on it.
[At this point, permit me an aside
about womens groups and media watchdogs. When Don Imus, in some spontaneous
banter on his radio program, suggested that the young women who played
on a college basketball team were hos, womens rights groups ran him
off the air. These werent public figures, they said, but young women
who were attacked, out of the blue, for their gender and race. Imus immediately
apologized, but to no avail. He had few defenders, in the media or elsewhere.
But when Letterman made his joke that, regardless of his intent, had the
effect of making attributing public sexual activity to a 14-year old girl—-at
least Imuss victims were adults!—none of these critics condemned him.
Many of them even defended him, arguing, in the ethically tone-deaf way,
that lots of other comics had made tasteless jokes about Palin and her
What was the difference between
what Imus had done and what Letterman did? Letterman claimed, plausibly,
that he hadnt meant the joke to apply to Palins younger daughter, but
rather Bristol, her older daughter who famously was pregnant out of wedlock
during the presidential campaign. (Bristol, by the way, is no older than
the basketball players.) But Lettermans joke was scripted, while Imus
got in trouble extemporaneously—the defense of I didnt mean it the
way it came out is far more reasonable for an ad lib than for something
written on a cue card. Imus apologized, but Letterman refused to apologize
initially, saying, essentially, that may have been a bad joke but that
Palin should shut up and live with it.
Again: What was the difference?
One thing: Sarah Palin is a conservative politician who rubs liberals
the wrong way, so they dont care whether her daughter—-who is not a
public figure and is not a proper target for any national commentator—is
mistreated. If a joke, even one made at the expense of her minor daughter,
bugs Sarah Palin, good. And if a young teen is humiliated and debased
by a late night comics crude remarks, well, she should have chosen a
more politically correct mother. That, my friends, is disgusting, hypocritical,
No, I dont think Letterman should
have been run off the air like Don Imus, who had been living dangerously
close to the line of racism for a long time and for whom this was, undeniably,
the last straw. But if the critics of Imus had a milligram of fairness
or integrity that wasnt poisoned by ideological bias, they would have
supported Palin, a woman and mother who was appropriately standing up
for her daughter. They dont, and they didnt. Back to Dave…]
Letterman brushed off Palins foul
call, saying the joke wasnt about her daughter…later, he claimed that
he didnt even know that any of Palins daughters were with her at the
game. But when a comedian makes a joke about a public figure going to
a baseball game with her daughter and the daughter being sexually assaulted
there, and it turns out that the figures daughter really was at the game,
then the comic cannot logically or reasonable still claim that the joke
wasnt about the daughter who really attended the game. His intent doesnt
matter, at that point. A week later, when Letterman finally did apologize
on the air, this concept is what he claims he suddenly understood.
Nonsense. Lettermans pants, about
which he frequently jokes, were on fire. Hes a smart man, and he had
to know his initial joke had missed its mark and hit an innocent bystander…and
Letterman didnt care. Like the media critics and womens advocacy groups
who dont think that a 14-year-old girl whose virtue was impugned by a
TV star was worthy of as much support as 19 and 20-year old college athletes
whose character was insulted on a morning radio show, Letterman doesnt
think the people he disagrees with politically—or their teenage daughters!—deserve
fair, civilized or respectful treatment. To make this crystal clear, he
followed up his botched A-Rod joke a few nights later with a joke about
Gov. Palins slutty flight attendant look.
Then, to Daves dismay, the criticism
of Letterman began to grow and take hold. Conservative talk-show hosts
and blogs were like a dog with a bone, and the more the story was circulated,
the more fair-minded Americans of all political persuasions became annoyed
with Daves callousness. With a new rival, Conan OBrien, in the Tonight
Show chair, Lettermans CBS bosses undoubtedly told him it was time to
wave a white flag and pretend to be decent, and he did. His apology was
rambling, uncomfortable, and, to my ear, palpably insincere, but it was
an apology. Palin accepted it.
But we learned something about
David Letterman, if we hadnt come to this conclusion already. Hes not
a nice guy, hes not a fair man, and hes a bully.
And Im not laughing at him any more.