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Susan Zakin

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Swift Punishment: Behind Chalian's Convention Crack

Posted: 09/04/2012 3:37 pm

The recent flap over a rather tasteless crack by Yahoo bureau chief David Chalian at the Republican convention instigated a familiar outcry. Chalian, who was unaware that a mike was in his vicinity, remarked that the Romneys couldn't care less about the toll of Hurricane Isaac. "They're happy to have a party with black people drowning," Chalian said.

Oops. Yahoo fired Chalian, and media types were regaled with the usual salvos of self-righteousness from our colleagues.

The only thing that's truly notable about this incident is how rabidly Americans punish speech that falls outside the boundaries of bland, pre-packaged sound bites. Whether it's Howard Dean's rebel yell, or Barack Obama saying "When you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody" (as if that's somehow an ignoble sentiment) the nation reacts swiftly to anyone who might dare to actually....tell the truth. And the truth is often best expressed by satire, as Jonathan Swift knew. That lesson never made it across the Atlantic, apparently; instead we got Rupert Murdoch.

The real outrage is the self-referential superficiality of the media. Compare Chalian's comment to this remark by a well-coiffed CNN commentator: "That's great TV."

This is Journalism 2012. The problem is that the comment scans for most TV-watchers as an endorsement of the Republicans. Great TV. What higher compliment is there, after all?

I'm not saying that Chalian shouldn't have been reprimanded for getting a little overexcited and forgetting that he might be overheard. But reporters are supposed to be advocates for the people who get a raw deal. The way things are now, if you're not outraged, you shouldn't be doing the job. I wonder at the comments like this one, from an editor friend who runs a decent but decidedly non-controversial publication in Washington DC:

"He should apologize to the American public, which already holds journalists in such low esteem."

Really? Journalists have a lot to apologize for, but Chalian's remark strikes me as pretty low on the list. People are disenchanted with journalists because they perceive that we're dishonest. They're right. The tsunami of coverage emanating from the Republican convention is white noise at best, and destructive idiocy at worst.

What emerges from the yada yada yada are the powerful images of people whose homes were destroyed by Hurricane Isaac - and yes, many of them did seem to be black, what a surprise -- juxtaposed with the chirpy coverage of the convention.

It's time to stop pretending that anything is "objective." The American public knows better. The only ones still in denial are reporters. Fairness is the goal, and the tough part is that you don't get a pass on analytical thinking. In a world full of mindless drivel, Chalian's pointed remark will live on as a meme long after the unmemorable remarks by his colleagues who still have their jobs.

Onward to the Democrats.

 

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