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It's time for John Gibson to go

CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

January 26, 2008|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

Why exactly is John Gibson still on the air?

Three days ago, the Fox News talk-show host opened his radio show with hate-filled, and prepared, mockery of actor Heath Ledger's death. Auditory clips of Ledger's most famous film, "Brokeback Mountain," played with a background of funeral music, ending with his character's lover, Jack Twist, saying, "I wish I knew how to quit you."

"Well, he found out how to quit you," Gibson chortled before launching into a show that repeatedly referenced the 28-year-old actor's death as if it were some sort of joke. Among other things, Gibson suggested, laughing the whole time, that the actor had killed himself because of the stock market downturn, the stalled John Edwards campaign or because he was just a "weirdo" with "a serious drug problem."

Never mind that the cause of death has yet to be established. Never mind that even if it were a drug overdose or a suicide, it would still be a tragedy, and not because he was a movie star but because he was a 28-year-old human being.

After the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and other groups denounced Gibson's behavior, he at first defended it as a joke, explaining that he had long made fun of the "quit you" line and wasn't about to stop now. Then Thursday, clearly responding to increased pressure, he issued a statement during Fox News' "The Big Story With John Gibson and Heather Nauert," saying he was sorry if some people were offended by his remarks and also that he was sorry Ledger had died.

If this reminds you of another radio personality's recent tour through the early stages of (at least temporary) career death -- denial, anger, bargaining -- there's good reason. Don Imus lost his show as a result of a similar "joke" -- a racist reference to the Rutgers women's basketball team -- and there is no good reason why Gibson's fate should not be similar.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Gibson's remarks was their premeditation. The opening had been scripted. Then he enjoyed his ghastly jaunt so much he could not let it drop. The Imus excuse -- that he made a regrettable off-the-cuff comment -- does not even apply, actually. Gibson's defense -- I have been making fun of gays for years, why should I stop just because someone died? -- is truly chilling, while his "I'm sorry if some of you found my remarks offensive" is a classic non-apology.

Yes, there are many things occupying our minds these days -- the economy, the presidential race, the writers strike, the weather -- but this is one of those moments, folks, when we, the television and radio audience, need to take a moment and consider where we stand.

Because it's easy to say to yourself, "Well, what else do you expect from these ridiculous 'schlock jocks'? They seem to go out of their way to prove they're idiots."

When my editor asked if I wanted to write something about Gibson, my first reaction was, "Why give the guy more attention than he deserves?" But that's a cop-out, and one that has been used over the years to excuse or ignore invective leveled at many, including the Irish and African Americans, as well as Jews and women.

That Gibson would choose the event of a young man's death -- a young heterosexual man, it must be said -- to exercise his "right" to homophobia is not just a matter of taste, it's an issue of policy. What is Fox News' policy about the language of hate? And more important, what is our policy?

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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