Taking in the starchy-prim controversy over MSNBC's indefinite suspension of commentator Mark Halperin for what the New York Times described Friday as "profane disparagement" of President Obama, the first thing that pops to mind is one of the famous scenes from "Casablanca."
It's the one where Claude Rains' Capt. Louis Renault collects his winnings from the croupier of Rick's Cafe Americain while pronouncing himself "shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here."
Halperin, Time magazine's editor at large and its leading political journalist, is also a regular commentator on the MSNBC cable news network. On Thursday's edition of the "Morning Joe" show, he was prodded by the show's co-hosts, Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, to offer his impression of Obama's performance at his Wednesday news conference. After asking whether the show's seven-second delay switch — which allows for the editing of inappropriate remarks — was on, Halperin smirked and said, "I thought he was kind of a dick yesterday."
Bedlam ensued as Scarborough realized a producer had not hit the switch and the comment had been broadcast. Abject apologies immediately were offered all around, but immediately after the show, MSNBC called his remark "completely inappropriate and unacceptable," apologized to the president and suspended Halperin. Time said it had "issued a warning to him that such behavior is unacceptable."
Putting aside, for the moment, the inalienable right of every American to call any elected official — from the chief executive on down — a chucklehead or worse, we probably can agree that vulgarity of this sort isn't suitable in a news broadcast. Moreover, by today's conversational standards, which lamentably are coarse, it's a fairly mild epithet. Still, it would be nice to think that the rapidity of the official reaction had to do with legitimate disapproval. Actually, it is a reflex quickened by practice because what cable news now calls political journalism is set up to produce just this kind of "television moment" and its attendant swirl of attention-getting faux controversy.
Ever since Roger Ailes created Fox News as a low-budget, ideologically conservative televised version of right-wing talk radio — and swept the ratings table in the process — CNN and MSNBC have been consciously counter-programming their successful rival. One of the casualties of this competition has been legitimate political journalism. The Halperin incident is a natural outgrowth of the direction political reporting has taken on the cable networks, and that, in turn, is a consequence of treating political journalism as entertainment, as talk radio does — a trend that has turned out to be the ideologues' best friend. MSNBC now programs for a Democratic audience, while CNN broadcasts ideologues from across the spectrum in a futile and, in fact, illusory stab at fairness. Increasingly, actual political reporters or analysts are replaced by campaign advisors and strategists from both parties. Fox has upped the ante by signing Republican politicians themselves — Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich — as on-air "commentators." The only losers are those who hunger for real reporting or analysis as opposed to partisan spin.
"Morning Joe" is as good an example of this process as any. Scarborough is a former Republican congressman from Florida. He's essentially MSNBC's token conservative and a dependable personality in cable's impersonation of political journalism. His show has a delay switch because two years ago, he used an obscenity to characterize Obama's then-chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. Last year, Scarborough was suspended for making contributions to Republican candidates. Yet there he is, every morning, egging his guests to take just the sort of extreme and, therefore, entertainingly attention-getting remarks that Halperin made.
It's a game everyone is in on, by the way. In this latest episode, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney called on MSNBC executives to express official displeasure with the slight. Later in the day, however, David Axelrod, the president's closest political advisor, told the Washington Post that though he disagreed with Halperin's comment, "He's a decent person and a good journalist."
Halperin's also a kind of political cottage industry, who not only writes for Time and comments on television but also writes an influential political blog. He and John Heilemann wrote a bestselling account of the last presidential campaign — "Game Change" — and have a multimillion-dollar contract to write one on the coming race.
It's all a game — unless, of course, you're one of the people up in the cheap seats, desperately trying to figure out what's going on.