NPR's show Wait Wait Don't Tell Me makes fun each week of the news – for them it's like fishing in a barrel.
There's no end of material. But in a recent show, Wait Wait went a little too far in ridiculing Fox News commentator Michelle Malkin in a "Bluff the Listener" segment.
They had no idea Malkin was going through a family crisis.
One of the show's staple segments involves two of that week's three panelists making up a story. The third panelist tells one that is true. A listener calls in and guesses which story is accurate. Usually, they are all so fantastical it's hard to decide which one is correct.
Each panelist makes up and writes his or her own tale, occasionally with some guidance from the Wait Wait staff.
On the March 19 show, panelist Maz Jobrani, founder of the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour, took a turn at the conceit of a conservative columnist who finds out a relative is a secret Muslim. Jobrani didn't do any fact-checking.
"Our panelists are going to tell you three stories about people uncovering a secret about their identity, only one of which was in this week's news," said host Peter Sagal. "Choose that true story; you'll win Carl's voice on your home answering machine or voicemail. Ready to play?"
Jobrani went first:
"Conservative commentator and Fox News contributor Michelle Malkin has expressed her fear that there are Muslims amongst us who are hiding their true identity. The most prominent, she claims, being Barack Obama. However, when she set out to find proof of these undercover Muslims, she found more than she bargained for. It turns out that there are, indeed, some Muslims hiding their identity to fly under the radar. The most pertinent one for Malkin being her own grandfather. Yes, Grandpa Malkin, who is from the Philippines but lives with Michelle's parents, had not told the family about his religion for fear of being ostracized and thrown out. "Do you know how hard it is to pray five times a day when your family doesn't know? I had to excuse myself to the bathroom every time I wanted to pray. And the ham dinners, don't get me started on the ham dinners."
"Malkin was in shock when her grandfather revealed his true identity to her. He explained that he had been closeted Muslim for too long and it was time for him to live his life and be happy with himself. Malkin used the revelation to confirm her argument that Muslims are taking over. First they wanted the youth, and now they're going after my grandfather? My 90-year-old grandfather? This is sick."
Jobrani's story was just that, a story. Malkin doesn't have a 90-year-old Muslim grandfather.
She and some of her fans were outraged at the tale. Not because it was inaccurate, but because Malkin's cousin, Marizela Perez has disappeared. Perez, 18, and a student at University of Washington in Seattle, has been missing since March 5. Malkin has been using her media talents to draw attention to her cousin's disappearance.
But Wait Wait didn't know about Malkin's missing cousin.
"We had no idea Ms. Malkin was going through this family crisis," said Michael Danforth, Wait Wait senior producer. "We certainly wouldn't have used her name if we had known. We deeply regret any hurt we've caused her or her family."
Both my office and Wait Wait got about 50 phone calls and emails.
"Am shocked that you would torment the family of Michelle Malkin while they have been tirelessly searching for her missing cousin," wrote Rob Tram of Seattle, WA. "It shows there are no limits to how low leftist thugs will go to attack their political opponents. You jerks owe her and her family an apology by I am sure she won't get it. Liberals are slime."
Wait Wait is an equal opportunity exploiter, making fun of both liberals and conservatives. But in this case Tram is wrong. Malkin is getting an apology.
"After some discussion, we decided a direct personal apology was the best response," said Danforth. "Our panelist Maz Jobrani, who read the fake story using her name, has reached out with a personal response to Ms. Malkin."
Before the apology, Malkin wrote a piece slamming NPR, "Fund Your Own Lame Liberal Humor –and Leave My Family Alone."
Aside from ire at being a target during a tough time, Malkin pointed out that she doesn't believe Obama was born outside the U.S., as the so-called Birthers do.
"The premise of Jobrani's p.c. comedy gag is completely false, as actual readers of my work know," wrote Malkin. "I was one of the first conservatives to criticize Birthers who go to the extreme and have never accused President Obama of being a 'secret Muslim.' "
Jim Duncan of Lancaster, CA, is no fan of Malkin's and he too felt making her the "butt of a joke story" was wrong.
"Besides the mischaracterization of her views (which I personally don't subscribe to on the whole), they seem unaware that the Malkin family currently is dealing with a missing person tragedy," wrote Duncan. "This should have been easily discovered by a simple 'malkin' Google search. Malkin deserves to be the butt of jokes, and as a public figure — not to mention a rather vitriolic commentator — she should expect it. However, at a time when her family is in crisis with her cousin missing and probably in danger or dead, maybe, just maybe, NPR can ask its staff to pull some punches."
The Wait Wait team and I agree. Had Jobrani done any research, he would have written something different, said Danforth.
But on the other hand, said Danforth, had there not been a family tragedy, Malkin is a fair target. 'Bluff the Listener' "is a fictional part of the show," he said. "She's a public person."
Commentators and other officials are absolutely fair game for Wait Wait. While Malkin clearly is a public person, this particular skit was in bad taste and could have been avoided with a quick online search.
By the way, despite Malkin's accusations that the laughter sounded canned, it's not. Wait Wait is produced weekly before a live audience. "Those are live people, actually laughing," said host Sagal. "Or not, as the case may be."