NPR's "oddly informative" quiz show Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me is intended to entertain, not offend. But more than 100 listeners contacted NPR to complain that a series of jokes about Pope Benedict XVI Saturday crossed the line, even for comedy.
This exchange on the show caused the greatest offense:
ROY BLOUNT (Guest): It's a real celebrity, one of the biggest celebrities in the world. I happen to know the answer to this. It is the pope.
PETER SAGAL (Host): It is Pope Benedict XVI, yes. Italian perfumer Silvana Casoli creates perfumes for both Madonna and Sting. So it seemed natural that she would be the one chosen to create a fragrance for another famous gay icon.
Many listeners mistakenly thought that Sagal called the pope gay. As Susan Irons from Monaca, PA wrote: "Gentlemen, I have been a faithful listener to your show for years because I absolutely love it! I am VERY disappointed, therefore, to have just heard Pope Benedict XVI referred to as a 'gay.' I have turned off my radio."
It is easy not to hear every word when listening to the radio, especially in Wait, Wait's repartee. But a re-hearing and a reading of the transcript above show that Sagal jokingly called the pope a "gay icon", and not gay himself. He likened the pope to Madonna and Sting—neither of whom is gay to my knowledge.
But some listeners didn't like "gay icon" either. The extended back and forth on air with writer Roy Blount imagined Pope Benedict VXI as a blue jean or perfume model. Is this so disrespectful as to be offensive?
The question is subjective. As ombudsman, listening to you and trying to judge on your complaints, I look at what NPR does within the context of changing societal standards. I add my own sense of absolute professional and moral standards of right and wrong. I also try to be aware of my personal biases and set them aside. So out of respect for your intelligence, let me not duck the question, as the news media often does. Let me give you my own honest answer. As always, it is my independent opinion, not NPR's, reached as fairly as I can humbly be. I have no monopoly on truth.
Should Homosexuality be Accepted by Society?
Source: 2011 Pew Research Center study "Most Say Homosexuality Should Be Accepted By Society"
Credit: Melanie Taube/NPR
I believe that behind this whole discussion lies the question of how we feel with regards to homosexuality. I am Catholic and personally would not be offended if the pope were called gay, much less a gay icon. I think that being gay is perfectly normal. I also believe that sooner or later the news media and all of society will get over the last remaining objections to homosexuality—and be ashamed they ever had them.
Acceptance/Rejection of Homosexuality: U.S. and Europe
Source: 2011 Pew Research Center study "The American-Western European Values Gap"
Credit: Melanie Taube/NPR
But I understand that a shrinking minority of Americans hold very deep-seated religious views against homosexuality. Repeated polls show that this is a minority view. Relevantly, it is held by less than a third of American Catholics. Opposition to homosexuality is almost insignificant in the mostly Catholic nations of Europe. Indeed, the gay rights movement is increasingly becoming a Christian one, though there is strong opposition among white Evangelical Christians in the U.S. Globally, opposition is strongest in Africa and some other parts of the Third World. But whatever the trend, those Americans who do not accept homosexuality on religious grounds hold heartfelt views and are of sufficient number that it is inappropriate today for an NPR show to even jokingly call the pope gay. Fortunately, that's not what happened on Wait, Wait.
But the political, cultural and religious situation itself is another matter. This is certainly fair game to make fun of. Laughter can help to ease the tension. If we keep jokes about the pope off-limits, we create a silencing effect that is far more damaging than the jokes themselves. We threaten to become like the intolerant extremists now most notoriously bedeviling the Muslim world, though other religions suffer from strains of fanaticism as well.
This is not to say that anyone offended by a pope joke is extremist or intolerant. Not at all. But I would like to believe that if the Vatican held a roast of the pope the way that the American president is roasted each year by the press, the pope himself would laugh at being called a "gay icon." I would like to think that even a gathering of priests might roast the pope that way. Having known many priests, I feel sure that some would do so in private. It is precisely because the pope is so far from being a gay icon, given the church's official position on homosexuality, that the label can be considered humorous.
Wait Wait's executive producer Michael Danforth put the "icon" joke in the context of the whole comic routine and the show in general:
We make our living poking fun at the news. It's a risky business of finding the edges in stories. Occasionally we step over the line. Never is it our intention to offend. When we read about the Pope having his own cologne, it reminded us of other well know people with signature scents. We also joked about the Pope as a TV pitchman selling other things like jeans (called Benedicts) or cereal (Frosted Mini Popes). The fun here came from imagining a well-known person in a different context.
I certainly believe that there was no ill intention, and hope that even listeners who were offended accept that. Other religions have been spoofed on NPR as well.
I know that both religion and sexuality are touchy subjects, and that some of you won't agree with me. I am open to other ways of seeing NPR's treatment of both, whether serious and humorous. I will read your responses with great interest.
Updated March 23, 2012
This post has been expanded with charts and additional information.