Former CNN news anchor Rick Sanchez. CNN fired Sanchez after he called comedian Jon Stewart a bigot in a radio show interview.
Leslie Savan blogs for The Nation about media and politics. She is a three-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and the author of The Sponsored Life: Ads, TV, and American Culture.
When CNN fired Rick Sanchez for his bumbling comments about Jon Stewart, Jews in the media and his own bosses, it was treated for the most part as just another Big Media defenestration, like that of Don Imus or Laura Schlessinger, for the sin of giving ethnic offense. But you don't have to be the mother of a middle-school child to recognize that in fact it was the final result of a public bullying — one that went too far, embarrassed all sides, and, in the process, demonstrated how our political media can be ambushed by their own false equivalencies.
You know, false equivalencies, like: Sanchez saying it's not only right-wingers who are bigoted but liberal elites like Jon Stewart too. Or Stewart plumping his "equal opportunity offender" status by saying he doesn't attack the hypocrisies of right-wingers alone but those of the center and left as well. Or CNN firing somebody — faster than you can say "Shirley Sherrod" — for remarks perceived as anti-Semitic or anti-Israel (Sanchez isn't the first), while dithering for years before dumping Lou Dobbs, who railed against Latino immigrants in terms at least as insulting again and again. Come to think of it, that's not a false equivalency; it's an outright double standard, and much worse.
On Good Morning America, Sanchez apologized for being "so careless and so inartful" as to suggest that Jews run the media ("That's not what I meant," he said, and I believe him) and for "unjustly accus[ing] Jon Stewart of being something he's not." He had no one but himself to blame for his troubles. "Rick Sanchez," he said, "screwed up."
But amid his mea culpas, Sanchez touched on a few media culpas, concerning news corporations in general and Stewart in particular, that were quickly swept under the rug along with the Cuban-American anchor.
During his job-killing, Sirius XM radio rant, even as he repeatedly called Stewart a bigot, Sanchez analyzed why he was doing so: "That's what happens when you watch yourself on his show every day, and all they ever do is call you stupid."
It's as if he really wanted to call Stewart another two-syllable b-word — bully — but couldn't, for fear of sounding whiny. He was simultaneously trying to criticize the cable news industry for its dearth of Latino and African-American hosts in prime time, but, with the tongue-twisted displacement that often made him fun to watch, Sanchez managed instead to defame his most prominent tormenter in the same way he feels he has been maligned, as an ethnic stereotype.
No doubt Sanchez has thin skin (even his wife says so), but that's one of the glaring realities that Stewart never seemed to consider: Not everyone can handle nationally televised and endlessly YouTubed ridicule, and not everyone deserves it. Every time Stewart reran the supposedly hilarious images of Sanchez getting tased five years ago, or mocked him for tripping over his words or emotionally overstressing on camera, Sanchez must have felt like he was getting tased all over again.
A 2007 tape, for instance, starts with the tasing and ends with Sanchez performing another faux-risky stunt — falling a few feet from a small boat in order to demonstrate what it's like to accidentally fall off a cruise liner (OK, that's funny). But then, when Sanchez notes that finding someone lost at sea can be like finding a needle in a haystack, Stewart mugs as if it's the dumbest thing he's ever heard, which cues the audience to pounce with laughter, Colosseum-style. "Great metaphor," Stewart says, "to show just how hard it is to find something, only the ocean is way bigger than that!"
This is bullying, but not the classic Jock vs. Nerd kind, or Straight vs. Queer. It's Cool Kid vs. Earnest Kid.
Sanchez is all high-volume enthusiasm, diving into things headlong (literally, at times). He's smart, but not a wit. He doesn't wear the armor of ironic detachment. He may also attract media hazing because of the discrepancy between his big, beefy, movie-star handsome looks and his sometimes (and only sometimes, mind you) doofusy manner. But whatever else he is, he is usually kind.
Look, I appreciate Jon Stewart with every pore of my political being: he's brilliant, invaluable. We owe him (and Stephen Colbert, the one I appreciate and love) a medal of insight, or something, for afflicting the real bullies of the world, and for calling out their mob-mentality enablers in the media.
But Sanchez is not one of them. He's not a Limbaugh, a Rove, or even a Jim Kramer. He's not extreme. He appears to be politically moderate, even somewhat progressive, and can be a damn good reporter (as Josh Marshall writes, Sanchez is "basically the only on-air journalist who's ever actually grilled or even put some pointed questions to disgraced Sen. John Ensign"). In fact, he's pretty much one of Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity types.
So, even if Sanchez is mockable, why mock him so often?
It's an "equalization issue," Sanchez himself explained on Good Morning America. "If he does a piece on Glenn Beck calling the president a communist, then he has to do a piece on somebody at CNN, and I'm the one he chooses." Sanchez is describing the old false-equivalency two-step: overreaching to produce examples of liberals who appear to be as extreme, angry or ludicrous as conservatives. Of course, Stewart isn't presenting Sanchez as Beck's political opposite number. Sanchez serves instead as a non-Fox performer whose media tropes can be just as gob-smacking cheesy. It's an attempt at equal redistribution of parody.
This is a balancing act that Stewart has long dabbled in — usually with greater subtlety. And blowhards on the left definitely need the jabs. When Keith Olbermann went into piping-hot blowhard mode earlier this year, Stewart did him a great favor by nailing it, and Keith, in essence, thanked him.
But too often Stewart has rolled his eyes at clips of some left-leaning protest or demo, as if to say: How clichéd, how self-important, how embarrassingly excitable people are to march in the streets, hold signs and chant.
Of course, his Rally to Restore Sanity on October 30 will be the ironic version of just that. It's not entirely a joke, though, and its larger, ultimately liberal, purpose is to encourage people not to go bonehead reactionary in their economic pain.
Stewart is part of a long tradition of late-night comedy, stretching back past Johnny Carson to Steve Allen, that tries to win over viewers not with bombast but with cool. Part of being cool means not being obviously partisan. That would be too hot, too earnest. (Colbert's frame of reference is more contemporary, reflecting the changes rung in by Fox News — his uncool, hyperpartisan character gives Colbert the counterintuitive freedom to be far more progressive than his boss.) And Stewart is aware that his role as the cool equal opportunity offender can turn up the occasional falsity. Earlier this year, he lumped Rachel Maddow in with Rush Limbaugh and Pat Robertson for using the Haitian earthquake to promote their particular ideologies. After Maddow stood up for herself, Stewart stood down. Later, he had her on his show.
I don't think Stewart taunted Sanchez out of personal animosity. I believe him when he said, after Sanchez was fired, that he saw Sanchez as the Steve Carell character in The Office — his montage weaving the two together was uncanny and affectionate. But Sanchez is not a fictional character, and when he said, almost proudly, that Stewart told him he picked on him "because you're the one I like," I felt more embarrassed for Rick than ever.
Stewart may be, as Sanchez now says, "the classiest guy in the world," but in Stewart's on-air crypto-apology last week (below), he couldn't resist playing on the phrase "dirty Sanchez" (I had to look this up, and invoking a mustache made of smeared feces is not exactly what you do to make nice). But Stewart did make clear that Sanchez is no anti-Semite, saying, "I'm not even sure Sanchez believes what he was saying." And he ran a clip of Sanchez denouncing a neo-Nazi hater to prove it. "Rick Sanchez, consider yourself unbusted!"
So where is the locus of the truly Uncool in this story? At CNN, the same network that in July canned longtime correspondent Octavia Nasr for tweeting condolences on the death of a Hezbollah leader whom she admired for advocating women's rights. It's not Stewart's fault that CNN, which lends its platform to the likes of Erick Erickson and Lou Dobbs but snap-fires anyone who doesn't genuflect before AIPAC's hall monitors, has stained Sanchez as an anti-Semite. But as a Jew, that strikes me as a great injustice, and it seems to strike Stewart the same way.
Given his almost comical sway over the ailing network (CNN killed the long-running Crossfire after Jon declared that it was "hurting America"), if he asked them to rehire Sanchez, they might just do it. That would accomplish what Stewart says he wants his rally on the mall to do — restore a little sanity.