Sorry is Easy. In the Case of Martin Bashir, Suspension Seems to be the Hardest Word

By Gail Shister 

Judging strictly by precedent at MSNBC, if Martin Bashir had called Sarah Palin a ‘cocksucking fag,’ ‘right wing slut,’ ‘dick,’ ‘pimp,’ or ‘nappy headed ho,’ he would be on suspension, at the very least.

Instead, Bashir is a free man. All he said about Palin on Nov. 15 was that she should be forced to have someone defecate in her mouth and urinate in her eyes as punishment for her remarks on slavery.

What’s wrong with this picture? Plenty, if one considers MSNBC’s long history of Foot in Mouth disease. In every case, the commentator was either suspended or fired. In every case, the perps have been men, and in every case but one, the broadcast slurs have been aimed at women.


Ten days ago, actor Alec Baldwin was benched for two weeks after he was caught on video calling a paparazzi a ‘cocksucking fag.’ He may not return.

In 2011, Ed Schultz and Mark Halperin were both suspended — Schultz for labelling conservative commentator Laura Ingraham a ‘right wing slut,’ and Halperin for describing President Obama as a ‘dick.’ (Sidebar: If it had been Nixon, Halperin would have been technically correct.)

In ’08, David Shuster served two weeks for saying that Chelsea Clinton was being pimped out to support her mother’s campaign. And in ’07, Don Imus’ description of the Rutgers women’s basketball team as ‘nappy headed hos’ got him fired.

Like all his predecessors, Bashir apologized – the latest to join the celebrity culture of contrition. In a statement Friday, MSNBC said Bashir had also apologized to the Palin family, that he’s “committed to elevating the discourse” and that the network was handling the matter internally.

Still, many critics argue that Bashir deserves harsher punishment.

MSNBC “has to decide what its standard is,” says Alex S. Jones, director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. “This comment was vulgar and offensive in all sorts of ways. I would have suspended him [Bashir], at the very least.

“It’s not in any network’s interest to tolerate this kind of coarsening. It cheapens and mocks the whole idea of serious discourse on a news program.” MSNBC’s stance on Bashir “says, at the very least, that it tolerates this escalation of vulgarity.”

To Amy Mitchell, director of the Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project, MSNBC’s inaction is “surprising, in light of other suspensions it has made in recent years, but it may not be over yet. If the network doesn’t take any action, what precedent is being set?”

Free speech has its limitations, even on cable. Sometimes “sorry” is not enough, and l’affaire Bashir is one of those times. Bashir must be suspended.

What makes his remarks particularly heinous is that they were scripted, not spontaneous, meaning, presumably, they were seen by multiple editors before air. That it didn’t occur to anyone – including Bashir himself – that he was about to step on a landmine speaks volumes about MSNBC’s production process.

It’s no surprise that NBC tries to distance itself publicly from its corporate sibling. In this case, however, its silence has been deafening. How low does the bar have to go before Tom Brokaw speaks up, as he has in the past? More to the point, why haven’t any NBC women taken a stand?

Given MSNBC’s numerous problems, it can hardly afford the appearance of a double standard. But that is precisely where it’s headed if it maintains its decision to set a new precedent with Bashir. If Bashir gets a pass, imagine what the next incident will be.

Personally, I hope it’s spoken by a woman, and about a man. Then we’ll see what kind of Pandora’s box Phil Griffin has opened.