Martin Bashir, who’d come under fire after spinning a lurid suggestion, drawn from the history of American slavery, that someone ought to defecate in the mouth of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, has resigned from hosting his show on MSNBC. The network had previously suspended him, recognizing that even widespread liberal distaste doesn’t justify such language. But Bashir’s larger departure from the network, the second high-profile loss of a host for MSNBC in as many weeks, illustrates the weakness of part of the network’s model. Hiring people who are not fundamentally journalists, or who operate by a different set of journalistic rules, can bring fresh perspectives and approaches to an outlet. But it also carries considerable risks.
Bashir was a journalist before he joined MSNBC, though his reputation was hardly impeccable. As Tina Brown reported in The Diana Chronicles, Bashir faked documents suggesting that News Of The World was paying former employers of the Spencer family for stories to build Princess Diana’s trust in him in the leadup to her remarkably candid interview with him on the BBC. Much more famously, Bashir wooed Michael Jackson by telling him that he wanted to do a special on Neverland Ranch, which he described in a letter as “an extraordinary, a breathtaking, a stupendous, an exhilarating and amazing place.” The resulting expose suggested strongly that Jackson was having sexual contact with children–it may have been an important story, but Bashir’s approach to getting it was not a comfortable one.
The signature moments in Bashir’s career have been aimed at getting the biggest possible reaction, by whatever means available to him. And his insult to Sarah Palin is in keeping with that modus operandi. Some liberals do hate the former governor of Alaska for reasons and in ways that are exceptionally ugly and sexist. Playing to dark undercurrents like these is the commentariat’s version of binging on fast food. It’s frustrating and unsatisfying that thoroughly debunking Palin’s policy credentials and political seriousness hasn’t been enough to make her go away, just as it’s deeply annoying that tofu doesn’t taste as good as steak, but the temporary high of a huge box of Chicken Nuggets or a nasty swipe at Palin often gives way to regret and shame. And while a McDonald’s run occasionally probably won’t kill us, giving in to your worst instincts for a traffic spike or to give a nasty treat to a segment of your viewers or readers can be disqualifying or career-ending. Bashir’s built his career on walking very close the edge of acceptable journalistic behavior. It’s not surprising that at some point in his MSNBC career, he’d waltz over it.
Alec Baldwin’s departure from MSNBC after he was caught on camera shouting homophobic insults at a photographer has similar roots. As I wrote when his interview show was announced back in September, Baldwin’s experience in public radio had proved that he could be a sensitive and perceptive host who drew good insights out of his subjects. But that’s only one of the skill sets required to be treated like a good, credible journalist these days.
Baldwin’s error was two-fold. He seems to have assumed that his private reputation and his publicly reported-upon bursts of temper would be considered separately from his work on MSNBC. And in his self-defense, published after he was filmed walking down the street and shouting at a photographer who was taking pictures of his family, Baldwin seems to have assumed that his loss of temper would be understandable because he was provoked. But I can’t imagine a working journalist today who doesn’t understand that your personal–as opposed to private–conduct reflects on your work and your credibility. If you throw tantrums in public, your audience and potential audience may not trust you to be an even-tempered interrogator of people who disagree with you, and if your mind goes to homophobic insults when you’re searching for the worst thing you can say to someone, it’s hard to blame observers who wonder if your financial contributions to equality are cover for a conflicted heart and mind.
The knowledge that a journalist must guard her or his reputation may make for more cautious on-air commentary and off-air behavior. But what’s lost in momentary fieriness is a gain in long-term stability and credibility. As MSNBC struggles to establish its brand identity, it would at minimum be better off in a place where the network isn’t constantly shuffling its roster, and where it doesn’t seem to be choosing talent based more on the glamor a host brings to a spot–like the addition of Ronan Farrow to the lineup–than a clear plan for the content that will air in that slot. MSNBC wants, after all, to be in the news business. And even if its hosts are going to be doing more commentary and interviewing than airing long reported pieces, the network might be wise to find a way to remind its hosts that they are journalists, a stature that comes with perks to accompany the restrictions.