Mark Halperin’s indefinite suspension by MSNBC for calling President Obama a “dick” on the air for his behavior during the budget negotiations is a study in contrasts. The contrast between the consequences to the media of calling Michelle Bachmann a “flake” to her face and the contrast between a supposed technical competence and their inability to get their signals straight.
“Are we on the seven second delay today?” Halperin asked, in response to a question about President Obama’s “feisty” comments at a news conference yesterday. “I want to characterize how I thought the president behaved.”
“Well, we have it, we can use it, right Alex?” Brzezinski asked to a producer off camera.
“Yeah, sure, come on, take a chance. Have faith,” Scarborough responded.
“Go for it, yeah, let’s see what happens,” Brzezinski said.
“I’m behind you, you fall down, I catch you. Trust me,” Scarborough assured him.
“And the precedent has been set on this show, so we’re good,” Brzezinki added.
Then Halperin expressed the fatal opinion, which sends everyone into paroxysms of apparently unfeigned laughter.
“We didn’t think it was going to go on the air, it was said by you in jest,” Scarborough said.
“We goaded you into saying it, and then we didn’t think you were going to say it, and we were kind of shocked, and then we laughed because we did not think it was on the air,” Brazeznski explained.
The contrasts illustrate a point that’s been made before on this site: the signal is often found in the excursions from the narrative, the variations that are superimposed on the carrier wave. The truest information in the media isn’t in what they read on the air, but what they blurt out in apparent earnestness or let slip through the cracks.
Although Halperin has already apologized for his sins, a look at the video suggests that the opinion he expressed would not be uncommonly heard with the cameras turned off. But with the cameras rolling things become radically different. That is the truly interesting aspect of an otherwise trivial occurence. Why must what is privately felt be publicly suppressed? According to MSNBC, because it does not conform to the “high level of discourse” it prides itself on having.
“Mark Halperin’s comments this morning were completely inappropriate and unacceptable. We apologize to the President, The White House and all of our viewers. We strive for a high level of discourse and comments like these have no place on our air. Therefore, Mark will be suspended indefinitely from his role as an analyst.”
They didn’t say that Halperin’s opinion was false; merely that it was unacceptable. He said the unsayable. But another reason besides demeanor suggests itself. MSNBC failed to keep the Party Line and so did Mark Halperin. Once they realized the magnitude of their transgression, even though the fall came from carelessness, it was imperative for them to engage criticism-self-criticism in order to regain entry to the tent.
While they may legitimately choose to do that — subject themselves to voluntary group discipline in order to maintain their standing — the audience deserves to see the process in operation in order to know that it’s there. The media has its biases and so does everybody else. But once everyone knows its there, allowances can be made for windage.
If there is any long term significance to the Halperin story it is a possible indicator that the governing narrative is weakening. Sovietologists have long known that the first, and often fatal signs of a factional distress are the unguarded lapses in “reliable” organs of information. A political enterprise is in real distress, not when it is attacked by its enemies which is normal, but when it can no longer be praised by its friends. And when those friends must deliver praise or respect through gritted teeth then the incipient trouble is all the greater.