MSNBC senior political commentator Mark Halperin was suspended indefinitely on Thursday, after casually tarring President Obama with … well, let’s call it an epithet that polite company uses only as a nickname for Richard.
Mr. Halperin asked if the seven-second delay was available, and the cohosts urged him to “go for it.”
The delay was not used and the term went live. Within hours, everyone from the network brass to Halperin himself, Time magazine, and the White House press secretary had weighed in, dubbing the word “unacceptable” and “inappropriate.”
The hubbub over Halperin’s comment raises questions about the decline of political and civic discourse, the pressure for ratings in a 24/7 news cycle, and of course, the impact of a popular culture more comfortable with throwing potshots than respect at political leaders.
But it also has to be asked, whatever happened to the well-turned insult?
“Thou clouted, rampallian haggard,” anyone? How about “Thou mangled, beef-witted barnacle” or “Thou tottering, weather-bitten lout”?
Not on your sound bite, says Matt Hale, political scientist at Seton Hall University. “Back in the day when commentators had all day to craft their comments for the half-hour evening news programs, you might have seen some more careful word-smithing going on,” he says. “There is simply no time in a pressurized news cycle, where everything is right now.”
The choice of a word with shock value also points to the rising influence of the comedian-as-commentator, says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center of Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York.
Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert both operate within different parameters, he says, yet they play an important role in setting the tone for politics in the media. “It’s not that surprising to see someone reach for a more colloquial attitude,” Professor Thompson says, adding that the use of a coarse word when talking about politicians is much more acceptable today because, on the comedy shows, disrespect and insult are part of the comedy itself.
“Halperin’s use of the word was tasteless,” Thompson says, “but he was just reaching for a word where language is more exciting.” The problem, of course, is “that language didn’t adapt very well to a very different venue,” he adds.
“This was a great example of the Dumbing Down of Political Discourse,” says Mary Ellen Balchunis, a professor of political science at La Salle University, via e-mail. She suggests the president was out of line as well, in the condescending way he addressed Congress during his press conference. “We should insist that all our elected officials are treated with civility,” she says. “One branch of government shouldn't talk down to the other; and the fourth branch of government, the media, shouldn't contribute to the uncivil discourse."
But, lest the rosy glow of nostalgia for some earlier era of greater civility spread too widely, Western New England University historian John Baick notes that politics has always been dirty. “There has never been a golden age of decorum,” he says via e-mail. There might have been more etiquette and more filters, he says, “but the polite courtesies involved in blocking civil rights legislation in the 1950s were far more toxic to American life than the bombastic threats involved in Republicans blocking judicial nominees today."
He adds, "Language matters. But the context and subject material should matter more.”