“Moving the little sucker”

    MSNBC’s decision yesterday to suspend political journalist/commentator Mark Halperin, for calling President Obama “a dick” on live broadcast, is hardly an event of major magnitude; after all, Halperin will keep his day job at Time magazine, and MSNBC has a slew of other talking heads who can wax provocative on Morning Joe.But this episode was instructive nevertheless. It actually brought to mind a scene from the classic mob film, Goodfellas. Bear with me on this.The boys are playing cards, talking the usual trash and egging each other on, when a kid named Spider cusses out Tommy, the worst psycho at the table. Everybody howls at this show of disrespect, and Jimmy decides to bust Tommy’s stones, daring him to do something about Spider. Jimmy says, “You gonna let him get away with that?…What’s the world coming to!” Whereupon Tommy whips out his gun and shoots Spider dead. Whereupon Jimmy freaks out at Tommy: “Whatsamatter with you!? You stupid or what!?”Tommy was egged on to do something bold – yet when he did, he instantly took heat for crossing the ill-defined line.Sadly, that’s basically the deal these days on cable news – and the dilemma for those who appear on it. That’s what the world is coming to.Guests are expected to be bold and provocative, to talk trash, to walk the ill-defined line without ever quite crossing it. It’s a tough environment for those journalists who are uncomfortable dispensing off-the-cuff opinions, because if they are too measured in their remarks, they won’t be invited back. Halperin himself complained, in a 2006 interview on an NPR outlet, that cable news and talk radio were contributing greatly to the fouling of our political discourse. Five months ago, in fact, he lauded a “carefully crafted” speech by Republican Mitch Daniels, in part because the Indiana governor had lamented “the sad, crude coarsening of our popular culture” and “the venomous, petty, often ad hominem political discourse of the day.”News and entertainment have increasingly merged, as evidenced indeed by the cocktail-party prattle on Morning Joe. So it was no surprise yesterday to see Halperin get sucked in, shooting off his mouth about how Obama had been “kind of a dick” at his Wednesday press conference. Whereupon MSNBC decreed that the ill-defined line had been crossed, that such playground profanity did not belong on its airwaves, and that the offending utterer would be banished indefinitely.But since these shows are virtually rigged for disses and insults, what else should we expect when guests compliantly play the game? Halperin is taking the hit for a political/media culture that perpetually goads its talkers to push the boundaries of acceptability, even as those boundaries keep receding.Which brings to mind one more cinematic metaphor. In the great film Broadcast News, a TV producer scolds a reporter for having staged a teary scene in one of his stores. She shouts at him, “You totally crossed the line!” But the reporter merely shrugs and says, “It’s hard not to cross it. They keep moving the little sucker, don’t they?”——-I’ll be offline on the Fourth of July. As will you, I presume. Have a great holiday, and see you on the flip side.

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