Michael Smerconish: Let public render the verdict

January 2, 2014 

I find Phil Robertson's comments about gays appalling, but that doesn't mean I think A&E should have suspended the "Duck Dynasty" star. Professional death sentences for politically incorrect, even hateful speech, were all too common in 2013. Just ask Martin Bashir, Alec Baldwin and Paula Deen.

Bashir made a disgusting comment about Sarah Palin and lost his job on MSNBC. Baldwin lost his cable program after pillaging the paparazzi and then lamely attempting to argue that he'd shouted "fathead," not a slur for homosexuals that begins with an "f." Food Network, among others, had its fill of Paula Deen after she acknowledged, in a lawsuit deposition, having used the n-word and confirmed her desire to stage a "true Southern plantation-style theme" wedding for her brother, Earl "Bubba" Hiers.

As each, like Robertson, is dependent upon fickle viewers for their livelihood, why can't the court of public opinion render its judgment instead of employers? Robertson, Bashir, Baldwin and Deen should all lose their TV shows when public scorn impacts their ratings, not because media outlets have exercised their discretion on our behalf.

These cases could also use a little more consistency. Too many tend to evaluate controversial speech through partisan prisms, allowing feelings toward the speaker cloud the debate. You can't have it both ways. Either they should all be fired, or none of them should. Anything else is splitting hairs.

In the latest example, voices that once cried for Bashir or Baldwin's ouster now try to defend Robertson's right to free speech and practice his religion. But wrapping himself in the Bible makes Robertson's speech no less offensive. And make no mistake: He didn't just quote scripture and cast doubt on gays' admittance to the Kingdom of God. He equated a lifestyle predetermined at birth with a choice to kill 3,000 on 9/11:

"We never, ever judge someone on who's going to heaven, hell. That's the Almighty's job. We just love 'em, give 'em the good news about Jesus -- whether they're homosexual, drunks, terrorists. We let God sort 'em out later, you see what I'm saying?"

Yes, we can all see what you're saying, namely that you believe in a moral equivalency between gays, drunks, and al-Qaida, a pretty un-Godly view.

Still, A&E should not have put the star on "indefinite hiatus" from filming.

In a statement, A&E said, "We are extremely disappointed to have read Phil Robertson's comments in GQ, which are based on his own personal beliefs and are not reflected in the series 'Duck Dynasty.' His personal views in no way reflect those of A&E Networks, who have always been strong supporters and champions of the LGBT community. The network has placed Phil under hiatus from filming indefinitely."

That's ridiculous. It's a contradiction in terms to suspend an actor from a program that bills itself as a reality TV show.

My hunch is that the "hiatus" is a calculated move. Note that the indignation didn't stop A&E from milking the controversy by running the show on a loop in the following days. I'd never seen the program but had no trouble finding it while the controversy was raging. Five minutes' worth was all I needed to appreciate that Robertson's faith is not inconsequential to his persona, but, rather, a large part of his appeal. How surprised can A&E really be when he's exposed as a rube, or worse?

In his own statement, sent to Fox411, Robertson continued to cloak himself in religion: "I would never treat anyone with disrespect just because they are different from me. We are all created by the Almighty and like Him, I love all of humanity. We would all be better off if we loved God and loved each other."

Spare me. Wrapping yourself in your interpretation of the good book, or any book, can't cloak insensitivity. But fire him? No. Not him. Not Bashir. Not Baldwin. And not Deen.

However, there are circumstances that demand the firing of some people for the exercise of their speech.

Consider Justine Sacco. She's the PR executive who was canned last week by media company IAC after she sent a tweet which read: "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!" The company was right to get rid of her. When a person whose job is to manage public relations shows such poor judgment in dealing with the public, she has displayed a fundamental unfitness to perform the job and needs to be terminated.

As for the rest of them, let the public do the firing.

Michael Smerconish, Philadelphia Inquirer; www.smerconish.com.

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