Experts agree on one particular tenet of professional media training: Nothing is off the record during an interview. So if you don’t want to see it in print or watch it on the news, don’t say it. This is something that cable personalities, talk show hosts, pundits and even presidents follow… sometimes. Last Thursday’s slip of the tongue by Time editor at large and MSNBC analyst Mark Halperin, when he called President Obama “kind of a dick” on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” led to his subsequent suspension as a network analyst. The presumed seven-second delay (“Go for it—let’s see what happens,” co-host Mika Brzezinski egged on just prior to the gaffe) inspired Halperin to voice his personal take on Obama’s speech the day before. Big mistake. The network and Halperin each issued a statement of apology and notice of his suspension later that morning.
MSNBC is getting good at suspensions—and response times. Don Imus’ comments about the Rutgers’ girls basketball team in 2007 got him booted off the network, Ed Shultz landed a one-week unpaid suspension for calling conservative political radio host Laura Ingraham a “right-wing slut,” and Keith Olbermann—and Joe Scarborough himself—were suspended for political campaign contributions. The question is, were they right to suspend Halperin so swiftly? “Morning Joe” had been over scarcely three quarters of an hour when MSNBC announced its decision.
CableFAX asked a few communications specialists to weigh in. “Whenever you begin a statement with, ‘Are we on a seven-second delay here?,’ that’s a pretty good indicator you should stop talking,” says Dave Reddy, SVP Media Director at global PR firm Weber Shandwick. So from a PR standpoint, he thinks the network nailed its response, by acting quickly, accepting blame and enacting the appropriate discipline. “What people want from those who make mistakes is accountability, not long-winded explanations or excuses,” said Reddy.
Yet Ken Scudder of media training and consulting firm Virgil Scudder & Associates notes that the network indeed has been “quick to pull the trigger” with previous suspensions, such as with Olbermann and Shultz. Still, he views Halperin’s case as completely justified. “While the dickering about whether the show was on a 7-second delay does give Halperin a little bit of an excuse, his use of this specific anatomical appendage to describe the president is an offense warranting suspension.”
But not everyone agrees the punishment was fitting the crime. Left-leaning Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent, for one, called the indefinite suspension “crazy,” and takes issue less with Halperin’s word choice than the weight of his political arguments. The enactment of an indefinite suspension as opposed to a lesser punishment from the network, he explains, “obscures the fact that crass and dumb and ‘uncivil’ statements aren’t the real problem here.” Indeed, the jury is still out on this one. In the meantime, analysts are advised to assume there is in fact no seven-second delay—and nothing, especially on live TV—is off the record.