TAMPA, Fla. — Only three protesters have been arrested. Raucous Ron Paul supporters could not even manage to get booted. No, the only clear casualty in the first days of the Republican National Convention was Yahoo! News Washington Bureau Chief David Chalian.
Chalian made the mistake Wednesday of making fun of Mitt and Ann Romney — with a hot mic picking up the conversation — for carrying on with their convention while Hurricane Isaac rumbled ashore in Louisiana. The veteran newsman quipped: “They’re happy to have a party with black people drowning.”
Yahoo! News fired Chalian not long after the conservative Media Research Center posted a snippet of the audio, part of an online chat that Chalian obviously thought was no longer filtering out to the world.
The lesson here, for those with a bit of memory and a scorecard, is that you can call the president a “dick” and live to opinionate another day — as Time magazine/MSNBC commentator Mark Halperin learned last summer after that intemperate comment on the cable channel’s “Morning Joe.”
But you’re out in a Tampa Bay minute if you dare to joke among your colleagues (as Chalian obviously thought he was) about another politician’s alleged racial and/or disaster insensitivity. The digital news service executive apparently was on what he thought was a break from an online chat with partners at ABC News when the incident occurred.
“I am profoundly sorry for making an inappropriate and thoughtless joke,” Chalian said via Twitter, several hours after the giant news site fired him.
On Facebook, he added that he had apologized to the Romney campaign and added a public apology to “Gov. and Mrs. Romney,” adding: “I also regret causing any distraction from the exceptional coverage of the Republican convention by Yahoo News and ABC News.”
There are several sad ironies in Chalian’s precipitous fall from grace. One is that the profusely and immediately apologetic Halperin suffered only a brief suspension from MSNBC, nothing like the precipitous termination and abundant vilification visited on Chalian. Halperin served only a short suspension and is among the battalion of journalists covering the GOP convention here.
The other is that ABC and Yahoo! News — more than most other mainstream news outlets — have generally avoided routine condemnation by political conservatives. The two other broadcast networks, NBC and CBS, remain the favored targets.
Chalian had not been at the center of serious complaints about bias. He had worked as political director for ABC News, responsible for coverage both on the air and online. He also appeared as a commentator on many programs, including “Good Morning America” and the nightly news.
After ABC, he jumped to PBS and the NewsHour, serving as political editor for a program known for its serious and even-handed tone. In fact, a recent USC Annenberg/Los Angeles Times Poll found Americans rated PBS as one of the most trustworthy news organizations in the country.
That record did not mean that political opponents would not immediately begin attacking not only Chalian but also his former employers, as hotbeds of left-wing ideology. But that is not the way that those who have watched his career most closely know him.
After Chalian’s sacking Wednesday, former PBS colleague Gwen Ifill tweeted her solidarity: “One mistake does not change this. @DavidChalian is God’s gift to political journalism. #IstandwithDavid.”
That message immediately subjected Ifill to a round of abuse on blogs and social media from conservatives persuaded that she, too, is a member of a vast left-wing conspiracy to control information in America. But she did not seem to be alone in her feeling that the punishment served up to Chalian was out of proportion with his offense.
Adam Nagourney, a Los Angeles correspondent for the New York Times who used to be the paper’s chief political writer, said on Twitter that, while Chalian “said something awful,” he is “a 1st-rate journalist, terrific person and classy guy. His many friends are thinking of him.”
Up and coming media force Ben Smith of BuzzFeed added that: “Nobody is more skittish, and more eager to throw people overboard, than news organizations. Ugh.”
Skittish indeed. No one doubts that journalists will continue to have imperfect thoughts. Inartful jokes have been their birthright. But the professional death penalty now comes to some of those who make really lame jokes. If they are unfortunate enough to do it in front of a live microphone — an increasing possibility in this ultra-wired world.