Explainer: Talking a fine line: When pundits go too far

  • Being a talking head isn't a risk-free occupation.

    Image: Don Imus, Bernard McGuirk
    Richard Drew  /  AP

    Go too far on air and you might suddenly find yourself in the unemployment line, though possibly not for long. Make an ill-advised tweet or an impolitic comment to a blogger and the outcome could be the same.

    Click at left or scroll down to see cases where commentators and reporters lost their jobs over controversial remarks.

  • Michael Graham

    Image: (FILES) Conservative radio personality M
    NICHOLAS KAMM  /  AFP - Getty Images
    A morning talk show host on WMAL-AM in Washington, D.C., was fired on Aug. 22, 2005, after saying "Islam is a terrorist organization" 23 times on his July 25 program.

    The Washington Post reported that he also said repeatedly that "moderate Muslims are those who only want to kill Jews" and that "the problem is not extremism. The problem is Islam."

    WMAL initially suspended Graham and conditioned his return on reading a station-approved statement stating that his anti-Muslim statements were "too broad" and that he sometimes uses "hyperbole" in the course of his program. The station also asked him to speak to the station's advertisers and its employees about the controversy.

    Graham refused and was terminated.

    He later joined the Internet-based conservative radio network

  • Don Imus

    Image: Don Imas
    Richard Drew  /  AP
    The radio star, whose talk show “Imus in the Morning” was simulcast on MSNBC TV, ran into trouble on April 4, 2007, when he characterized the Rutgers University women’s basketball team,  runner-up in the NCAA championship, as “nappy-headed hos.”

    After his remark drew outrage from African-American leaders, including the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, the “I Man” apologized for what he described as “an insensitive and ill-conceived remark.”

    But the apology failed to quell the controversy, and on April 11, NBC News President Steve Capus announced that MSNBC would no longer carry Imus’ program, effective immediately. The next day, CBS Radio canceled his show.

    But the popular Imus wasn’t off the airwaves for long. He returned to radio in December of the same year, with a new syndicated show on ABC Radio under the same title.  The following year, Fox Business Network signed a deal to simulcast the show weekday mornings.

  • Doug McKelway

    The veteran Washington, D.C., anchor was fired by WJLA-TV for insubordination and misconduct in September 2010 after he criticized President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats in a live report.

    McKelway was initially suspended after arguing with the station’s news director and general manager, Bill Lord, over the report, then terminated nearly two months later, the Washington Post reported. The incident that led to McKelway’s departure from WJLA-TV was a Capitol Hill demonstration by environmental groups against oil-industry influence on Capitol Hill, at the height of the BP oil spill.

    In his report, McKelway characterized the protesters as "largely representing far-left environmental groups" and said the demonstration "may be a risky strategy because the one man who has more campaign contributions from BP than anybody else in history is now sitting in the Oval Office, President Barack Obama, who accepted $77,051 in campaign contributions from BP," the Post said.

    After a taped segment updating efforts to seal BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil well, McKelway added that the Senate was unlikely to pass "cap-and-trade" legislation this year, because "the Democrats are looking at the potential for huge losses in Congress come the midterm elections. And the last thing they want to do is propose a huge escalation in your electric bill, your utility bill, before then."

    The Post quoted station sources as saying that Lord took issue with the reporting and called McKelway into a meeting. A shouting match between the two men ensued, leading to McKelway's suspension, the newspaper quoted the sources as saying.

  • Octavia Nasr

    Image: Former CNN senior editor of Middle East
    AFP - Getty Images
    CNN’s senior Middle East affairs editor discovered that personal tweets are fair game when it comes to getting you fired.

    Nasr’s sin was a Twitter message sent July 4, 2010, concerning the death of Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, a founder of the Shiite Islamic group Hezbollah – a terrorist organization in the eyes of the  U.S. government.  “Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah ... One of Hezbollah's giants I respect a lot,” she wrote.

    Reaction to the tweet from supporters of Israel was clamorous.

    Nasr apologized two days later on her blog on the site, calling her tweet “simplistic” and an “error in judgment” and explaining that her respect for Fadlallah, whom she had interviewed in 1990 for Lebanese television, sprang from his stance on women's rights.

    The elaboration did not mollify her CNN bosses, who fired her the next day. The New York Times quoted an internal memo from Senior  Vice President Parisa Khosravi as saying, “At this point, we believe that her credibility in her position as senior editor for Middle Eastern affairs has been compromised going forward."

  • Dr. Laura Schlessinger

    Image: File photo of Dr. Laura Schlessinger appearing on the CNN program "Larry King Live"
    ROSE PROUSER  /  Reuters
    The veteran of a three-decade radio career cued up a chorus of calls for her firing by repeatedly using a racially charged epithet on her nationally syndicated talk radio show during an exchange with an African-American caller.

    In her Aug. 10, 2010, show, Schlessinger used the “n-word” 11 times in responding to a call from “Jade,” an African American woman complaining about what she said were racist comments by her husband’s friends.

    “Black guys use it all the time,” she said of the epithet. “Turn on HBO and listen to a black comic and all you hear is n-----, n-----, n-----!  If anybody without enough melanin says it, it’s a horrible thing, but when black people say it, it’s affectionate. It’s very confusing. I don’t get it.”

    Amid harsh criticism, Schlessinger apologized the next night for what she said was “a horrible mistake.”

    But a week later, she announced on "Larry King Live" that she had decided "not to do radio anymore" in order to “regain my First Amendment rights."

    The socially conservative Schlessinger, an Orthodox Jew before embracing Christianity, had survived at least one previous controversy in 2000, when she repeatedly apologized on air and in a full-page ad in Variety for referring to homosexuality as a "biological error" and criticizing gays for "deviant" behavior.

    Sirius XM Radio announced in November 2010 that had signed a multiyear deal with Schlessinger to bring her advice program to satellite radio, beginning in January 2011. Terms of the deal were not revealed.

  • Rick Sanchez

    Image: Rick Sanchez
    CNN  /  EPA
    The longtime CNN anchor went off the rails in a Sept. 30, 2010, interview on comedian and talk show host Pete Dominick’s radio show on SiriusXM.

    Sanchez started out discussing media balance and objectivity in the news business, but he soon lost his bearings and attacked comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, both of whom frequently made Sanchez the butt of their jokes.

    Complaining that both are “elite, Northeast establishment liberals,” he added, “I think Jon Stewart’s a bigot.”

    When Dominick, who once worked for Stewart as a warm-up comedian, pressed him about the use of the word “bigot,” Sanchez replied, “That’s what happens when you watch yourself on his show every day, and all they ever do is call you stupid.” He eventually retracted the “bigot” comment in favor of “prejudicial” and “uninformed.”

    When Dominick pointed out that Stewart, as a Jew, was a member of a minority, Sanchez, who is Cuban-American, scoffed: “Yeah. Yeah. Very powerless people. Please. What, are you kidding?”

    “I’m telling you that everybody who runs CNN is a lot like Stewart,” he continued, “and a lot of people who run all the other networks are a lot like Stewart. And to imply that they — the people in this country who are Jewish — are an oppressed minority. Yeah.”

    The exchange spread like wildfire over the Internet, with some critics labeling the remarks anti-Semitic, and CNN fired Sanchez the next day, issuing this terse statement: “Rick Sanchez is no longer with the company. We thank Rick for his years of service and we wish him well.”

    A week later, Sanchez appeared on ABC’s "Good Morning America " to say that his comments were “wrong and offensive” and that he was exhausted at the end of a long day when he made them. He also said he had called Stewart to apologize and found him to be "the classiest guy in the world" and would "absolutely" return to CNN if they asked him to do so.

  • Michael Savage

    John Storey  /  AP
    The conservative radio talk show host was hired to host “The Savage Nation,” a one-hour news and analysis show on msnbc TV, on March 8, 2003, prompting a campaign by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) for an advertising boycott because of what it considered previous homophobic rants.

    Four months later, on July 7, Savage was fired after remarks made in response to a caller, later identified as serial prankster Bob Foster, who insulted his teeth. Savage then asked if Foster was a “sodomite,” to which the caller answered, "Yes, I am."

    Savage replied: “Oh, so you're one of those sodomites. You should only get AIDS and die, you pig; how's that? Why don't you see if you can sue me, you pig? You got nothing better to do than to put me down, you piece of garbage? You got nothing to do today? Go eat a sausage, and choke on it. Get trichinosis. Now do we have another nice caller here who's busy because he didn't have a nice night in the bathhouse who's angry at me today? Put another, put another sodomite on ... no more calls? ... I don't care about these bums; they mean nothing to me. They're all sausages.”

    Savage was fired two days later. The next night, he was alternatively apologetic and combative on his radio show, aired by KNEW-AM in the San Francisco Bay Area and carried nationally by about 300 radio stations.

    He said that his remarks were only meant to insult the caller, not all people with AIDS, and that he believed they were made off air.

    But he also blasted MSNBC and the left for his firing, saying, “The American people understand what went on. I am the underdog. I am Daniel in the lions' den. I am a victim. They know very, very well that the left are like jackals in this country. They do not believe in freedom of speech, they only believe in freedom of their speech."

  • Helen Thomas

    Image: Helen Thomas
    Susan Walsh  /  AP
    The venerable White House correspondent for United Press International and national affairs columnist the Hearst Corp. was forced into retirement in June 2010 after telling a blogger that Israel should “get the hell out of Palestine,” and that the Jewish people should go home to “Poland, Germany … and America and everywhere else.”

    The 90-year-old journalism legend apologized for her remarks, which many considered anti-Semitic, but she was forced out nonetheless.

    She later told Ohio radio station WMRN-AM that the comments were “exactly what I thought.”

    "I hit the third rail," she said. "You cannot criticize Israel in this country and survive."

  • Juan Williams

    Image: Juan Williams
    Richard Drew  /  AP
    The NPR analyst and Fox News commentator was fired on Oct. 20, 2010, by the former after telling the latter’s Bill O’Reilly that he gets nervous when he sees passengers aboard a commercial jet wearing Muslim clothing.

    The exchange on "The O'Reilly Factor" sprang from a discussion in which the host asked Williams to respond to the notion that the United States was facing a “Muslim dilemma” in regard to terrorism.

    Williams’ replied, “I’m not a bigot …  but when I get on a plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they're identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."

    Later on, Williams challenged O’Reilly, saying that he was incorrect in saying "the Muslims attacked us on 9/11" and that he had failed to make the distinction that extremist elements of the faith were responsible for the attack.

    NPR terminated Williams two days later, saying the senior news analyst had violated ground rules that prohibit making speculative statements or rendering opinions on TV that would be considered unacceptable on an NPR program.

    "We have made our policies clear to Juan in prior conversations and warnings, and he has continued to violate our principles," NPR spokesoman Dana Davis Rehm told the Washington Post. "When an analyst states personal opinions on an issue, our feeling is they have undermined their credibility as an analyst."

    Williams quickly landed on his feet, signing a $2 million contract extension with Fox News the day after his firing. Meantime, his dismissal caused conservative critics of what they see as NPR’s liberal bias to call for an end to taxpayer funding of the radio network.


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