The same networks that totally ignored MSNBC anchor Martin Bashir's vile attacks against Sarah Palin have highlighted the "outrageous," "offensive" comments made by Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson in an interview to GQ. The journalists on ABC's Good Morning America provided the most aggressive coverage, repeatedly wondering if the remarks "will sink the show."
The morning program offered almost no consideration of Robertson and the issue of free speech. Instead, PR expert Howard Bragman wondered if the TV star is "willing to go to a deeper level of understanding and see why his remarks offended so many people?" [MP3 audio here.] Entertainment anchor Lara Spencer fully agreed: "Really outrageous statements." Spencer wanted to know just how the A&E network could bring the reality star back and, at the same time, "let people know they acknowledge how outrageous and offensive these comments are?"
Remember, this is the same network whose former colleague suggested that someone should defecate in the mouth of the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee, the same network that never covered that story or expressed any "outrage." (This includes after Bashir's resignation from MSNBC.)
GMA repeatedly predicted doom for Duck Dynasty as a result of the anti-gay comments:
LARA SPENCER: The clan known for their duck calls and wild ways now making headlines for star Phil Robertson's off-camera comments about homosexuality and sin. Will this sink the show?
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: He's been suspended indefinitely from that hit show and that could just be the beginning.
REENA NINAN: Leaving many wondering this morning if this could be the end of the mega-franchise with the mega-ratings?
Guest Bragman, an openly gay publicist,"applaud[ed] [A&E's] courageousness" for suspending Robertson.
It should be pointed out that Disney owns A&E, as well as ABC.
The only discussion of free speech issues came from Hollywood Reporter editor Matthew Belloni. He queried, "So, the question then becomes, is him expressing his views that are based on his religious views something that should get him kicked off the show?"
CBS This Morning, however, noted the free speech angle. Reporter Ben Tracy explained, "Many fans have used A&E's Facebook page to express their outrage at Phil Robertson's removal. Even Sarah Palin took to social media – saying, 'Free speech is endangered species. These intolerants, hatin' and taking on 'Duck Dynasty' patriarch for voicing personal opinion – take on us all.'"
NBC's Today also highlighted Palin. Mike Taibbi noted, "The show's getting huge support on social media, including a photo with the group posted by a former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin."
NBC, like the other networks, avoided the Bashir controversy, but repeatedly brought up the Duck Dynasty story on Thursday. Matt Lauer talked to Olympic athlete Caitlin Cahow. He quizzed, "The patriarch of the Duck Dynasty show has made some controversial comments about homosexuality. Do you care to respond to them at all?"
The Today hosts raised the subject yet again. In the 9am hour, they discussed the "divisive" remarks. All Roker predicted the show would survive.
The immediate and emotional coverage ABC, CBS and NBC devoted to the Duck Dynasty star, along with the silence on Bashir, shows that not all controversies are created equal.
A transcript of the December 19 GMA segment is below:
SPENCER: We turn, now, though, to Duck Dynasty patriarch, Phil Robertson, suspended indefinitely for anti-gay comments he made in a magazine interview. This morning, many are wondering if this is the end of the popular show that has millions of fans and has become an industry within itself. ABC's Reena Ninan has the story.
ABC GRAPHIC: Duck Dynasty Star Suspended: Is This the End of the Mega-Hit?
REENA NINAN: Lara, good morning to you. The comments' putting Duck Dynasty's Phil Robertson is in hot water after offending the gay community. This morning, many are wondering how it will affect his family and franchise. They're best known for their duck calls. But this morning, Duck Dynasty is making headlines for off-camera drama. Overnight, Phil Robertson, the star of the A&E hit show, has been suspended indefinitely from filming the reality show after making controversial remarks, regarding homosexuality in the January issue of GQ.
MATTHEW BELLONI (Executive editor, Hollywood Reporter): Making comments that many would say are homophobic, connecting homosexuality to a sin.
NINAN: Among quotes we cannot mention here on morning television, Robertson says being gay, quote, "it's not logical, my man. It's just not logical." Robertson telling the magazine he doesn't judge anyone, saying, "whether they're homosexuals, drunks, terrorists, we let god sort 'em out later. You see what I'm saying?" But later adds, they won't inherit the kingdom of God. Don't deceive yourself. It's not right."
BELLONI: He was basing his comments on some biblical verse. And you know, these are views that a lot of people hold. So, the question then becomes, is him expressing his views that are based on his religious views something that should get him kicked off the show?
NINAN: A&E tells ABC News, "we are extremely disappointed to have read Phil Robertson's comments."
PHIL ROBERTSON: Whatever fires you up.
NINAN: And the Duck Dynasty patriarch also responded. Releasing his own statement overnight. Saying, "my mission today is to go forth and tell people about why I follow Christ. However, I would never treat anyone with disrespect just because they're different from me." Duck Dynasty is a ratings machine for A&E, bringing in almost 10 million viewers a week. Leaving many wondering this morning if this could be the end of the mega-franchise with the mega-ratings?
BELLONI: I think that's the big question. He's part of that family. So, there is that certain dynamic that people enjoy watching.
NINAN: The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, GLAAD, has fired back, calling the comments vile and extreme. While others, like Sarah Palin, defended Robertson on Facebook. Saying, quote, "free speech is an endangered species."
LARA SPENCER: And that issue of GQ hits newsstands December 24th. We want to bring in ABC News consultant and public relations expert Howard Bragman. Howard, A&E obviously doesn't know what to do. He's suspended indefinitely. What does Phil Robertson do though to fix this?
HOWARD BRAGMAN: Well, the question is, does he want to fix it? Is he willing to go to a deeper level of understanding and see why his remarks offended so many people? And we can't even talk about it on a morning show how truly vile and offensive his remarks were, not just to the gay community, but to the African-American community, too, Lara. They go much deeper than what we've talked about.
SPENCER: Really outrageous statements. The family never has made -- they've always been very open about their religious beliefs. Do you think the show could survive without him, the patriarch?
BRAGMAN: He's on suspension indefinitely. It doesn't mean that he's not coming back. I think A&E wants to see how he handles it. So far, it's been, frankly, a little ham-handed. He said, "I didn't try and offend anyone." Well, he did offend people. When we look at the rates of bullying in our schools, when we look at the suicide rate among young lesbians and gays, he used religion as a weapon and not the tool it's meant to be.
SPENCER: As we said, ratings dynamo. Do you see A&E bringing him back because this is such a big business for them? And if so, how do they do it, letting people know they acknowledge how outrageous and offensive these comments are?
BRAGMAN: I think they did. I think they made a very quick and unequivocal decision. They took their biggest show, a $400 million franchise, and put it at risk to do the right thing. And I think we have to applaud their courageousness, number one. Number two, they have to work with Phil, let him understand what he did was offensive. Let him make a true apology. Let him have a cathartic moment. And then, I think, he can potentially come back. But these kind of shows, reality shows, they thrive on controversy. And other things have happened in other shows. This doesn't mean a death knell for the show. It just means, potentially, a transition.