By the time public relations executive Justine Sacco ended her 12-hour flight from London to South Africa, her offensive tweet had gone viral. “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” it said.
Within hours, InterActive Corp. fired the communications director. Ms. Sacco issued a public apology to South Africans, explaining it was easy to be cavalier about its AIDS crisis “that we read about in America, but do not live with or face on a continuous basis.” Actually, Americans, and not just black ones, live with the AIDS crisis, too.
Of the many questions the story raises, one is how someone so lacking in PR skills got to be a public relations executive. That’s far more of a mystery than why Phil Robertson, patriarch of the A&E Network reality show “Duck Dynasty,” would nostalgically evoke pre-civil rights days in the South and call gay people sinners who, like “male prostitutes,” “drunkards,” “slanderers” and “swindlers,” won’t get to heaven.
The show celebrates what Robertson family members unapologetically call redneck culture. “I’m a loose cannon. I shoot from the hip,” one relative said. A&E counts on the family’s rogue, squirrel-and frog-eating ways — they put on black face paint and hunt on golf courses for dinner — to entertain and shock viewers.
Acting indignant, A&E indefinitely suspended Mr. Robertson after he told GQ magazine that gays are sinners and said growing up in the “pre-entitlement, pre-welfare” South, black people were, in his words, “happy,” were not mistreated and never criticized whites. Subtext: Ah, for the good old days when everyone knew their place.
But what did A&E expect? Its reaction feels a shade less insincere than CBS Radio’s response when it sacked Don Imus for his “nappy-headed hos” remark about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team. CBS had long profited from the shock-jock’s tirades against minorities and women — calling an African-American TV journalist “a cleaning lady,” a Washington Post reporter a “Jewboy,” a disabled colleague “the cripple” and a pair of Indian tennis players “Gunga Din and Sambo.”
If networks really cared about their featured acts’ attitudes on human rights, wouldn’t they have screened or educated them at the outset?
This is who Mr. Robertson is, himself a nasty stereotype — a substance-abuser who fled Arkansas after beating up a bar owner and his wife, who once kicked his wife and three kids out of the house and gave up drinking for Christ — whom he now invokes to put down gay people. He made a lot of money off a contraption that simulates duck sounds for hunters. He has the right to give interviews.
A&E was walking a fine line, hoping Mr. Robertson’s suspension would placate gay and black constituencies. Then the network drew backlash from his family. The group IStandWithPhil.com demanded his reinstatement and wanted apologies to the millions of viewers it said shared his view. Late last week, A&E backed down and reinstated him.
A&E isn’t the only network to make entertainment out of reinforcing stereotypes. TLC’s reality show, “Here Comes Honey Booboo,” does the same with its quaint-talking, spaghetti-with-ketchup-eating family of an 8-year-old beauty contestant.
As one viewer posted in response to all the disparaging online comments, “You people must watch the shows to put them down.” Bingo.
Southern blogger Kate Andrews mused about the show’s use of subtitles to accentuate the family’s differentness, make them look “less educated, more country.” Concluding it was a marketing strategy, she wrote, “These are just some of the reasons that we Southerners get our backs. We’re the Beverly Hillbillies, over and over again. … I’m tired of defending my region. Many of us are smart, we’re not all racist, and our accents give us character.”
This embarrassing mess the A&E network got itself in should be a wake-up call. It’s time for TV to stop putting people out there to embarrass themselves, amuse some and offend others, then punish them for being who they are. It’s time to stop claiming the higher ground when they just care about money and ratings. It’s time for audiences to call them out on their hypocrisy and demand better representations of America’s diversity.
Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register (firstname.lastname@example.org).