Morning shows are a tough needle to thread in the news business. On the one hand you’re expected to present important information to the public and to adhere to the editorial standards set forth by the news department; on the other hand you’re usually told to keep it light and be willing to really let your goofball flag fly because, well, that’s what the morning audience supposedly wants. It’s often difficult to balance the two sides of the equation and any show and team that can do it successfully deserves to be commended.
Still, no matter how good you are at maintaining gravitas while simultaneously keeping things lively, there’s a better than average chance that eventually you’re going to forget you’re a serious operation and step over the line in an attempt to be entertaining. It’s what naturally happens when irreverence is built into the design. If your show is a pre-game morning show, meaning one that’s on live extra early, you also have nature’s hallucinogen, sleep-deprivation, to contend with, which often adds an extra layer of surreality to the proceedings. The staff of MSNBC’s aptly named Way Too Early are likely familiar with both the perils of working the graveyard shift and with trying to balance the serious and looser aspects of their format. But knowledge isn’t always power and so on Monday they got a little carried away while trying to be “fun” and wound up offending a bunch of people.
It happened as anchor Thomas Roberts was presenting a quick segment on Cinco de Mayo, explaining the history of it to the audience, which was certainly a good idea given that plenty of people know it only as one of those holidays that’s now specifically pitched as an excuse to drink, with its cultural significance being incidental. On that note, while Roberts was talking, staffer Louis Burgdorf — Louis Burgdorf, a guy who couldn’t be whiter if he’d been born on horseback during a Ralph Lauren photo shoot and was personally delivered by three members of Skull and Bones — tried to liven things up by dancing around him wearing a sombrero, shaking a maraca and pretending to drink tequila straight from the bottle. Yeah, it was — something. All that was missing was a big mustache and Whitey Gonzalez there shouting to Roberts that he didn’t have to show him any “steenkin’ badges.”
This little bit of gross ethnic stereotyping went over about how you’d expect with the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, which wasted no time in publicly excoriating MSNBC. NAHJ President Hugo Balta, a good guy whom I worked with back in Miami and someone who’s had a pretty strong relationship with NBC throughout the years, fired off a memo that was by almost any standard more entertaining than the MSNBC bit it lambasted.
This is simply the worst example I have seen of a discriminatory stereotypical portrayal of any community by any media. The fact that this was done by a news organization is abominable. This wasn’t a chance occurrence. This was a planned segment where many journalists agreed on the content and execution which concluded on what was seen nationwide. It feeds to the ignorant misconceptions of a rich and proud people who unfortunately are too often portrayed as caricatures to be scoffed at. NAHJ denounces the actions taken by MSNBC’s “Way Too Early” team for their capricious actions, lack of judgment, insensitivity and attack at the Mexican community. NAHJ demands that the employees involved in the planning and production of this segment be disciplined and made to publicly apologize for their actions.
A little over-the-top, maybe, but when you’re the head of an advocacy organization like the NAHJ, your job involves being ready to unload at perceived slights with both barrels when it’s deemed necessary. A lot of people may have seen a purposely awkward segment that went horribly wrong and was shockingly misguided from the get-go, but there’s no doubt that some in the Mexican-American community took real offense to it and wanted some measure of satisfaction. Which of course they got, because this is MSNBC we’re talking about — a network that sometimes appears to be writing a book about every way possible to piss people off then prostrate itself in supplication while firing whoever was responsible for the offense.
Executive producer Alex Korson — another guy I worked with, at CNN’s American Morning — apparently talked to Balta and apologized profusely for the Cinco de Mayo segment, saying that he would be “reviewing the processes” currently in place to make sure something like it doesn’t happen again. He also says that the show will issue an official on-air apology and that those responsible will be “disciplined.” Except that Korson can review every process at MSNBC mornings and discipline everybody named Louis Burgdorf in the Tri-State area and in the end it’s not going to matter one bit other than to temporarily salve the wounds of the NAHJ. It’s not going to matter because it’s almost impossible to ensure that no one is ever offended by anything you say or do on a show that’s, by design, irreverent and off-the-cuff.
Yes, more Way Too Early staffers than just Burgdorf thought that putting a douchey white guy in a sombrero — for not one segment but two — was a good idea, and that’s a problem. But unless you subject your entire staff to a battery of random psyche evaluations to constantly stay on top of what makes them tick, what they find funny, what their character flaws are, and so on, you’re going to get moments where someone says or does something that he or she thinks is perfectly acceptable but which others take offense to. This is going to happen because the system encourages people to let loose and not be so uptight (and, at other times, to speak their minds on issues they’re passionate about and just rely on their best judgment to know when to temper their language) and that’s a recipe for potential trouble because people get carried away and forget they’re still doing a news show on a national network.
You can’t watch the kids 24-hours-a-day. You have to be able to leave them alone and not worry that they’ll burn the house down. That’s the dilemma MSNBC execs will now once again find themselves burdened with. By the same token, you can’t tell those kids to adhere to one set of commands then scold them for giving you what you asked for. You can’t create an atmosphere where even the staff behind the scenes are part of the action, and tell everyone to just have fun and keep it light and occasionally ridiculous, then pretend that it’s all their fault when one of their attempts at being ridiculous goes south because it’s tasteless and insensitive as hell.
Mistakes were most certainly made. MSNBC should indeed apologize for the Cinco de Mayo segment and it’s correct to say that everyone involved will be subjected to one of those “Come To Jesus” meetings no one enjoys. Hell, it’s entirely possible, given MS’s track record, that Louis Burgdorf will be sent packing. But don’t be fooled into thinking that any of this will make much of a difference in how Way Too Early looks and operates from here on out, because if MSNBC pulls the reins too hard then it stops being the kind of show it is. The kind of show, by the way, that MSNBC wants it to be.