MSNBC's silence speaks volumes
Tuesday evening, during an on-air discussion about Sen. Larry Craig's arrest, MSNBC host Tucker Carlson recounted a mid-1980s incident in which, according to Carlson, he and a friend slammed a man's head against a bathroom stall because the man had "bothered" Carlson.
While Carlson described hitting the man's head "against the stall," he broke into a broad smile, barely stifling a laugh. At least one of his MSNBC colleagues who were on the air at the same time -- Dan Abrams and Joe Scarborough -- laughed out loud. (Neither man was visible on-screen at that precise moment, but the uproarious laughter that greeted Carlson's comments indicate that at least one of them found it hilarious. Watch the video for yourself.)
Carlson's boast that he and a friend physically assaulted a man who he said "bothered" him quickly drew criticism, and Carlson changed his story the next day. In an email statement Media Matters for America received from an MSNBC spokesperson, Carlson said:
Let me be clear about an incident I referred to on MSNBC last night: In the mid-1980s, while I was a high school student, a man physically grabbed me in a men's room in Washington, DC. I yelled, pulled away from him and ran out of the room. Twenty-five minutes later, a friend of mine and I returned to the men's room. The man was still there, presumably waiting to do to someone else what he had done to me. My friend and I seized the man and held him until a security guard arrived.
Several bloggers have characterized this is a sort of gay bashing. That's absurd, and an insult to anybody who has fought back against an unsolicited sexual attack. I wasn't angry with the man because he was gay. I was angry because he assaulted me.
Carlson's story changed in at least two key ways: In the new version, he claimed that a man "physically grabbed" him in the men's room; and that he and his friend merely "seized" and "held" the man until a security guard arrived -- no mention of hitting the man "against the stall with his head."
Which version of Carlson's story is the closest to the truth? The first version he told, apparently spontaneously and unrehearsed? Or the statement he issued after the first version drew criticism?
It is impossible for anyone who wasn't in that bathroom in the mid-1980s to know with any certainty. And, for the purposes of assessing the propriety of Carlson's comments Tuesday, it is irrelevant.
Let's give Tucker Carlson every benefit of the doubt, and assume that his current version of the event is an accurate depiction of what happened. In that case, his actions in the mid-1980s may have been justified.
But, since we are unlikely to ever learn exactly what happened 20 years ago, Carlson's comments on MSNBC on Tuesday are the most relevant issue, and those comments were reprehensible.
On MSNBC, Carlson did not describe having been "physically grabbed" or "assaulted." He described having been merely "bothered." And he did not describe holding the man who "bothered" him until a security guard arrived. He described slamming the man's head against a bathroom stall.
And, as he did so, he smiled. His comments were greeted with gales of laughter from his MSNBC colleagues.
Carlson's comments, along with the reaction from Abrams and Scarborough, send a very clear message to the viewing audience: If a man is the subject of an unwanted overture from another man, violence is an appropriate response. Funny, even.
Carlson's comments, and the laughter they elicited, are dangerous.
If that seems an exaggeration, remember that Carlson's comments did not occur in a vacuum. Anti-gay violence remains a reality. In June, the New York Daily News published an article about the slaying of Roberto Duncanson:
An indictment filed yesterday added a hate-crime rap to the murder charge against Omar Willock -- crimes punishable by life in prison.
Willock, who is being held without bail in the slaying of Roberto Duncanson, 20, allegedly snarled at the victim, "What are you looking at, f
r?" when their paths crossed on St. Marks Ave. in Crown Heights on May 12, sources said.
Willock unleashed a salvo of anti-gay slurs because he thought Duncanson was flirting with him, they said.
Although Duncanson walked away and stopped to see a cousin near Brooklyn Ave., Willock was waiting with more insults when the victim emerged from the apartment, cops said.
Heated words turned into a fight, and the teen allegedly whipped out a knife and stabbed Duncanson four times. Duncanson died at Kings County Hospital -- where he was born -- about an hour later.
Also in June, The Bloomington (Indiana) Alternative reported:
Thirty-five-year-old, 5-foot-4, 100-pound Aaron Hall was brutally beaten on April 12 for hours by two teens who have described the murder in chilling detail to police. Each says Hall precipitated the violence by making a homosexual suggestion.
The beatings included repeated pummelings with fists and boots and dragging Hall down a wooden staircase by his feet as "his head bounced down all of the steps," in one of the accused's words. He died naked and alone, in a field, where he had crawled after his killers dumped his body in a roadside ditch.
Other examples are depressingly easy to find. Among the most well-known: The Jenny Jones killing in 1996, in which Scott Amedure told his neighbor, both guests on the show, that he had a crush on him. Three days later, the neighbor responded by murdering Amedure.
That is the context in which Tucker Carlson made his comments as his MSNBC colleagues laughed. There are already people who believe that the appropriate reaction if a gay man makes a pass at you is to beat or even kill him. When a national television host smiles while he recounts slamming a man's head against a bathroom stall for "bothering" him -- and two national television hosts laugh along with him -- that sends exactly the wrong signal: one that can reinforce violent impulses in viewers or plant the idea in the heads of those who haven't yet thought of it, and can contribute to a climate of fear that makes many gays feel isolated.
There are already too many lunatics whose reaction to a gay man flirting with them is violence without three national television hosts seeming to condone or even encourage such behavior. And that is what Carlson, Abrams, and Scarborough did. Presumably -- hopefully -- they did so unwittingly. Anyone who has watched more than an hour or two of live television recognizes that people sometimes say things they don't mean, or say things in a way that leaves a misleading impression. Such slips are understandable, and forgivable. Hopefully, that is what happened on MSNBC Tuesday night. Hopefully, neither Carlson nor Abrams nor Scarborough intended to suggest that physical assault is an acceptable and amusing response to unwanted flirtation.
But they did so nonetheless.
And now they must fix it, or stand by it. There is no other choice.
If Carlson and MSNBC don't condone anti-gay violence, they have a responsibility to make that clear. So far, MSNBC has remained silent, allowing its employees' laughter to stand as its final word.
If Carlson and MSNBC don't really think that physical assault is an acceptable reaction to an unwanted overture, it shouldn't be difficult for the network to make that clear.
Or it can let its employees' laughter do the talking.
The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation has called on Carlson and MSNBC to apologize.