My first job out of college was writing publicity in Los Angeles. I sat in a bare office in Century City, grinding out bios of 12-year-old BMX bicycle racers, stiff-arming the creeping conviction that, at 22, my life was officially over.
The little speed demons were not expected to pause from their 540 barspins to write their own profiles, of course. Writing your own publicity was the realm of the amateur, of mimeographed church newsletters and bulletin board rummage sale announcements. A professional operation like the Bicycle Motocross League knew to hire a slick firm staffed with fresh Northwestern graduates such as myself to drape them in carefully crafted glory.
A sensible system which came to mind as I sat gaping, like the rest of the country, as Roseanne Barr’s reborn career imploded, along with ABC’s No. 1 new program, after the comedian sent a tweet suggesting former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett is the progeny of an ape.
Since many Americans seem clueless as to why this insult is different than any random cruelty, a bit of history:
The United States was founded as a slave-owning nation. Our Constitution was distorted to laud liberty while enabling bondage. But more than law is needed to own slaves. A slave-owner’s mentality is essential. Convincing yourself that others are your property based entirely on their skin color is an elaborate self-deception requiring the belief that slaves are in fact inferior, non-human. Roseanne said what every daughter of Dixie in 1850 believed to be true, based on God and science. After all, money was involved.
One of the most famous American TV stars publicly endorsing the slave-owner’s creed calls into question a century and a half of supposed racial progress. It’s as if she offered to buy Barack Obama’s daughters.
The surprise was not that she said it — social media is a whirlwind of slander. The surprise was that ABC canceled the show. If Barr’s comments were repugnant to supposed American values, ABC’s action is contrary to our core national principle: making money. Or perhaps I’m naive. “Roseanne” was expected to make $60 million in advertising revenue next season, which is what “Black Panther,” produced by Disney, ABC’s parent, earned the first eight hours of opening weekend. Maybe Disney is not spiking “Roseanne” so much as promoting “Black Panther 2.”
None of this would have been necessary had ABC contractually gagged its famously unstable star, requiring her to first email her rants to some low-paid recent NU grad to screen out any low racist bilge before tweeting.
Old school? Sure. Shutting up is an art form, one that has fallen into neglect. We are all our own press agents now, in an era when the president of the United States spatters his unfiltered id nightly over the nation. On cue he expressed outrage:
“Bob Iger of ABC called Valerie Jarrett to let her know that “ABC does not tolerate comments like those” made by Roseanne Barr. Gee, he never called President Donald J. Trump to apologize for the HORRIBLE statements made and said about me on ABC. Maybe I just didn’t get the call?”
That pitch was too slow and down the pipe for me to let it pass; I tweeted to the president, and world:
“Or maybe because any given “horrible” statement about Donald Trump tends to be true. So Roseanne Barr gets fired for her odious racism, while I can say Donald Trump is a liar, a bully, a fraud and most likely a traitor, and not only keep my job, but saying that sorta IS my job.”
That “most likely” was a two-word insurance policy to cover myself for the unimaginable possibility where Trump sues me for defaming his character, as if such a thing were possible.
The Roseanne lesson is not that we live in a racist nation. If you don’t know that, you’re not paying attention. The lesson is that communication is a skill everyone thinks they’re good at, but few have actually mastered, and some should leave it to professionals. Each new tweet by anyone with a name to besmirch and a job to lose is a straight razor placed against one’s own throat; it is important to scrape gently upward and not draw briskly across. Roseanne wouldn’t mow her own lawn — for that, she’d hire experts. But she wrote her own publicity, and the results speak for themselves.