David Letterman has attracted the wrath of the political right in the U.S. with a tasteless joke.
Professional communicators know that humour can be one of the most effective and the most dangerous tools of communication. People love to laugh, so well-targeted humour can go a long way toward making a connection with your audience. But intelligent humour also requires the listener to make a leap, which in turn raises the risk that some of your audience won’t make it the full distance with you. And therein lies the danger.
Here’s the offending joke:
Problem is, Governor Palin was accompanied to the game by 14-year-old daughter Willow – not 18-year-old Bristol, a teen mother who has proactively campaigned about topics of teen pregnancy.
Letterman attempted to clarify a couple of nights later:
There’s been lots of commentary about Letterman’s apology not being sincere enough… but he’s a comedian. Sarcasm and poor taste aside, I think he made it abundantly clear he didn’t mean the joke in the way in which it was taken – but Governor Palin and her supporters won’t hear of it. They have seized on the opportunity to turn Letterman into a scapegoat for the left, accusing him of joking about statutory rape and suggesting the “left-wing media” softballed its coverage of the conflict.
Governor Palin and an army of right-leaning commentators have elevated the issue from outrage over what is (no matter how you slice it) a tasteless joke, to an illustration of how the media is unjust in its treatment of the right.
An article on Politico today about this controversy quotes Brent Bozell, president of the conservative Media Research Center, saying it “underscores everything that conservatives are saying. If Rush Limbaugh had made a joke about Barack Obama’s daughter, he wouldn’t finish the sentence before they were calling for him to be fired. It is beyond a double standard. It is a rank hypocrisy, and everyone sees it.”
To my mind, this is indeed where the hypocrisy sets in.
• Neither of Barack Obama’s daughters has been a high-profile teenaged mother.
• Neither of Barack Obama’s daughters has embarked on a high-profile campaign discussing abstinence as a realistic means of birth control for teens.
Bristol Palin’s teen pregnancy is a “discussable” issue because Bristol Palin’s mother was the Vice-Presidential candidate for the party campaigning on “family values”, and because she herself proactively participated in the national media conversation about teen pregnancy. At 18, she is an adult, legally eligible to vote, to go to war, to sleep with whomever she pleases, and to speak out on political issues; at 18, she is also fair game for late-night comedians.
Letterman’s joke was in bad taste – he admits it. But to call the media’s coverage of the ensuing flap hypocritical is… well… hypocritical.
Why do I raise all this on my PR blog? Because to my mind, this is spin at its worst. When powerful people compare apples to oranges for political gain, they undermine public confidence in the entire system. The outrage over this joke has been way overblown, and even Republican media consultant Fred Davis recognizes that it could backfire on the GOP, saying: “I think it's a mistake too many conservatives are making right now. They are trying to find anything to attack.”
This kind of spin sows distrust. If we don’t bring more frankness and rationality back into public debate, bit by bit, mock outrage after mock outrage, participants on all sides of the media conversation will pay the price – no joke.
Letterman made a further apology on his show tonight.
He hit all the right notes from a PR perspective; in a serious and respectful tone, he acknowledged that the intent of the joke was irrelevant in the face of the offense it had caused, and apologized personally to the Palin family and anyone else offended by it.
If Governor Palin plays it right, she'll take the high road, accept his apology, and leave it at that. We'll see.