Losing the gotcha game
Mike Tyson was at it again last week, assaulting people’s ears. Iron Mike was in England this time, there to knock over an English tomato can named Julius Francis, and he was getting pretty peeved about a women’s group that wanted him banned from Britain because he’d once been convicted of rape. “They are just a bunch of frustrated women who want to be men,” Tyson railed, then slagged their husbands for good measure. This barely caused a blip in the media and certainly no talk of cancelling the lucrative fight—what are a few offensive words next to biting off an opponent’s ear? And hey, it’s sports, right? The same field in which Atlanta pitcher John Rocker, while dumping all over New York City recently, spewed special bile on blacks, gays with AIDS, Asian women drivers and foreigners in general—“How the hell did they get in this country?” Big reaction to that one—but no chance Rocker will lose his job. The guy has a 95-m.p.h. fastball!
Which brings us to one Avery Haines, a CTV NewsNet anchor who got canned last week for making an open-mike joke. Beyond that obvious mistake, Haines committed two other crucial errors: she was (1) in the wrong field, and (2) not enough of a star in that field—in other words, expendable when CTV brass felt the predictable heat of public outrage. Score one for sanctimony.
For the record, Avery Haines is 33, a 12-year veteran of Toronto’s CFRB radio who’d made the jump to TV only two months before her fatal faux pas in the morning hours of Jan. 13. This is what she did: first, she flubbed her lines while introducing a taped report. Then, thinking that tape would never air, she joked: “I kind of like the stuttering thing. It’s like equal opportunity, right? We’ve got a stuttering newscaster. We’ve got the black, we’ve got the Asian, we’ve got the woman. I could be a lesbian-folk-dancing-black-woman stutterer.” When someone in the studio joined in, she went on: “In a wheelchair. .. with a gimping mbber leg. Yeah, really. I’d have a successful career, let me tell you.” She then retaped the segment, minus the smttering and the joke—only to have a colleague inadvertendy run the wrong one. Haines’s public apologies—for her “insulting and derogatory” remarks—were not enough to save her job.
OK, this is not a national tragedy, and Haines, whose story was widely reported in the American media as a case of political correctness gone berserk, will undoubtedly find other gainful employment. But it’s worth examining what happened here. A woman made some flip, crude comments of the sort uttered routinely in locker rooms if not offices across the land, but never to be mouthed when a mike’s around. Minority and disabled groups complained, which is fair enough—it’s their job to leap to their members’ defence. But were Haines’s remarks, however coarsely worded, really aimed
at minorities in the same way that, say, John Rocker’s were? Of course not. In fact—and this is critical—they were spoofing not minorities but, first, the stuttering anchor herself and, second, official government policy on employment equity.
As a Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission document explains it, Ottawa is committed to correcting “the conditions of disadvantage in employment experienced by women, Aboriginal Peoples, persons with disabilities and persons who are, because of their race or colour, in a visible minority in Canada, by giving effect to the principle that employment equity means more than treating persons in the same way but also requires special measures and the accommodation of differences.”
In other words, hire minorities, as the CRTC spells out in its licence for the all-news network, encouraging CTV “to promote equitable representation in on-air staff positions.” Meaning, if you’re a minority newsperson, to be deeply offended by Haines’s joke is to deny the reality of an enlightened policy that has led to many excellent hires. Did colour help you get in the door? Maybe, so what? Did you have to prove yourself afterward? Absolutely.
Then there’s the matter of Haines’s relative obscurity. What would have happened to her if, say, she’d called the Roman Catholic Church “the greatest criminal organization outside the Mafia”? She’d have been canned, of course. But that’s what CBC Radio’s Michael Enright said three years ago, and he’s since been promoted to the prestigious This Adorning post. Would Haines have been axed if she’d repeatedly trashed foreigners? Yep. But that’s what Don Cherry does on Hockey Night in Canada, and the ratings, not incidentally, are boffo. Let’s not even mention Howard Stern.
Certainly words can be offensive enough to warrant firing. Golf commentator Ben Wright, for instance, got sliced from CBS’s payroll in 1996 after telling a reporter that lesbianism was hurting the women’s tour, and that female golfers were handicapped because “their boobs get in the way.” Wright wasn’t joking, and deserved what he got. But Avery Haines? C’mon. Let’s talk about what’s really offensive, like a filthyrich hockey owner trying to score millions in tax concessions, or people dying because they can’t get into emergency rooms while politicians deny their cutbacks have anything to do with it. Or baseball sending Rocker for psychological evaluation, as if bigotry were a mental disorder and not an alltoo-common set of attitudes, passed down from generation to generation. The guy’s a redneck, OK? There are millions of them; Rocker could probably get elected to something.
Avery Haines? Just the latest loser in the gotcha game. We should all grow up.