Some Things Are Better Left Said

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I know of no journalist who has not, at some time in the course of a career, emerged from an interview and either said, or thought, the following words: "What a f---ing idiot!"

In a lifetime of journalism, I have interviewed an impressive array of f---ing idiots. An equal number of people, as I walked away from interviewing them, have said, or thought, about me: "What a f---ing idiot!"

It's an adversarial relationship, you see. The important thing is not to say things like that in the middle of the interview. That may lead to an unprofessional exchange of blows. Lines like "What a f---ing idiot!" are to be uttered offstage, after the close of business, so to speak — in the way that Hamlet, stopping at a bar for a drink after the play, might confide to a friend that Ophelia has bad breath. The words are for private consumption. They must not be part of the performance.

Well, on June 29, Bryant Gumbel, a host of CBS-TV's "The Early Show," did a truculent interview with Robert Knight of the Family Research Council. They were discussing the Supreme Court's decision upholding the Boy Scouts' ban on gay troop leaders. Knight supported the court's decision because keeping gay men out of scoutmaster posts comported with Knight's religious views. Gumbel took the opposite view, and applied his surly, uninteresting mind to cuffing Knight about on the air.

Here's how L. Brent Bozell III, chairman of the Media Research Center, described what happened next: "After the interview ended the camera inadvertently came back on the unsuspecting Gumbel... Though the audio was turned off halfway through the sentence, a sneering Gumbel let it be known what he thought of Knight's moral values: 'What a f---ing idiot!"

Now Bozell, a conservative critic of liberal media biases, has taken out newspaper ads comparing Gumbel's insult to the racist remarks that got Jimmy the Greek fired from CBS years ago. Gumbel, says Bozell, is guilty of religious bigotry. If he is not fired, then at the very least, Gumbel should apologize for what he said. Neither Gumbel nor CBS has done so.

Bozell makes his usual point about media bias. It seems a little off, however, that he should indulge in pious victimology (painting Knight as the victim of Gumbel's religious intolerance). In a better world, Bozell would straightforwardly return the insult. He might paraphrase Groucho Marx's line: "Gumbel looks like an idiot. He talks like an idiot. But don't get me wrong. He really is an idiot." Instead, Bozell has mounted a campaign that, in essence, accuses Gumbel of a hate crime.

Odd. Any intelligent conservative opposes the idea of trying to designate certain thoughts and opinions as "hate crimes," just as, in the late '40s, every intelligent liberal (and plenty of conservatives) opposed outlawing the Communist party. It's not a great idea to go around outlawing thoughts and opinions, even ugly ones, even potentially dangerous ones.

But let us discuss personalities. How is Bryant Gumbel different from, oh, John Rocker? Both are performers in the public eye who have been guilty of invective. Rocker happens to have a more vivid prose style than Gumbel, and, shall we say, a more encompassing sociological vision. But Gumbel, dismissing Knight as a "f---ing idiot" on grounds of Knight's religious convictions, works in the same ball park.

L. Brent Bozell III has a more elegant way available to call someone "a f---ing idiot." It is the Janet Cooke Award, the Media Research Center's highest accolade, bestowed annually, like an Oscar, upon the journalist who, in the opinion of the judges, committed the most egregious work of arrant liberal media piffle during the previous year.

I don't like to brag, but I myself won the coveted award seven and a half years ago, for my magazine cover story designating the newly elected Bill Clinton as TIME's Man of the Year. In retrospect, I do not claim that the award was entirely undeserved; I gushed a lot, and I did not foresee Monica Lewinsky. Sue me. But for the honor of the award, I would have felt better if Bozell had simply called me up and told me the truth: "You're a f---ing idiot!"