The ‘Roseanne’ test: Studios struggle to find social media standard

Posted at 12:39 PM, Jul 27, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-27 14:39:02-04

Since outspoken Trump supporter Roseanne Barr was fired from the ABC show bearing her name, some conservatives have been eager to see liberals face similar repercussions.

Yet as her all-over-the-map appearance on Fox News’ “Hannity” Thursday night demonstrated, when it comes to giving a studio and/or network cause to second-guess employing talent, Barr might be in a class by herself — making the “whataboutism” in using her as a basis for comparison problematic, and the search for consistent standards even more elusive.

Simply put, Barr wasn’t fired for what she said in the past, but for statements in the present and, perhaps as significantly, potentially in the future.

From that perspective, the issue wasn’t solely what Barr said or tweeted, but given her behavior, the uncertainty regarding what she might say or do next. Beyond her racially offensive tweet being “abhorrent” to the company’s values, ABC executives had to realize that because there little chance of controlling the star of their biggest show, they had reason for knots in their stomachs, dreading more unwelcome surprises.

There’s a distinction between that and many of the other cases that have arisen, which include “Guardians of the Galaxy” director James Gunn and “Rick and Morty” producer Dan Harmon, who were both forced to apologize after critics surfaced offensive material from several years ago.

Gunn became a casualty of those efforts, dropped from the upcoming “Guardians” sequel,

after a campaign to circulate years-old tweets that Disney — the studio behind the movie — deemed “indefensible.” Gunn apologized, as did Harmon for an offensive parody video that he made in 2009.

Almost immediately, though, some questioned whether Gunn and Barr’s cases were truly analogous. Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan joined that chorus this week, labeling the pairing “a flawed comparison,” noting in regard to Barr’s tweet about former Obama aide Valerie Jarrett, “That wasn’t a decade old but from the present moment, showing that Barr — far from evolving — was the same old racist she always was.”

Similarly, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar used his Hollywood Reporter column to deride the danger of the studios’ sudden “zero tolerance” policy “that does not take individual circumstances into consideration.”

So is there any way to respond to such controversies in a completely even-handed manner that avoids charges of hypocrisy? Because each situation has its own quirks, probably not. But there do seem to be a few guidelines that would provide a foundation for reacting with greater consistency:

1. When did this happen? Newly registered comments should obviously carry more weight than those made many years ago.

2. How offensive is it? Is a statement so offensive that there’s no putting it behind you? This is obviously subjective, but to quote former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous line about hard-core pornography, “I know it when I see it.”

3. What’s the context? Attempting to produce comedy or satire isn’t a shield against all criticism, but it does operate within a different sphere — one that usually offers some latitude to offend.

4. Do they seem genuinely contrite? Do the responsible parties sound truly apologetic? And given where they are now, what’s the likelihood they’ll repeat past missteps?

5. Does somebody have an ax to grind? In such a politically charged environment, high-profile figures are invariably going to have their critics as well as admirers. But are those calling for action against them likely to be mollified by disciplinary action — or are they merely seeking to take scalps? Because as Sullivan put it, there’s reason for caution about rewarding a mob “in an era of escalating bad-faith attacks.”

6. Does this establish a precedent? If studio officials take action — firing, suspension, condemnation — does that fit within the parameters of what they’ve done before? And perhaps most important, what are the possible ramifications of applying this standard going forward?

For big companies that employ people with their own fan bases and followings, these scenarios offer few easy answers. The only virtual certainty is that when dealing with controversy, it’s worth remembering that however it’s resolved, there’s going to be a next time.