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Easterbrook Donnybrook

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Ever wonder what a donnybrook is? Well, it’s a term for an uproar or a free-for all, and originated as a reference to Donnybrook fair, a suburb of Dublin which was long noted for its raucous brawls. What does that have to do with anything? Well, since I first learned of it Saturday night, I’ve been pondering the news that Gregg Easterbrook was fired from ESPN, allegedly over the comments he made about studio executives Michael Eisner and Harvey Weinstein as the parties responsible for the release of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. The text of his original comments can be found in my post here, and my comments on his “apology” can be found here. Roger Simon initially posted the news of the firing, which he apparently learned through a conversation with Easterbrook.

I hesitated to post anything at first, in one sense because so many others had already done so (links to those comments can be found here and here). But because I had criticised Easterbrooks’ comments to begin with, I decided it was probably appropriate to toss my thoughts into the ring. First of all, I am reminded of Glen Reynolds’ post last Friday, in which he noted that it was unfortunate Easterbrook waited virtually all week to offer an “apology” for his comments (they initially appeared on Monday, while he updated his blog with the “apology” on Friday). As Reynolds points out, in blog time that’s forever. It might have been better to address the situation earlier rather than attempt to ignore it, since the hesitation may have been why the story exploded – and ended up covered by the New York Times, among other places.

Like most of the others who have already offered far more cogent commentary on this, I am surprised by ESPN’s reaction (for those who didn’t know, ESPN is part of the whole Disney corporate behemoth, and Michael Eisner helms Disney, so one supposition is that Easterbrook was essentially canned for taking a shot at his boss). Professor Eugene Volokh says, “I thought Easterbrook’s comments were unsound and quite unpersuasive, but I don’t think they were anti-Semitic.” The first time I read Easterbrook’s post, I was struck by what (to me, at least) seemed a highly insensitive and largely disconnected diatribe against Jewish studio executives appended to a post lambasting Quentin Tarantino. I’ve already said why I think Easterbrook was wrong; however, I agree that his comments weren’t directly anti-Semitic.

It is a very touchy topic: on the one hand, you have those who contend that the remarks were anti-Semitic because Easterbrook singled out two men simply because they were Jewish. For example, D.F. Moore asks “why did Easterbrook go out of his way to point out their Judaism?” On the other hand, there is this perspective from Politica Obscura:

Since the media elite has declared that bloggers shall no longer believe that a media titan’s religion should inform his business judgments, I have a new rule for the media elite. Henceforth, no reporter shall mention Justice Clarence Thomas’ race when discussing his work on the Supreme Court.

If it is unfair to cite one’s religious background in trying to hold that person to a higher standard, then certainly it should also be unfair to cite one’s race.

While there is a measure of humor in that statement, there really is a problem with assuming that members of an identifiable group always have the same beliefs about every issue. Even those who share the same religion – or the same race – do not always agree on everything. It isn’t so much citing “one’s religious background” that was troublesome in Easterbrook’s comments, but rather his blanket assumption that all Jews would – or should – agree with his perspective about cinematic violence. If Easterbrook could point out how Weinstein or Eisner were directly contravening their own religious perspectives, that would be one thing, but he made an assumption about how they should think – merely because they were Jewish. It would have been far better for him to identify the religious principle he felt was applicable in this situation, or to articulate his position in a more generic fashion. After all, as I pointed out last week, what he was really trying to get at was sensitivity to cinematic depictions of violence, and that concept is not automaically applicable to any indentifiable group of people, regardless of how much suffering they may have historically endured as a collective entity.

Then you have those, like Professor Lawrence Lessig, who think this is an issue of media concentration:

[If ESPN] fired Easterbrook because Easterbrook criticized the owner, that’s an offense to society, whatever the injustice to Easterbrook — at least when fewer and fewer control access to media. No doubt, anti-semitism has done infinitely greater harm than misused media mogul power. But if firing your critics becomes the norm in American media, then there will be much more than insensitivity to anti-semitism to worry about in the future.

Maybe so. The firing of Easterbrook certainly might raise questions regarding the objectivity of ABC News or ESPN as regards Disney-related news events (in other words, don’t bite the hand that feeds you, or that hand will whack you). But “employment at will” remains the general rule in most of this country, and that means an employer can fire an employee for a good reason, a bad reason, or no reason at all. And in the wake of the whole Rush Limbaugh-Donovan McNabb thing, I hazard a guess ESPN is fairly sensitive to any comments, even if they weren’t so much anti-Semitic as perhaps overly broad. So while I understand the “concentration” concern, I think the key question for now is simply whether Easterbrook should’ve been canned for his comments – i.e., if they warranted anything more than challenge and a bit of chastisement.

Personally, I don’t think so. Perhaps this is less egrigious than Rush’s comments about McNabb; perhaps it is important that Easterbrook apologized. It’s also true that Rush resigned (whether under pressure or not), and there were even reports that other members of the studio team would refuse to work with him (arguably their right to do so). So the situations may not be directly analogous. Ultimately, though, I simply believe that discourse is rarely benefited by whacking people for what they say. I’d rather debate Easterbrook than see him terminated. I’d like him to say “Oh, now I see what you’re getting at” and change his mind. That’s not to say someone like Easterbrook, or Limbaugh, or John Rocker, or Jeremy Shockey or whoever else shouldn’t suffer public condemnation for their comments. There seems to be far more gained by discussion, however, than by overt punishment. As a result, I don’t think what Easterbrook said justifies his termination.

There is one other aspect to this whole thing that seems to be getting a bit less attention in the so-called blogosphere, and that is the extent to which bloggers themselves are responsible for the attention Easterbrook’s comments received. Limbaugh’s statements were made in the course of a national broadcast and received immediate attention from mainstream media. Easterbrook’s comments were posted on his blog, and other bloggers were the initial counterattackers, as it were. Only after the controversy erupted did it became a story for the mainstream.

Does that make bloggers responsible for his termination? There again, I don’t think so. Most of the responses were simply arguing with Easterbrook personally, much like I used to argue with my friends in law school in a bit of friendly – if agressive – debate. We sat around for hours arguing about all sorts of issues, often getting a bit heated (I was once called a jack-booted nazi by one of my friends, simply for arguing that one could assume someone with $300,000 in their trunk might be up to something suspicious). That personal interaction is often the spirit associated with blogging: people feel like they are talking to one another, albeit with the whole world (or some portion thereof) possibly watching. ESPN’s overreaction to the controversy seems more akin to shooting flies with a bazooka than anything else, but that doesn’t mean that the underlying argument itself was inappropriate. Easterbrook didn’t deserve to be fired, but he did deserve to be challenged by those with a different perspective.

Note: The author wastes a fair amount of time blogging about a variety of subjects over at Walloworld, where this post originally appeared.

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About Bill Wallo

  • Only one disagreement — you can’t really use the name of Easterbrook in the same sentence as Rush/Rocker/Shockey.

  • Eric Olsen

    A fine and reasoned wrap-up Bill, thanks! I agree, the firing was an overreaction and one that rightly or wrongly gives fodder to the anti-media consolidation argument. He was wrong – we’ve all said so – but not so wrong or so offensive that it calls his job into question, especially since he didn’t make the offending comments on ESPN. We all have the right to make mistakes, to be told we are stupid, wrong and deserve to be beaten with canes, without our employers overreacting and dumping our dead asses.

  • Thanks Eric.

    Chris – why can’t I lump Easterbrook in with Limbaugh, Rocker, Shockey, et al? I wasn’t focusing on the relative weight of their comments (i.e., is one set of comments better/worse than another). I was getting at the nature of debate in general: if I say something, others are entitled to argue with me, and say I’m wrong, stupid, etc – just like people did in each of those instances, be it Easterbrook or the others. However, I understand that Easterbrook might not like to have his comments tossed into the same general class as those made by the other gentlemen. 😉

  • In the context of being able to be told you are stupid, yeah I can see the point.

    In all the huffing and puffing about whether Easterbrook hates Jews, Warren Sapp calls the NFL a Slave System and no one says a word . . .

  • Eric Olsen

    Clearly it would be if slaves only had to work half the year and average a million dollars per pickin’ season.

  • Hey, wait a minute – who said I said anything stupid? 🙂

    As for Sapp v. the NFL, boy is that an interesting can of worms: you have the whole debate over whether so-called middle class America only thinks of African-Americans in terms of athletics or entertainment (i.e., Michael, Prince, or the rapper of your choice), combined with the counter-argument that athletes and entertainers often make a whole lot more money than your basic middle class American.

    Be curious to see if Sapp’s comment truly gets “lost” – it may fuel some debate somewhere, we’ll see. What the heck, maybe you just gave me fodder for another post. 🙂

  • Like Harlan Ellison said: “Don’t fuck with the mouse”.

  • The only good mouse is a dead mouse. Or something like that. 🙂

    You know, I can only claim that I came up with the title of this post independently from Mickey Klaus (this being further evidence of the concept of simultaneous development of ideas). Klaus likewise posted his “Donnybrook” post over the noon hour as well. I did not see it until just now (via the Volokh Conspiracy). It has some interesting stuff in it, for those – er, interested.

  • Thomas

    If reasonable folks can’t even come to an agreement as to whether Gregg Easterbrook’s words were racist or anti-Semitic, then I think this issue being blown all out of proportion. I would be willing to bet that Michael Eisner fired Easterbrook for being insubordinate, not because he felt insulted as a Jewish person. But, then again, what the hell do I know?

    For what it’s worth, I agree with Professor Volokh: Easterbrook’s comments were unpersuasive but not anti-Semitic. I think he was just trying to make a religious appeal to Eisner and Weinstein and it came out sounding a whole lot like anti-Semitism–though the substance of his argument was mostly innocuous.

  • Taloran

    In carefully analyzing the debated section of text of Easterbrook’s argument as it appeared on Blogcritics a few days ago and in my local paper today, it is my considered opinion that what Easterbrook said was stupid, but that it was neither morally wrong nor anti-Semitic. He made the mistake of voicing an inflammatory statement and including the religion of his two targets as a part of that statement. Dumb, yes. Worthy of a heartfelt apology for being a dumbass, yes. Bile spewing, no. Worthy of getting fired, no.

    I’m afraid that political correctness has gone too far in this country. I certainly don’t want to return to the days when someone could put in their shop window “Hiring – no Irish need apply”, but an American is entitled to his own stupid opinion.

    I think the time has come for the Anti-Defamation League, NAACP, Al Sharpton, and all the others who try to find hatred, intolerance or racism in every statement to examine the content of things a bit more carefully, and not see hatred in everything everyone says.