Well, at least we know there’s still a line.
On Tuesday, when Tyler Shields’ intentionally provocative photo of comedian Kathy Griffin holding what appeared to be the bloody, severed head of President Trump hit social media, the condemnation was swift, complete and unequivocal. Whatever her initial intention, Griffin found herself the subject of something that has become increasingly rare in American discourse: bipartisan, multicultural agreement.
Virtually everyone in America was horrified.
Some, including Donald Trump Jr., attempted to politicize the moment by making Griffin a de facto spokeswoman for “the left,” but it was impossible to make that stick.
No one, not even the president’s most outspoken critics, defended the image.
Instead, the words “vile,” “disgusting” and “unacceptable” united the social media response from both sides of the aisle and every social stratum. By late Tuesday afternoon, Griffin had called for Shields to take the image down and issued an abject apology via Instagram. Stripped of her usual high-glam look, Griffin conceded that the image was too upsetting and literally begged for forgiveness. “I’m a comic, I cross the line, I move the line and then I cross it. I went way too far…. I made a mistake and I was wrong.”
For many, the apology was too little too late; the president and the first lady took to Twitter on Wednesday to express their personal hurt and outrage, and CNN, which had initially taken a “wait-and-see” attitude, quickly announced that it was firing Griffin from her 10-year gig as co-host of its New Year’s Eve countdown with Anderson Cooper.
(There have also been calls for further cancellations, including Griffith’s July 7 appearance “In Conversation” with Sen. Al Franken [D-Minn.] at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills. Franken told CNN the event will go on as planned.)
Cooper let his feelings be known almost immediately, tweeting that he was “appalled by the photo shoot Kathy Griffin took part in. It is clearly disgusting and completely inappropriate.”
His reaction sparked, in turn, a fair amount of social media scoffing, as many pointed out that Cooper recently had been involved in professional line-crossing.
In the wake of Trump’s recent firing of FBI Director James B. Comey, Cooper had suggested to Trump supporter Jeffrey Lord that if the president “took a dump on his desk” Lord would defend it (for which Cooper then apologized) and rolled his eyes at a response from Kellyanne Conway (for which he didn’t.)
Of course, “the line” has always been open to negotiation. As was written in the 1987 film “Broadcast News” — which remains the bible of the intersection of news, politics and popular culture — sometimes it’s hard to avoid crossing the line “because they keep moving the little sucker.”
But it has not vanished entirely, or even moved as far as Griffin and Shields thought it had.
Which is strangely reassuring given the state of our nation, where just last week Greg Gianforte, campaigning to become a House representative for Montana, reacted to a reporter asking about healthcare by body-slamming him.
For which Gianforte also apologized, but only after he had won the seat.
Indeed, in the almost two years since Trump entered the presidential race, many seemingly unmovable boundaries have been breached and redrawn.
As a candidate he crossed lines of civil conduct, threatening Hillary Clinton directly with jail (“Lock her up”) and seemingly with assassination (when he suggested that Clinton’s bodyguards disarm and “let’s see what happens” or that “the 2nd Amendment people” might have a solution should she, as president, curtail their rights.)
A similar vitriol fuels the Trump White House, where late-night rage-tweets against individuals, Democrats and the “fake media” have become the new normal. And increasingly, the media are responding with a new normal of their own. After Comey was fired, Cooper was not the only journalist to vent his emotions; as my colleague Lorraine Ali wrote, even Wolf Blitzer blanched and Chuck Todd was reduced to a flabbergasted “Wow.”
Traditional news outlets, including this one, are pushing back with the type of direct and often accusatory language — the accurate use of the word “lie,” for an example, became a topic of media debate — rarely used for a sitting president, much less one in office for less than six months.
And as for comedians, well, Trump’s bare-knuckles approach suits most of them just fine. After the election, Seth Meyers revealed a surprisingly deadly aim, Jimmy Kimmel recently became the face of healthcare, and Stephen Colbert, having re-embraced stinging political humor, shot to the top of the late-night ratings, leaving Jimmy Fallon to regret that he ever thought to muss candidate Trump’s hair.
Indeed, until Griffin’s photo went live, it seemed there was nothing negative a comedian could say about Trump that would get them in trouble; when Colbert recently went on a profane rant that included a crude reference to the president’s mouth, #firecolbert spluttered briefly to life and quickly went out. Colbert apologized, but to anyone who found his remark homophobic, not to the president.
Far more alarming is the ongoing, and increasingly vitriolic, battle between average citizens; the red/blue conflict, which normally recedes after a presidential election, has grown only more pronounced. Even as statues dedicated to the Confederate generals who literally wanted to divide the country are pulled down, another division, deeper and more difficult to define, takes firmer root.
Social media, particularly Twitter, has never run on subtlety or complex thought; for better or worse, a single remark or image can spark a trend or ruin a career.
That it has become the main platform of political discourse makes fading lines only blurrier. “It was only a joke,” a refrain once restricted to sassy teenagers, has become the standard excuse for an offensive or objectionable remark, and one the president has used often.
But as the professional comedian just discovered, some jokes really aren’t funny and some lines still cannot be crossed.
And though it would have been better to be reminded of this in another, less offensive and news-cycle-generating way, it’s still good to know.