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Comedians urged to be funnier before controversial Romney segment



  • "My intention was not malicious," MSNBC hosts tearfully says
  • "The folks at MSNBC made a big mistake and they apologized for it," Romney says
  • Harry Truman once threatened a critic who wrote his daughter "cannot sing very well"
  • Harris-Perry's apology makes one rule clear: the kids are off limits


By Alan Duke

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry chastised her guests for being too serious just before the controversial segment about former Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney's adopted black grandson.

She told viewers the panel of comedians would "be forced to drink during the commercial so they can get their funny back."

Harris-Perry would tearfully apologize for the resulting jokes a week later.

"My intention was not malicious, but I broke the ground rule that families are off limits, and for that I am sorry," Harris-Perry said Saturday.

The apology comes weeks after MSNBC host Martin Bashir lost his job because of remarks about former GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.

Controversial comments by journalists about an American politician's family are not new. Harry Truman threatened physical violence against a Washington Post critic who famously wrote in 1950 that the president's daughter "cannot sing very well."

While Margaret Truman put herself into the public with her performance, Romney's grandson Kieran James only sat on his grandfather's lap for a family Christmas card photograph. And this instance involved race.

Harris-Perry asked her panelists to come up with captions for the photo of Romney, his wife and their 21 grandchildren, all white except for Kieran.

Comedic actress Pia Glenn sang a Sesame Street song: "One of These Things Is Not Like the Others."

Comedian Dean Obeidallah joked that the photo "really sums up the diversity of the Republican Party."

Harris-Perry described the baby as "gorgeous" and suggested Kieran could some day marry North West, the daughter of Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. "Can you imagine Mitt Romney and Kanye West as in-laws?" she joked.

Unlike Truman and the critic, Romney quickly forgave Harris-Perry. "People make mistakes and the folks at MSNBC made a big mistake and they apologized for it," Romney said in an interview on Fox News Sunday. "They apologized for it. That's all we can ask for."

Daily Beast political columnist Sally Kohn, a guest on CNN's "Reliable Sources" Sunday blamed the growing competitiveness and immediacy of media today for the increase in such incidents.

"There's always this incentive to say something that's newsworthy, attention-getting, but it's real easy to cross the line into offensive and stupid," Kohn said. "And that's a split-second judgment sometimes."

Harris-Perry, who is a political science professor at Tulane University, was surrounded by four comedians and no professional journalists. The live, unscripted show, which she said was her second annual "Look Back in Laughter" edition, seemed more like a night at the improv than a cable news program.

"This is the show where we dispense with the serious and sober coverage of the year in politics," she promised viewers. They would look back on "some of the political absurdity of 2013 with the ridicule and mockery it so rightly deserves."

Harris-Perry delivered an opening monologue loaded with obvious sexual puns about the Anthony Weiner sexting scandal.

Comedian Judy Gold joked about Sen. Ted Cruz, saying it was scary that he had daughters. Other comments came about the daughters of "rich, white Republicans."

The mandate for more punchlines was made clear by Harris-Perry after one somewhat serious segment.

"My comedians are all going to be forced to drink during the commercial so they can get their funny back because they've got real serious about about sexism and feminism," the host said.

"We are basically ratings whores," Harris-Perry added.

Politico media reporter Dylan Byers said the MSNBC brand has been damaged by these controversies, considering the channel was "supposed to elevate the discourse" with smart, well-educated progressives who "lean forward."

"It's leaning backward and it's totally, it's not what MSNBC, I think, was supposed to be about originally and I think it's doing real, severe damage to the brand," Byers said on CNN's "Reliable Sources."

Boston radio host Callie Crossley told "Reliable Sources" that Harris-Perry's brand has been damaged by the controversy. "Her brand is to exactly be on top of the kind of ignorant and other kind of racist commentary."

The Society of Professional Journalists has a code of ethics that says journalists should "use special sensitivity when dealing with children" and "show good taste." Students learn it in most journalism schools.

But the rule book in the rough-and-tumble world of politics and media is an unwritten common law of precedents that evolves partly through apologies, resignations and firings. Harris-Perry's apology makes one rule clear: the kids are off limits.



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