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Gilbert Gottfried, Glenn Beck, 50 Cent take heat for offensive Japan comments

March 15, 2011 |  1:21 pm

Gilbert What is it about a natural disaster that brings out tasteless, insensitive and downright horrifying comments from people in the spotlight? Whether it's incendiary talk show host Glenn Beck, comedian Gilbert Gottfried, rapper 50 Cent or TV writer Alec Sulkin, the inappropriate sound bites about the earthquake and tsunami in Japan have been coming fast and furious over the last several days.

The immediacy of Twitter, and its unfiltered, stream-of-consciousness nature, could be to blame for the spread of some of the thoughtless statements so quickly. The churn of a 24-hour news cycle and live TV, where CNBC anchor Larry Kudlow tripped up on Friday, also may take some of the heat.

But at the heart of the matter are the sentiments themselves, said Stuart Fischoff, senior editor of the Journal of Media Psychology, who sees a "reservoir of prejudice" against the Japanese people that's been unearthed by the disaster. See: tweets that reference Pearl Harbor.

"No doubt, there's a mordant sense of humor that comes out in times of stress," Fischoff said. "But in this case it's bringing up culturally accepted prejudice against the Japanese. We didn't see this during Haiti."

The backlash has been as lightning fast as the gaffes, with Gottfried getting fired from his long-time gig as the voice of the Aflac insurance spokescharacter after tweeting jokes about Japan. (These tweets have now been deleted.)

Joan Rivers, who's been known to use the ironic catchphrase, "Too soon?," stuck up for Gottfried via Twitter.

"Oh come on people -- this is outrageous! Gilbert Gottfried was FIRED from Aflac for making jokes about the tsunami in Japan. That's what comedians do!!! We react to tragedy by making jokes to help people in tough times feel better through laughter."

Gottfried apologized on Twitter on Tuesday. "I sincerely apologize to anyone who was offended by my attempt at humor regarding the tragedy in Japan," he tweeted, continuing, "I meant no disrespect, and my thoughts are with the victims and their families."

Beck, a well-known provocateur, called the quake and tsunami a "message from God" on his Monday radio show, and carried on in that vein.

Meanwhile, hip-hop artist 50 Cent made an ill-advised surfing joke, and Sulkin brought up Pearl Harbor. Both have since apologized.

There's a lesson to be learned here about the unedited, real-time world of Twitter, but it's not yet known whether celebrities will take it to heart, Fischoff said.

"When you're on Twitter, you're not talking to a stranger or even just your friends," Fischoff said. "There is no private conversation."

-- T.L. Stanley

Photo: Gilbert Gottfried and the Aflac duck. Credit: Charles Sykes/Associated Press

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