The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Juan Williams, Rick Sanchez, Mel Gibson and our fickle moral appraisals

October 25, 2010 | 10:45 pm

Juan_williamsIt’s hard to imagine three guys who are more different than Juan Williams, Mel Gibson and Rick Sanchez. You’d never expect to see them in the same buddy comedy (although maybe Johnny Knoxville could somehow work them all into “Jackass 4D”), yet they all have something in common: Their nutty remarks got them fired from cushy jobs.

The threesome has pretty much boxed the compass when it comes to ethnic, sexist and religious slurs of every shape and description. Williams, a respected African American author, was ousted from his job as an NPR commentator after admitting on Fox News that he got nervous  when he saw people “in Muslim garb” on a plane. Sanchez, a Cuban American who once won an Emmy, got the boot from CNN after he told a Sirius/XM radio host that Jon Stewart was a bigot and suggested  that Jews, far from being a persecuted minority, actually controlled the national media.

And oh, yes, Mel Gibson, a devout Catholic, got canned from a comeback role in “The Hangover 2” last week after his costars apparently refused to work with him, still upset over a series of ugly racist and misogynist rants  Gibson allegedly had made over the phone this summer to his ex-girlfriend, Oksana Grigorieva.

The public reaction to these three events has been amazingly inconsistent. Many people have defended Williams — and he got a new job at Fox — while happily pouncing on Gibson and Sanchez. Why?

Sanchez, it should be noted, was guilty of ethnic stereotyping when he implied that Jews dominate the media — but what he said was only in the realm of suggestion. Williams, by saying it made him nervous to be on a plane with people who are “identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims,” was making his prejudice plain. If Williams had said he was nervous being around people who were “identifying themselves first and foremost as Orthodox Jews,” would he still be viewed as a victim? Or would he be condemned as a bigot?

One subtext here is that it is far more acceptable in today’s polite society to harbor prejudice against Muslims than Jews.

UPI’s venerable White House correspondent Helen Thomas found this out this summer when she got the ax for saying that Jews “should get the hell out of Palestine,” arguing, somewhat incoherently, that they should go back to Poland, Germany or America.

Yet contrast that with what happened to Oliver Stone, who in July gave an outlandish interview to the Times of London saying that the Holocaust had been blown out of proportion because of “the Jewish domination of the media.”

Instead of being fired, as Sanchez and Thomas were, Stone hardly paid a price at all. After a quick apology, he was almost instantly given a free pass to proceed with his career, so that by September, when he was out promoting his new film, “Wall Street 2,” hardly anyone bothered to confront him, much less complain about his views.

It would almost persuade you that Hollywood operates under an entirely different (and far more lax) set of moral standards from the national media.

Gibson was forgiven for his infamous series of anti-Semitic epithets in the wake of a 2006 drunk-driving arrest. Even one of his most outspoken critics, über-agent Ari Emanuel, who had initially argued that Gibson be treated as a pariah, ended up bringing Gibson in as an agency client several years later.

Yet Gibson was finally shunned by Emanuel, along with the rest of Hollywood, after his reportedly inflammatory telephone conversations surfaced this summer, notably where he repeatedly used the N-word, telling his ex-girlfriend that because of the way she dressed, it would be her fault if she were “raped by a pack of [black men.]”

For a brief moment, it looked as if Gibson might regain a small shred of respectability with the “Hangover 2” job offer, but that was nipped in the bud by unhappy fellow cast members. However, to give you a sense of just how wildly contradictory everyone’s value judgments are, it’s worth remembering that Gibson was essentially taking the place of Mike Tyson, who played a similar comic stunt-cast role in the first movie. No one raised a peep about the casting of Tyson, even though he actually served three years in prison for raping a former Miss Black Rhode Island.

So why do we accept Tyson but not Gibson, give Stone a pass but condemn Sanchez? I’d be lying if I said I entirely understood the logic of why one guy got off easy while another ended up in media jail.

In Hollywood, as in the larger world, people are notoriously fickle when it comes to moral appraisals. That is probably why many of the same people who eagerly denounced Elia Kazan were happy to give an Oscar to Roman Polanski. It’s more likely that Gibson is in the deepest rung of Hollywood purgatory because his vitriol has revealed the private person to be completely at odds with the public persona.

Gibson was once a respected actor and director, having not only helped anchor the hugely successful “Lethal Weapon” franchise but having won an Oscar for best director for “Braveheart.” To see him today as an angry crank repels us, since it represents a huge gap between our past perception and current reality.

Williams is still seen by many as a mild-mannered chronicler of the civil rights movement, not a certified crackpot like Gibson. Let’s see how that image holds up after a few months in the same foxhole as Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. If there is one thing to learn from all these flaps, it’s that the kind of opinion that causes a furor often has more to do with who said it — and how we feel about them — than the actual remarks themselves.

But I’m betting that we’ll have even more controversies in the future, since in today’s media, especially on cable TV and on the Internet, the value of intemperate language has never been higher. We’ve become a culture where reticence is no longer a virtue. Maybe I’m way too old school, but for me, being offensive is still a vice.

Photo: Former NPR commentator Juan Williams appearing on Fox News' "Fox and Friends" program.

Credit: Richard Drew/ Associated Press