Dr. Ben Carson got a tough lesson in the past week on how quickly the angry and divisive world of cable TV can chew you up.
The 61-year-old Baltimore County resident has been in the media spotlight as a darling of the right since early February, when he addressed the National Prayer Breakfast with what some interpreted as a lecture to President Barack Obama. But last week, Carson’s TV image and the discussion about him shifted dramatically — for the worse.
He became engaged in a TV discussion on race that included back-and-forth name calling — and he offered a critique on same-sex marriage that included such extreme rhetoric that he now has Johns Hopkins colleagues calling him out and medical students petitioning to have him removed as a graduation speaker in May. Most of it played out before millions on highly partisan Fox News, where he has recently been treated like a member of the home team.
It started with Toure Neblett, a commentator on liberal MSNBC, describing Carson as a man of “unserious ideas” who was being “embraced” by the Republicans because he was “helpful in assuaging their guilt.”
Neblett — who is African-American —called Carson the GOP’s “new black friend” and described him as getting a fast pass to the “head of the line” after his speech at the prayer breakfast because he’s shown a willingness to be used by the right. In his March 22 commentary, Neblett imagined bumper stickers for white Republicans saying, “How could I be racist? I would have voted for Carson.”
Tuesday afternoon, Carson appeared on Fox News with show host Megyn Kelly to fire back.
“They feel that if you look a certain way, then you have to stay on the plantation,” the Hopkins doctor said of critics like Neblett. “You know, I’ve heard some people refer to me as an Uncle Tom. Well, obviously they don’t know what an Uncle Tom is.”
Later Tuesday on Sean Hannity’s prime-time show, where Carson has more or less been a regular since the prayer breakfast, he was again interviewed about Neblett’s commentary.
“Some people refuse to say it, but I will say it: He’s lying,” Carson said of Neblett. “I think when people don’t have anything to talk about and they can’t attack you on your character, then they start calling you names. … Because everything for them is about race.”
Except Neblett never used the term Uncle Tom or any of the “plantation” rhetoric in his “new black friend” commentary. It was Carson who injected such hot-button language about race into the discussion last week. And it is Fox that regularly puts Carson in a racial context with headlines like “The Race Card,” which was used for yet another segment on the surgeon last week.
But things got worse at the very end of the conversation when Hannity asked Carson about gay marriage.
“Marriage is between a man and a woman,” he replied. “No group, be they gays, be they NAMBLA, be they people who believe in bestiality, it doesn't matter what they are. They don't get to change the definition.”
The comparison of gays to members of the North American Man/ Boy Love Association and those who engage in bestiality has set off a backlash of criticism in the media, online and at Hopkins.
“We have been trying to have an open discussion about this issue, and obviously we support his [Carson’s] right to free speech,” said Todd Shepard, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Program for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality. “But what he said is not about opening up discussion. It's about shutting it down by scaring people.”.
In an interview Friday, Carson stood by the intent of his remarks while apologizing if he “offended anyone” with his “choice of words” and use of NAMBLA and bestiality as examples..
“I think people have completely taken the wrong meaning out of what I was saying,” he said. “First of all, I certainly believe gay people should have all the rights that anybody else has. What I was basically saying is that as far as marriage is concerned, that has traditionally been between a man and a woman, and nobody should be able to change that.”
“Now perhaps the examples were not the best choice of words, and I certainly apologize if I offended anyone,” he added. “But the point that I was making was that no group of individuals — whoever they are, whatever their belief systems — gets to change traditional definitions. The reason I believe the way I do, I will readily confess, is because I am a Christian who believes in the Bible.”
The Baltimopre Sun also obtained a copy of a petition circulating on Hopkins medical campus Friday aimed at getting Carson, who is about to retire this summer, removed as speaker for the diploma ceremony at the School of Medicine this year.
“At the time of his nomination, Dr. Carson was known to most of us as a world-class neurosurgeon and passionate advocate for education,” the petition says. “Many of us had read his books and looked up to him as a role model in our careers. Since then, however, several public events have cast serious doubt on the appropriateness of having Dr. Carson speak at our graduation.”
When asked about the petition Friday, Carson said, “I’ve caught wind of it, and I’ve sent back a message that this is their graduation, their big day, and if they think me being there is going to be a problem, I am happy to withdraw.”
In contrast to what had been until last week a steadily rising tide of calls for Carson to seek political office after he retires from Hopkins, Grace Wyler, who covers politics at Business Insider, wrote, “Carson's venture into gaffeland Tuesday indicates that his career in politics might be over before it even began — and demonstrates the danger Republicans face when they fall in love with a ‘candidate’ who has yet to be vetted by a single voter.”
Like MSNBC on the other end of spectrum, Fox wins ratings by pushing a hard-line ideology and creating conflict. Part of the set of ideas Fox peddles to its audience is that the media and government are hopelessly liberal and anyone who voices a conservative point of view can expect to be vilified. Both Kelly and Hannity played those cards this week in opening interviews with Carson by voicing their outrage at the way in which they say Carson is being “targeted” by the left — and then repeating some of the very things said to ensure a hot reply.
It would probably be presumptuous of me to lecture Carson on the ways in which a skilled TV production can exploit a guest to serve its own agenda rather than the guest’s.
But in the name of the greatness he achieved in the Hopkins operating room over the years, I would urge Carson to try to remember — the next time he sits down with Kelly or Hannity and they tell him through their phony TV smiles how it’s him and them against the liberal world — that “one may smile and smile and be a villain.”
It’s not Kelly and Hannity who are being called out by colleagues and named in petitions by graduating medical students. It’s Ben Carson in the final days of his Hopkins career.
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