To O'Donnell: Think first, then shoot

Rosie O'Donnell has made quite a splash since joining ABC's daytime talk show, The View.

Scarcely a week goes by in which the actor/comedian doesn't ignite a firestorm of controversy -- typically by loudly attacking one or another public figure.


Last week was quieter than usual: All she did was use ABC's airwaves to call for the impeachment of President George W. Bush.

But in the preceding week, O'Donnell, who joined the talk show in September, was busier. She suggested that American Idol judge Paula Abdul was drunk while on the air and harshly attacked all three judges for their treatment of a contestant who was developmentally disabled.


She also went after Oprah Winfrey for interviewing a 14-year-old boy who had recently escaped from a kidnapper.

At least she took a break from her running feud with Donald Trump over matters of beauty pageants, moral authority, sexual infidelity and bankruptcies.

There's no question that O'Donnell is adept at using her new five-day-a-week national platform to make her voice heard. But although she frequently stands up for those in real need of a champion, more often than not, her topics seem chosen primarily to create buzz.

That makes it hard to discern what her message really is. Is the former comedian just one more loudmouth trying to generate higher ratings? Or does she have the potential to become a social conscience of sorts, as comedians Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce did decades ago?

I'm hoping for the latter.

O'Donnell began her career as a nightclub comedian in 1979 at the age of 17 and got her first national exposure in 1982 on the Ed McMahon's Star Search talent show. She starred in her own Emmy-award-winning daytime program, The Rosie O'Donnell Show," from 1996 to 2002.

Her friendly style of interviewing set her apart in a landscape dominated by mean-spirited programs such as The Jerry Springer Show, and she became known as "The Queen of Nice." That fact is easy to forget, given her new attack persona. For better or worse, viewers seem to like her harder edge.

In September, Meredith Vieira left The View to be co-host of NBC's Today show. Since O'Donnell replaced her, The View has enjoyed dramatically higher ratings. The show's audience of 3.3 million viewers for the last three months of 2006 (the most recent Nielsen ratings available) was 13 percent higher than it was for the same three months in 2005. And in the same time period, the number of female viewers ages 18 to 49 has risen 23 percent to 1.2 million.


Surprised by criticism

It's no wonder. O'Donnell is a highly engaging TV host. She seems twice as fast, funny and topical as anyone else working in daytime TV, with the exception of Ellen DeGeneres.

But a close look at the controversies that she has ignited reveals a dangerous pattern of hip-shooting on sensitive issues -- and an apparent unwillingness to apologize when she is shown to be wrong.

"While I know she is smart about her own public image, she appears as if she is not in control," says Sheri L. Parks, an associate professor of American studies who specializes in popular culture, gender and race at the University of Maryland, College Park. "She always seems surprised at the response she gets."

O'Donnell did seem taken aback by the flurry of criticism she received for remarks made Dec. 5 on The View in connection with an appearance on the show by actor Danny DeVito, during which he appeared to be drunk.

Pointing out that DeVito's behavior was being discussed around the world, O'Donnell performed what amounted to an offensively stereotypical imitation of Chinese broadcasters in which she used a singsong voice.


The calls for an apology made by, among others, the Organization of Chinese Americans and UNITY, which includes more than 10,000 minority journalists, were immediate.

But O'Donnell did not respond until Dec. 14 -- and then did not really apologize for her actions. Instead, she said, "I'm sorry for those people who felt hurt."

The dust had yet to settle from reckless remarks O'Donnell had made in the previous month when she attacked Kelly Ripa, co-host of the daytime talk show Live with Regis and Kelly. Ripa and singer Clay Aiken had been conducting a joint interview on the show, when the one-time American Idol star put his hand over Ripa's mouth so that he could ask a question.

"Oh, that's a no-no," Ripa said to Aiken. "I don't know where that hand's been, honey."

"To me, that's a homophobic remark," O'Donnell said to her three co-hosts on the Nov. 21 edition of The View. "If that was a straight man ... if that was a guy that she didn't question his sexuality, she would have said a different thing."

Aiken has declined to discuss his sexuality in the press, beyond telling People magazine in September that, "People are going to believe what they want."


As Parks sees it, O'Donnell may have done Aiken more harm than good. "Her words may have outed him -- if he is indeed gay -- to an audience that may not have perceived him as gay. She took control of Clay Aiken's public persona -- took it away from him in the name of defending him."

Madonna defends her

Even O'Donnell's assault on American Idol and judge Simon Cowell for airing an attempt by a former Special Olympics athlete to sing "God Bless America" proved to be ill-conceived. While O'Donnell condemned inclusion of the performance, Special Olympics International subsequently commended the show and Cowell for giving "people with intellectual disabilities" the chance to compete.

O'Donnell, of course, has many fans and defenders.

"I mean, she's a stand-up comic," Madonna pointed out in an interview with Vieira on the Today show. "I think all stand-up comics talk about provocative things in their monologues before shows -- and I think that's a commonplace thing. I think if every stand-up comic was penalized for saying politically incorrect or provocative things, they'd all be hung in the public square."

O'Donnell should be commended for bringing a stand-up comedian's fearlessness from the intimate world of nightclubs to the far-reaching world of daytime television. There are bound to be some bumps in that road.


But she's squandering the power of her new platform on the foibles of the rich and famous. Or undermining her own points by speaking too quickly.

Given the size of her audience and O'Donnell's many talents, wouldn't it be grand if she'd use her role as network provocateur to tackle more significant matters -- and, just occasionally, thought before she spoke?