I held my tongue when ABC announced that Sean Spicer was going to be on “Dancing with the Stars.” I thought there were a million more pressing matters on the media beat that deserved coverage. Besides I felt like I was written out on denunciations of him and his lies from the podium of the White House by the time Donald Trump pushed him out as press secretary.
But after watching Spicer’s debut Monday on the show’s season premiere, I started to seethe. Here was one of Trump’s first point persons in the White House war on truth, an assault that undermines our democracy every hour of every day, being showcased on prime-time TV.
It doesn’t help that he’s cast alongside former Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, a guy who in 2000 pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in the investigation of two murders. Football fans in Baltimore and elsewhere were quick to forgive and forget that because he entertained them on the field, and now we’re doing it again by watching him and Spicer prancing and strutting around out there on the glittery TV stage like they are Mr. Big Stuff.
By the time I hit full boil, I came to realize what truly made me so angry. It is the way media will take people who have behaved reprehensibly and, in some cases, even criminally, and treat them as celebrities if they can make a buck off them. And that has consequences for all of us even as we share in the blame.
We might think we are hate-watching or mock-watching them, and they are looking somewhere between ridiculous and pitiful, but they are on TV where everything is brighter, cleaner and prettier looking than it is in reality. And, to most people in this country, unlike those of us in the East Coast media, just being on TV grants liars and criminals importance, status and perhaps even forgiveness.
Instead of behind bars, in exile, or driven to the margins of media, they are center stage with an audience of millions on the medium that is still the principal storyteller of American life. When Spicer jokes with a host or interviewer on the show about the controversy that often surrounded his actions in the White House, it makes what he did seem less despicable ― maybe even acceptable.
The media are not the only ones to blame for this perverse celebration of bad behavior. Every one of us who watches is. It’s worse yet if we watch and then post something about the show on social media, even if what we post is a put down. It doesn’t matter what we say as much as how many of us are saying something ― anything ― creating the all important commodity known as traffic. Generate traffic, and you will get even more coverage on the anything-for-a-click media landscape of today.
Spicer and Lewis are not the first politicos and criminals to be on “Dancing with the Stars." The show has a history of dubious and/or transgressive celebrity dancers: former Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Fox News show host Tucker Carlson and Rick Perry, secretary of energy, a department he once said he wanted to abolish. DeLay went Lewis one better on the criminal justice front: He was convicted in 2010 of money laundering.
But I am particularly maddened by the way ABC is giving Spicer yet another platform to bend or shred the truth. As inept as he was as the president’s spokesman, you might think he would be humbled in that regard. But not Spicer, the man who called Auschwitz a “Holocaust Center.”
After the telecast Monday, he tried to blame the controversy about him being on the show on us.
“I’ve been living this for a while,” he said of the backlash. “I expected it. We are where we are as a country.”
Yes, we are where we are as a country, sadly, and you and your former boss helped put us there with his endless lies, rancor and reckless, polarizing language.
“But if people can tune in and look at this diverse cast, [see how] they are rooting for each other, how they are having a blast with each other for two hours, we can put every policy and politics aside,” Spicer continued. "Rooting for different people, having fun ... then that’s what we should have more of. That’s why this show is such a great opportunity for people to tune in and see something that gives them a reprieve from everything else they see in their daily lives.”
I want to throw up.
This guy who shamelessly fronted and lied for a racist president is suddenly celebrating the show he’s on for its diversity. And then he’s telling us how watching this cheesy production can allow people to “put every policy and politics aside” and “see something that gives them a reprieve from everything they see in their daily lives.”
Tell that to the traumatized children separated from their parents and living in cages on our southern border. Or tell it to the people in cities like Baltimore who are afraid to go to church or the supermarket for fear of being arrested by ICE as the president uses Twitter and his spokespersons to threaten such actions when it suits his whim. Will watching Spicer dance give them a reprieve from that?
I was going to make a crack in that last sentence about the lime shirt and white pants Spicer wore Monday night.
But even to joke about and mock his outfit or inability to dance is to be made complicit in sanctioning him and the show. When we joke and laugh or otherwise criticize his performance, we validate his presence on the show as a matter of entertainment only ― not a question of social responsibility and morality.
If you think that’s old school, you’re wrong. I’m positively Old Testament on this issue. If people are not punished in proportion to their sins, others will be encouraged to imitate and even go beyond their bad acts.
Spicer made Sarah Huckabee Sanders possible with her lying to the public and to federal investigators during the Mueller probe of foreign involvement in the 2016 election. Before ABC, she saw her predecessor rewarded with a prestigious fellowship at Harvard for his lies at the White House. Tell me again, what’s the downside of lying?
Ditto for CNN and former Trump campaign director Corey Lewandowski, who this week told Congress he feels “no obligation to be honest with the press.” CNN made him a contributor during the 2016 election after he was pushed out by Trump, something I denounced on CNN itself at the time for some of the same reasons I am listing here. Since CNN, he has had a lucrative career in PR and strategic communications, and might soon be running for the U.S. Senate.
But under the heading all politics are local, what ultimately made me feel the need to write this column is all the talk I have been hearing about Sheila Dixon once again running for mayor of Baltimore.
I believe that just as Spicer made Sanders possible at the White House podium, so did Dixon to some extent make Catherine Pugh’s “Healthy Holly” scandal possible at Baltimore’s City Hall.
In 2010, Sheila Dixon stepped down as mayor in a deal with prosecutors that included her pleading guilty to stealing gift cards intended for the poor. I thought that act was about as a bad a betrayal of the public trust as one could imagine.
But Dixon was allowed to keep her $83,000 a year pension, and by 2012 she was participating in such local media events as a “roast and toast” of her at a Baltimore comedy club. Members of the local media, The Baltimore Sun included, participated in the charity event where jokes were made about her crime.
I did not write about it at the time. But just as the joking and laughter in the media minimizes the sins of Spicer today, so did the roasting and toasting of Dixon do the same for her. Worse, the participation of members of the media in the event was a signal to the community that it was OK to welcome Dixon back into the mainstream conversation of Baltimore civic life.
And now on the eve of the mayoral primary, I see her being interviewed and quoted in the media as an expert on what it takes to lead in a city like Baltimore. Every time I see that, I wonder if Dixon had lost her pension and been treated more like a pariah by the press, would Pugh would have been so willing to roll the dice on her “Healthy Holly” deals?
We all need to quit being amused and diverted by shiny objects like Sean Spicer’s shirt and pay more attention to the history and character of the people who dress themselves up for the cameras and bright lights of media life today.