ABC has cancelled one of the most popular shows on television, the revival of Roseanne, because its star, Roseanne Barr, compared Valerie Jarrett—an attorney and former senior adviser to President Barack Obama who is also a black woman—to an ape.
Roseanne deleted the tweet and apologized, but just over three hours later, ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey said this in a brief statement:
“Roseanne’s Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values, and we have decided to cancel her show.”
CNN’s Brian Stelter quoted an ABC source who said the network acted because “It’s a question of right and wrong. And it’s a question of our company’s values.”
As I tweeted in response: So ABC just developed values this morning?
Don’t get me wrong: I think this is the right decision, and it’s impressive that a network acted so quickly. (Her agency, ICM, followed, dropping her as a client.) That is not typical of Hollywood.
Americans have free speech, but the First Amendment protects us from the government punishing us for our speech; it does not insulate us from consequences for our speech. In this case, a business decided to cancel a lucrative show—just two weeks after using Roseanne to entertain advertisers at the network’s upfront presentation.
Of course, those advertisers may be less willing to buy ads now, which may have helped ABC do the right thing.
Using racism to promote The Bachelorette
Long before Roseanne aired a single episode, and before the revival became a hit, ABC knew who it was hiring. Roseanne has made similar comments before—never mind her tendency to repeat and promote insane conspiracy theories.
As the conservative magazine National Review wrote earlier this year, “Even by the standards of Hollywood, her politics are extraordinarily deranged and sinister … It’s embarrassing to see some conservatives exert even an ounce of intellectual energy to rationalize someone who has devoted so much of her recent years to polluting American public life with lies and nonsense. Barr has never met a conspiracy theory she didn’t love.”
ABC also happens to be the network that, just last summer, used one of its cast members’ racism to try to get ratings for The Bachelorette, its big summer reality show.
First, ABC cast Rachel Lindsay, who was the first black lead in the franchise’s 15-year history.
ABC (and the show’s producers) also cast a contestant, Lee Garrett, who’d posted racist and bigoted messages to social media—and who repeatedly accused a fellow contestant, a black man, of being “aggressive” toward him.
But ABC didn’t just cast Lee. The show encouraged tension between him and a cast member, in interviews and in their production choices. They created a showdown, sending them on a date together with Rachel, forcing her to pick between the two.
Let’s say this was The Bachelor franchise trying to have a conversation about racism. It was super-clumsy at best, and I don’t know why anyone would trust this production to do that. After all, it’s a production that’s not even competent enough to search Twitter during their vetting process.
But the network then took what it had from the season and manipulated it. ABC aired a promo suggesting Kenny’s bloody eye was a result of a physical altercation between him and Lee. It was not. It had nothing to do with Lee; the whole thing was faked to get people to tune in.
So this is ABC: using racial tension and potential violence for ratings, and looking the other way.
(This is not, of course, the first time that The Bachelor franchise has used deceptive editing; in 2015, it created a fictional same-sex relationship between two Bachelorette contestants.)
Channing Dungey—who is the first black woman to lead a broadcast television network—was asked explicitly about The Bachelorette’s use of racism as entertainment last August at the Television Critics Association summer press tour.
Here’s what she said:
“I don’t have any regrets about that. I think that, look, there were certain elements to Lee. We go through a very complicated vetting process in terms of the contestants. Not everything is apparent right from the beginning, and that’s just one of the things that we have to look at as we continue forward in the future, to maybe continue to strengthen our process of vetting, but there was no sense on our end that we were trying to sensationalize that in any way.”
The answer is as laughable as it is disappointing. “Strengthen” vetting by doing what—actually looking at social media posts? No possibility that a fictional promo was sensational? No regrets?
Today Dungey acted swiftly in response to racism from one of her stars—and perhaps in response to the swift backlash, which included the show’s cast and crew (who quit or were in the process of quiting).
But less than a year ago, Dungey allowed racism to be a plotline on a reality show, and allowed fictional racial violence to be used as promotional material. Then she defended it and said she had no regrets. None!
That’s far more insidious behavior than trying to separate ABC’s biggest star’s tweets from her television show. It shows that ABC is willing to racism to its advantage, as it was with Roseanne, hiring her despite her behavior.
This is no different than what CBS had done for years with Big Brother: tolerating bigotry and awful behavior from its cast members, issuing the same empty statement, and then doing it all over again the next summer.