Coke Ad: MSNBC Learning From Mistakes?

photo of John Belushi from Blues Brothers
Phil Griffin Apologizes to Reince Priebus

(Disclaimer containing usual caveats: people and organizations should apologize when they’ve truly done something wrong, or inadvertently hurt someone else. Duh.) Something happened last night that the media and Democrats – especially those with reflexive “centrist” tendencies – ought to take note of.  No, not just the Superb Owl – that was an unmitigated disaster by any measure, and an outcome only a Seattle fan could love.

The other event I’m referring to happened during the Superb Owl, but not on the field. It happened out in the rest of the country, after one of the ads aired that were watched by some 96.9 million viewers (a bit less than a third of the nation’s population). Join me after the jump for the ad, the (predictable) reaction, and What It All Means™:

OK, if you were one of the 2/3+ of America that wasn’t watching the Superb Owl, here’s the ad:

Coca-Cola is one of the wily old masters of advertising, so it’s no surprise they were able to not only reach for a tone of self-effacing generosity of spirit in their ad, of the type that many companies (especially during events like the Superb Owl) strive for, but also able to achieve it. Did you have any thoughts while watching? If you’re like virtually all ordinary people, you thought that ad was pretty cool: not overly flashy in its hawking of the product, celebrating virtues like togetherness, inclusion, etc.

You are not a jingoistic tea-type, then.

The ad even featured a suggested Twitter hashtag at the end: #AmericaIsBeautiful, which did get a fair amount of traffic. But,  almost immediately after the ad aired, another type of reaction from our nation’s “patriotic conservatives” surfaced, with a hashtag of its own. Yup, you guessed it: #boycottcoke.

Why #boycottcoke? If you scroll back to the beginning of the hashtag (around the time the commercial aired), you can watch the folks who thought it up and popularized it speak for themselves. Here’s just one example, since they were all essentially variations on this theme:

screencap of xenophobic boycott coke tweet
Speak American, Dammit!

Some were even thoughtful enough to include commands like “speak American” or lamenting that Coke had ruined “our national anthem.” In other words, the reactionaries’ intelligence and cultural literacy was on full display along with their usual tolerance. Ahem.

On its own, all of the preceding wouldn’t merit more than a two-sentence “gotcha” post, if that. Modern American conservatives’ hypocrisy and venality is, sadly, nothing new or even remarkable anymore, and I am not typically enamored of “gotcha” posts, mine or anyone else’s. Though still outrageous, such behavior from what is essentially the nation’s GOP base has, sadly, become merely another feature of the American political landscape. A problematic one, but not an unusual one.

However, there’s been something else in the news, recently and repeatedly, that bears on this: MSNBC’s behavior with regard to public apologies. To refer back to the beginning of this post, it should go without saying that anyone who wrongs someone else, consciously or inadvertently, should apologize. Apologies, when they’re sincere, are some of the very glue that keeps complex systems like societies from tearing themselves apart through self-centered internecine conflict. Willingness to admit fault or to at least acknowledge that we have hurt others and feel badly about it, is one of the hallmarks of being a fully-evolved human.

However, MSNBC is not a person. It is a corporate entity where the decisions are made quite deliberately, probably by committee. Even if Phil Griffin, the network’s head, makes such decisions as when to apologize for wrongdoing on his own with zero outside input, he isn’t required to make them on the spot, which is from where a lot of errors of judgment borne of being put on the spot arise.

Nevertheless, in the last few months, MSNBC or individual employees of it (usually hosts of various shows) have apologized repeatedly for various offensives. From Martin Bashir’s apology and subsequent resignation (firing?) for having offended Sarah Palin to Melissa Harris-Perry’s apology for her segment on Mitt Romney’s grandson, a common thread of all these apologies has been the perceived injured party: conservatives (or a specific conservative).

This makes sense, broadly speaking: MSNBC is known for its opinion-based criticism of conservatives and Republicans, so it follows that when mistakes are made, those will be the parties with claims of grievance. The problem, though, is that MSNBC seems not to be learning the lesson that “Cokegate” (and oh, how I hate myself for resorting to that phrase) makes quite plain. That lesson is: the conservative movement is literally a grievance factory, and their goal is simply to shame or cripple anyone they perceive as a powerful ideological opponent.

How do we know this? Because MSNBC’s most recent apology came mere days before the Superb Owl, and in fact concerned the very same issue as the flap over the Coke ad: predicted conservative response to Superb Owl ads. Last Thursday, January 29th, someone who had access to the MSNBC corporate twitter account tweeted the following:

Maybe the rightwing will hate it, but everyone else will go awww: the adorable new #Cheerios ad w/ biracial family

(no link or image because MSNBC, as part of their apology, deleted the offending tweet).

The right went predictably and immediately bonkers. Everyone from Michelle Malkin to Newsbusters to every other right-wing hack with access to a keyboard rushed to the internet to decry MSNBC’s horribly offensive-to-conservatives tweet. Many called it racist, though the smarter ones realized conservatives’ issue shouldn’t be to imply the tweet was racist, but instead that it accused conservatives of being racists, or at least of being intolerant of multiracial families (and, implicitly a multiracial society).

Obviously, there are conservatives who have no problem with multiracial families (Malkin tweeted a photo of hers). Equally obviously, there are many, many conservatives who do. Anyone who can see the first of the preceding two points but denies the second is true is simply not paying attention to the vast reams of commentary demonstrating it which are strewn all over the internet. Charles Johnson at Little Green Footballs is a particularly compendious critic of right-wing blog racism.

That didn’t stop conservatives, though. They saw an opening in MSNBC’s badly worded and definitely provocative tweet. What must be understood is that the vast majority of conservatives who pay enough attention to what a network they rarely watch says to take the time to become publicly outraged about it are not truly outraged, by and large. They are trying to score points against a perceived ideological foe. Should MSNBC not have tweeted out such a thing from their network’s top-level account? Quite probably. Is it the kind of offense that requires a public mea culpa on the order of weeping, wailing and rending of garments because a sleazy fixer like Reince Priebus at the RNC saw an opportunity and pounced on it after noticing the groundswell of fauxtrage from the rank-and-file? Definitely not.

Yet weep and wail and rend his garments is exactly what Phil Griffin, MSNBC’s boss, did. Scarcely 24 hours after the tweet’s timestamp, Griffin was abasing himself before Priebus. First, Griffin deleted the offending tweet (sensibly), but then he went on to grovel before Priebus by calling the behavior of his own network “outrageous and unacceptable,” after which Griffin capped off his apology-palooza by announcing that the staffer who sent the tweet had been fired. This allowed Priebus an afternoon in the sun, doling out quotes to any of the media who would listen (and there were plenty), such as:

With increasing frequency many of your hosts have personally denigrated and demeaned Americans — especially conservative and Republican Americans — without even attempting to further meaningful political dialogue,” he wrote. “While I personally enjoy appearing on decent shows like ‘Morning Joe’ and ‘Daily Rundown,’ the entire network is poisoned because of this pattern of behavior.

Never mind that FOX News regularly engages in behavior far more despicable and worthy of an apology/firing than MSNBC has done; FOX’s method of dealing with such incidents is simply to ignore them. The reason MSNBC appears to be always apologizing lately while FOX doesn’t is not because MSNBC makes mistakes or is offensive while FOX doesn’t or isn’t, but because MSNBC take their responsibilities to the public discourse seriously, while FOX simply plows ahead with their agenda, injured parties be damned. FOX hosts are considerably more likely to mock anyone demanding an apology (O’Reilly’s “pinhead” taunts are a prime example) than they are to actually admit error or harm.

Again: good on MSNBC for trying to take their responsibilities to both journalism and other humans seriously. But for the love of FSM, guys, let’s not allow ourselves to be punked by the conservative clown show. Phil Griffin, in your haste to make sure no one could accuse you or your network of anti-conservative bigotry, you fired a perfectly good (I assume) staffer, because (s)he tweeted something mildly insulting but nevertheless broadly accurate about conservatives’ suspected reaction to an upcoming Superb Owl commercial, which in turn let Reince Priebus and various FOX News bobbleheads play the aggrieved, morally-upstanding (and scolding) injured party, tut-tutting down their upturned noses at poor, intractably bigoted MSNBC for an entire news cycle.

What did it get you? When game time came, conservatives DID freak out in a horribly bigoted, jingoistic way…about a different commercial. Phil Griffin, and MSNBC? If you aren’t feeling like this about conservative demands for apologies (or perhaps about having internalized those demands and making them yourself before they even appear), you should be:

image of Lucy jerking the football away from Charlie Brown
The Definition of Insanity… (© United Features Syndicate)

(update: I didn’t know it at the time I wrote this post, but I see Cenk Uygur at The Young Turks had much the same reaction to MSNBC’s apology-fest last week when it happened. Article includes a good video breaking down the timeline)