I achieved a personal goal a week ago. But to the extent he had a similar aspiration, David Carr did not.
We both appeared as panelists on HBO's Real Time With Bill Maher. The program is televised in front of a live audience in Hollywood and rebroadcast over and over on subsequent days. The crowd is boisterous, the host can be acerbic, and the subject matter includes anything currently in the public realm. Which explains my goal in working without my radio show's customary seven-second delay: Create no YouTube moments.
The misstep by Carr, a New York Times columnist, came not during the hour-long broadcast, but in the five-minute "overtime" segment that followed, during which the panelists answer questions submitted via the Internet. Video of the response discussion is then posted online.
In that segment, Maher went after Gov. Christie. Maher, who is from New Jersey, essentially said Christie was the type of leader he'd expect to see in less intelligent states. Carr picked up on the joke from there: "If it's Kansas, Missouri, no big deal. You know, that's the dance of the low-sloping foreheads. The middle places, right?"
Sitting next to Carr at the time, I didn't say anything, nor did I think much of it. I don't think I've ever heard anyone use low-sloping foreheads as a descriptor. The context told me it was an unflattering reference, but it didn't strike me as over the line for a show that prides itself on political incorrectness. Not even when Maher responded with "Let's keep this guy talking" did I think Carr had said anything outrageous.
The next day, Carr tweeted his apology: "to all of America, at least the middle place that I come from, I apologize for saying something so, so dumb on Bill Maher last night. . . ."
Several days removed from the program, it is now more clear to me that, ironically, in assessing the relative intelligence of Middle America, Carr said something stupid.
My hunch is that in seeking to echo Maher's remark about the intelligence level of various states, Carr left himself open to outlandish interpretations of his comments. I am still not sure what he meant by low-sloping forehead, but after having a chance to review what he said outside the Klieg lights, I don't think it was a reason to fear genocide or a reference to the disabled. Glenn Beck disagrees.
On Monday, Beck said on the radio that Carr's comment was the kind that "leads to death camps."
"These are the kinds of words that . . . always lead to mass death," he said. "Why not kill the 'low-sloping foreheads'?" He then went so far as to imitate a disabled person on his television program that day to make his point.
It isn't the first time Beck has played the Nazi card. He once said President Obama's call to bolster organizations like AmeriCorps and the Foreign Service was similar to "what Hitler did with the SS." In fact, as the Washington Post's Dana Milbank reported last year, Beck referenced Hitler 147 times and Nazis 202 times - all during the first year and a half his nightly television show was broadcast on Fox News.
And here is the harm. When everything is compared to Nazism, the true atrocities of the Holocaust are diminished. Given the breadth and intensity of the 24/7 media monster, there is an increasingly legitimate danger that frequent Nazi-references could significantly cheapen the emotional and historical impact of the tragedy - especially as time continues to pass and more Americans grow up immersed in a world of blogs and viral news.
In this particular case, I also suspect there was a little payback at work. A quick Googling of "Beck and Carr" sent me to a March 6 New York Times story.
"Almost every time I flipped on television last week, there was a deeply angry guy on a running tirade about the conspiracies afoot, the enemies around all corners, and how he alone seemed to understand what was under way," Carr wrote.
"While it's true that Charlie Sheen sucked up a lot of airtime last week, I'd been watching Glenn Beck, the Fox News host who invoked Hezbollah, socialists, the price of gas, Shariah law, George Soros, Planned Parenthood, and, yes, Charlie Sheen, as he predicted a coming apocalypse."
Carr then went on to document Beck's "loss of over a third of his audience on Fox" since last August, when he hosted his "Restoring Honor" event in Washington.
Of course, as the reaction to Carr's incorrect and ill-advised gibe proved, Beck still has the ear of enough Americans to help cause a (YouTube) scene.
Contact Michael Smerconish
Read his columns at www.philly.com/smerconish.