If You Don't Want It In Print, Don't Say It At All

Over the past two weeks, a stunning number of public figures have made insensitive comments. That’s not unusual. But what caught my eye is the way they made those comments.

None of the five people below made a gaffe during a media interview or formal speech. They made them as “off-the-cuff” remarks in business meetings, over the telephone, on e-mail, and through social media.

And four of the five of them are out of a job.

Public figures need to remember they are on-the-record at all times. As the old adage reminds us, “If you don’t want it in print, don’t say it at all.”

1. RESIGNED: Dan Turner, Press Secretary, Gov. Haley Barbour (R-MS); Cause: Internal E-Mails

Mr. Turner’s boss, Gov. Haley Barbour, is a likely candidate for the GOP nomination in 2012. Mr. Barbour has already come under fire for some racially insensitive comments, so it’s particularly important that his press secretary doesn’t create any distractions.

Gov. Haley Barbour. Photo: Gage Skidmore

Whoops. In one internal e-mail shortly after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, Mr. Turner wrote:

“Otis Redding posthumously received a gold record for his single, (Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay. (Not a big hit in Japan right now.)”

In another about former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno’s confirmation hearings, he wrote:

“It took longer to confirm her gender than to confirm her law license.”

2. RESIGNED: State Rep. Martin Harty (R-NH); Cause: Phone Call

91-year-old New Hampshire State Rep. Martin Harty said that “mentally defective” people, among others, should be “sent to Siberia.” During a phone call with a constituent, Mr. Harty said:

“The world population has gotten too big and the world is being inherited by too many defective people… I mean all the defective people, the drug addicts, mentally ill, the retarded — all of them.”

3. FIRED: Comedian Gilbert Gottfried; Cause: Twitter

Comedian Gilbert Gottfried has never respected the “too soon” rule, making 9/11 jokes within days of that tragedy.

Comedian Gilbert Gottfried. Photo: Amber Baldet

Perhaps Aflac (for whom he voices that obnoxious duck) should have known better than to hire him. After the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, he sent the following tweets, which cost him that gig:

“I just split up with my girlfriend, but like the Japanese say, ‘There’ll be another one floating by any minute now.'”
“I was talking to my Japanese real estate agent. I said ‘is there a school in this area.’ She said ‘not now, but just wait.’”

4. STILL IN OFFICE: State Rep. Virgil Peck (R-KS); Cause of Problems: Videotape

While being recorded, State Rep. Virgil Peck told a Kansas House Appropriations Committee meeting:

“It looks like to me if shooting these immigrating feral hogs works maybe we have found a [solution] to our illegal immigration problem.”

When challenged about his comment, Mr. Peck defended himself by saying, “I was just speaking like a southeast Kansas person.” Not only did he use violent imagery to talk about his fellow humans, but he defended himself by smearing the character of his neighbors. Perfect.

5. RESIGNED: NPR Fundraiser Ron Schiller; Cause: Undercover Video

Chief NPR fundraiser Mr. Schiller went to lunch with a couple of men claiming to be Muslim donors. It turned out they were Republican activists with a hidden camera.

During the lunch, Mr. Schiller shared his views of the Tea Party:

“Basically, they believe in white, middle America, gun-toting — it’s pretty scary. They’re seriously racist, racist people.”

That he generalized about the motives of an entire group of people was bad enough. That he did it while NPR was in the midst of an already heated debate about its public funding was flabbergasting. His comments not only led to his immediate resignation, but the resignation of NPR’s CEO, as well.

Related: The Ten Worst Media Disasters of 2010

Related: February’s Five Worst Media Disasters