NEW YORK — Martin Bashir's apology for graphic comments about Sarah Palin on MSNBC hasn't ended questions about whether the remarks deserve punishment from his bosses, giving unwanted attention to a cable network dealing with sinking ratings along with loose-lipped hosts.
Palin, in a Fox interview on Sunday, said MSNBC was guilty of "executive hypocrisy" by not publicly disciplining Bashir for his "vile, evil comments." Four days after Bashir apologized, MSNBC said it was "handling this matter internally" and wouldn't comment further.
"It's a systemic problem," said Jeff Cohen, an Ithaca College journalism professor and liberal commentator who was a producer for Phil Donahue's prime-time MSNBC show a decade ago. "It's a problem at MSNBC. It's a problem in cable news. It's a certain coarseness where everything goes. I guess they can keep sanctioning and suspending people, but there's something wrong when name-calling is considered OK."
Bashir's comments about Palin came on the same day MSNBC suspended actor Alec Baldwin from his weekly show for two episodes for his part in an off-the-air episode. Baldwin used an anti-gay slur in a confrontation with a photographer on a New York City street.
Bashir used his weekday afternoon program on Nov. 15 to criticize Palin for her remarks comparing U.S. indebtedness to China to slavery. Bashir cited the diaries of a former plantation overseer who punished slaves by having someone defecate in their mouth or urinate on their face. He suggested the former Alaska governor deserved the same treatment.
The somber anchor, a former "Nightline" host, apologized on his next show on Nov. 18.
The Baldwin suspension set up an immediate contrast for MSNBC's critics to latch on to: Why does an epithet used in a heated moment in an off-air confrontation merit a suspension, while a sickening comment made on the air, presumably researched and written in advance, not deserve one?
Other MSNBC personalities have been disciplined for remarks that drew unwanted attention. The network fired Don Imus in 2007 for referring to members of the Rutgers women's basketball team as "nappy-headed hos." David Shuster was suspended for two weeks in 2008 for suggesting Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign had "pimped out" daughter Chelsea Clinton by having her place phone calls to celebrities and convention delegates. The network suspended and eventually dumped longtime commentator Pat Buchanan in 2012 for a book that some critics called racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic, charges that he denied.
MSNBC is dominated by left-leaning news programs, a liberal alternative to Fox News Channel, which appeals to Republicans. MSNBC has had a rough year, with its weeknight programming down 32 percent in viewership from 2012, probably due in part to less interest in politics following an election year and President Barack Obama's dwindling popularity (Fox and CNN are down 17 percent in the same Nielsen company measurement).
Palin, a Republican and Fox News analyst said in an interview with "Fox News Sunday" that MSNBC had condoned Bashir's comments.
"That's hypocrisy," she said. When a conservative woman is a target on MSNBC "they usually just kind of pooh-pooh it, laugh it off. It's no big deal."
MSNBC did, however, take Ed Schultz off the air for a week in 2011 after he referred to conservative talk-show host Laura Ingraham as a "slut" during a commentary on his radio show. Schultz apologized publicly to Ingraham before serving his suspension.
The network did not explain what made the Bashir incident different.
"Martin Bashir has taken responsibility publicly for his offensive commentary and also personally apologized to the Palin family," the network statement said. "Bashir offered a heartfelt apology on MSNBC earlier this week where he admitted it was a personal failing to become part of the politics of vitriol and destruction. He has committed to elevating the discourse going forward."
Since the comment, Palin has also cancelled a planned interview with Matt Lauer for NBC's "Today" show. NBC News, particularly under new President Deborah Turness, has sought to distance itself from MSNBC. But they share corporate owners and, in the case of Chuck Todd and Andrea Mitchell, personalities that work for both.
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Heated, often offensive, commentary is hardly limited to the liberal MSNBC, with conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh triggering an advertiser boycott for calling a woman who advocated for contraception as a part of health insurance plans a "slut" and a "prostitute."
Commentaries like Bashir's are not something he wants to hear, particularly around mealtime, said Marty Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center at the USC Annenberg School of Communication. But he didn't expect the commentary to be damaging to MSNBC.
"There's plenty of objectionable talk that I've heard from Sarah Palin," he said. "I'm not arguing moral equivalency, but the baseline is more erratic and dense on coarse talk that I would like it to be."