In an interesting twist of public relations fate today, two public figures have found themselves fending off allegations stemming from the use of language considered racially or ethnically charged.
One is a Mormon governor. One is a conservatively-Christian Hollywood mainstay.
In the first example, Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney used the phrase “tar baby” to describe the Big Dig. The story started out on the local television and radio programs and made national headlines this morning.
According to sources, Romney did not know that the phrase has been used to denigrate African Americans. What is even more interesting is that a CNN.com poll shows that two-thirds of responders don’t even consider the phrase to be a racial slur.
This comes as the Romney people breathe a sigh of relief after a somewhat surprising barrage of defense from most major media outlets. Personalities on WBZ radio, Boston’s CBS Radio Network affiliate, this morning announced support for Romney and have made it clear that they expect a heart-felt apology that the media is prepared to accept.
The feeling expressed by the Boston media is that while Romney certainly should have used better judgment, to consider him a racist is absurd.
Mel Gibson is proving to be not nearly as lucky as Romney.
Gibson, arrested last week on suspicion of drunk driving, has been all over the media when it was reported that he went on an anti-Semitic rage when police stopped him for driving over 80 miles per hour.
Even Hollywood has come down hard on Gibson. The Los Angeles Times ran an article today criticized him for trying to be “an island in the movie business.” The article, written by staff writers Robert W. Welkos and John Horn, also points out that Gibson now needs to contend with the Walt Disney Company, which is distributing his latest film, “Apocalypto.” Disney is the parent company of ABC, which is putting together a miniseries about the holocaust this season.
While the media is coming down hard on Gibson, the public doesn’t seem phased. Another CNN.com poll shows that the overwhelming majority of people still plan on seeing Gibson’s movies. This shows that, while people may not always agree with what a celebrity does and says, they may be willing to put those feelings aside for the sake of entertainment. This is especially visible in American sports, which have been riddled with drug and steroid scandals in the past few years.
Both people in this case have a lot on the line. If Gibson loses Disney as a film distributor, he would have a hard time finding another major entity to take on the relatively obscure (and now controversial) project. Romney may have even more reason to hold his tongue as he makes an expected bid for President in 2008.