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Rick Sanchez: guilty with an explanation
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Rick Sanchez: guilty with an explanation

There are certain kinds of mistakes you make when you drag ethnicity into an issue where it doesn’t belong. Former CNN anchor Rick Sanchez learned that the hard way last week, when he got the boot after seeming to suggest that Jews control the media.

Which, by the way, I don’t think he did — but we’ll get to that in a moment. First, let’s do a CSI on the car wreck that was his interview with radio host Pete Dominick.

During the interview, Sanchez, a native of Cuba, lashed out at Jon Stewart, who frequently pillories Sanchez’s theatrics on The Daily Show. Sanchez called Stewart a bigot. Asked to explain, Sanchez said, “I’ve known a lot of elite Northeast establishment liberals that may not use this as a business model but deep down when they look at a guy like me they look at a — they see a guy automatically who belongs in the second tier and not the top tier.”

Sanchez then goes on to compare Stewart to the white bosses who have allegedly tried to pigeon-hole Sanchez negatively on the basis of his Hispanic ancestry.

At this point, it’s all about race (white vs. Hispanic) and class. Stewart grew up in “a suburban middle class New Jersey home with everything that you could ever imagine,” explains Sanchez. Stewart is bigoted toward “everybody else who’s not like him. Look at his show! What does he surround himself with?”

Actually, none of Stewart’s current on-air “correspondents” is Jewish, two are black, and one is a Muslim-American. This suggests Sanchez doesn’t watch the show. Or it suggests, and I think this is what Sanchez is trying to say, that Stewart surrounds himself with people who are like-minded ideologically. Sanchez keeps confusing ethnicity with ideology, and when he says “whites” he means “liberals,” or perhaps “elites.”

Of course Stewart picks on conservatives — he’s a liberal. What distinguishes Stewart’s targets is not that they aren’t white or educated or suburban or Jewish, but that they behave or think in ways Stewart considers misinformed or stupid or politically misguided. Stewart also has particular disdain for television newspeople, like Sanchez, of the bloviating, overly dramatic, gimmicky variety.

But Sanchez prefers to hear Stewart’s barbs as anti-Hispanic prejudice. It’s like the old joke about the Jew who goes for a job as a radio announcer. When he doesn’t get it he complains bitterly, “B-b-bunch of anti-S-s-s-semites!” (Apologies to stutterers, I must quickly add.)

Playing the race, religion, or ethnicity card indiscriminately is a fool’s game, and can be a dangerous one, as Sanchez was about to discover. When Dominick suggested that Stewart, as a Jew, is himself a member of a minority group, Sanchez scoffed.

“I’m telling you that everybody who runs CNN is a lot like Stewart, and a lot of people who run all the other networks are a lot like Stewart, and to imply that somehow they, the people in this country who are Jewish, are an oppressed minority? Yeah,” he said.

Okay, that sounds like “the Jews run the media,” and that’s what probably cost Sanchez his job. But it could also mean (and I think this is closer to his intent), “Stewart is out of touch with many Americans because he comes from an educated, East Coast, affluent, and white elite — of which Jews, despite their history of oppression, have become a part.”

This is not anti-Semitic, per se: Jewish academics often discuss our assimilation in these terms — often expressed as “when Jews became white people.”

Sanchez’s biggest mistake was in not running away from the topic when Dominick brought up Stewart’s Jewishness. Sanchez should have said, “Stewart’s religion and ethnicity have nothing to do with what I am talking about. I am talking about powerful white people who grew up in affluence.”

But like I said, this is what happens when you drag ethnicity into an issue where it doesn’t belong. Sanchez can’t accept that Stewart doesn’t like him because of his views and on-air behavior — it must be that Stewart has a problem with Hispanics. Once you start with this sort of ethnic special-pleading, it’s not long before you fall down the rabbit hole of prejudice yourself. B-b-bunch of anti-H-h-h-hispanics.

Frankly, I never heard of Rick Sanchez before he was fired, and the news world will spin on without him. But his case can teach us a lot about our own ethnic special-pleading.

For example, no doubt there are plenty of people whose animus toward Israel is at root anti-Semitic. There are the bigots for whom Israel, of all the world’s hot spots, becomes an object of obsession and particular derision. These are the bigots who reach deep into the grab-bag of Nazi metaphors to describe any Israel action more aggressive than, well, surrendering.

But there are also critics of Israel who aren’t bigots, but genuinely object to Israel’s policies or actions. They may not be friendly, but calling them bigots reflects poorly on the accuser.

Rick Sanchez demonstrates the perils of trying to tag your critics with the toxic label of bigotry. I hope he’s learned from his mistakes, and that we learn from them as well.

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