Andy Rooney is now back at work as a regular commentator on CBS’s 60 Minutes, his three-month suspension having been abbreviated by the network in response to widespread protest and a drop in the ratings. But the significance of the Rooney affair remains obscure in spite of all the discussion it has provoked.
To recap the story: last December, not on 60 Minutes but on a CBS News special reviewing the year 1989, the deliberately cranky Rooney noted, as a general comment on American society, that “many of the ills which kill us are self-induced.” These causes of “premature death,” he said, include “too much alcohol, too much food, drugs, homosexual unions, and cigarettes.”
The storm in the homosexual community was immediate and enormous. A massive anti-Rooney letter-writing campagn was organized, and homosexual-rights organizations besieged the network, demanding that Rooney be punished. David Burke, the president of CBS News, and other CBS executives responded by meeting on several occasions with representatives of GLAD (Gays and Lesbians Against Defamation) and similar groups, but CBS took no formal action against Rooney. What the protesters failed to realize was that no such action could have been limited to Rooney, since the broadcast had been pre-screened by his superiors who would also therefore have to have been held responsible.
Nevertheless, Rooney was told by Burke that CBS News was not at all happy about the controversy. Evidently an understanding was reached whereby Rooney would in the future edit himself more closely and practice greater “sensitivity.” Rooney also decided, perhaps with Burke’s assent, to explain himself in print to the homosexual community at large. He thus prepared a letter-to-the-editor intended for the Advocate, a national magazine written by and for homosexuals which had been vocal in its criticism of him.
In the most mysterious aspect of this affair, Burke encountered a copy of the letter before it was published. Just how it came to his attention is still unclear, but in any case he found it objectionable: possibly because it offended his personal sensibilities; certainly because he felt it would offend the sensibilities of the very groups seeking to persuade him to dismiss Rooney. Accordingly, he summoned Rooney, asked whether the letter had yet been sent to the magazine; after being told that it had not, Burke instructed that it be withheld.
Unfortunately for Rooney, who had apparently been misinformed by his secretary, the letter had, in fact, already been sent to the Advocate (either by mistake, or by someone seeking to plunge Rooney into still greater difficulty). It promptly appeared in the magazine, along with an interview Rooney had previously given to an Advocate reporter named Chris Bull.
In the interview, Rooney—challenged as to whether he would be as candid on racial issues as on matters pertaining to homosexuality—was quoted as arguing that blacks have “watered down their genes . . . the less intelligent ones have the most children . . . [they] drop out of school . . . and get pregnant.”
Rooney immediately denied having said any such thing, but Bull stood by his story, even while acknowledging that he had not made a tape of the interview. Meanwhile, black leaders—from Benjamin Hooks of the NAACP to New York City Mayor David Dinkins—were already demanding Rooney’s head.
At this point David Burke again summoned Rooney, listened to his denials, and suspended him without pay for three months. Only after the dust had settled did observers notice that CBS, in the ensuing press release, explained Rooney was being suspended “for remarks attributed to him,” but without identifying the remarks in question or stating categorically that Rooney had actually made them.
Even so, for all practical purposes, CBS was taking the word of a neophyte reporter, who had been in journalism for all of four months, over that of Rooney, who had worked for CBS for some forty years. And beyond the fact that Bull had no tape of his interview with Rooney, it turned out that a Newsday reporter, as well as a journalist on the staff of a New York-based homosexual newspaper, insisted that they too had been misquoted by Bull.
Gradually, a public debate over CBS’s handling of the affair began to take shape. The initial reaction was uniformly anti-Rooney. A New York Times editorial, praising Burke’s decision, lectured Rooney on the dangers inherent in relying on genetic theories. Black leaders expressed measured approval of CBS’s response, although Benjamin Hooks voiced the hope that additional steps would be taken against Rooney. Homosexual spokesmen also indicated their general approval of CBS, with the reservation that Rooney’s ostensibly offensive comments regarding homosexuals had been tolerated by the network and that he had only been punished when he manifested insensitivity toward blacks.
Before long, however, a number of commentators were arguing that while CBS would have been within its rights had Rooney offered the remarks that led to his suspension on camera, the network was altogether off-base in punishing him for comments he had made on his own time, in an interview and in a letter-to-the-editor. This, they contended, was censorship-a denial of Rooney’s First Amendment rights. Others took the position that someone like Rooney—on or off the air—is a symbol of the network, and that CBS could reasonably deem certain comments by such an employee out of bounds.
But even as the First Amendment debate continued, the issue of whether Rooney had indeed made the comments about blacks—the question, that is, of why CBS was taking Bull’s word over Rooney’s—emerged as dominant. So much so that baffled commentators began looking for new theories about what had “really” happened. Rooney, some speculated, was actually being punished for having refused to cross picket lines during the 1987 Writers Guild strike against CBS; or Burke, it was alternatively suggested, had been threatened with a black boycott of CBS and had caved in under pressure.
In response to such speculation, CBS News now put out the word that Rooney had been suspended not for his interview with Bull, and not for anything he might have said about blacks, but for “insubordination” in sending his letter to the Advocate. Yet aside from the fact that Rooney seems not to have realized that the letter had been sent, there would obviously have been no insubordination had CBS not considered the letter itself intolerable.
What then was in this letter that pushed it beyond the pale for CBS? Where, in the view of a news-gathering organization committed, as a matter of profound principle, to maximum freedom of expression, does the zone of acceptability end these days?
Rooney’s letter to the Advocate represents a painfully honest attempt on his part to come to terms with his own attitude toward homosexuality and homosexual practices—in the wake of his televised comments about “homosexual unions” and other causes of “premature death.”
He does not mince words: “Do I find the practice of one man introducing his penis into the anus of another repugnant? I do. Is it ethically wrong and immoral behavior? It seems so to me, but I can’t say why, and if a person can’t say what he thinks, he probably doesn’t have a thought, so I’d settle for thinking it’s merely bad taste.”
Now, it is highly unlikely that CBS’s objection to this letter turned solely on its graphic language. What CBS clearly considered unacceptable was Rooney’s statement that he finds sexual practices of homosexuals “repugnant.” In other words, someone can now be stigmatized and disciplined for expressing an attitude of distaste toward specific sexual practices.
Most of the public sees the Rooney affair as having had a happy ending. He was reinstated ahead of time, and upon his return to the air, he reaffirmed his support for civil rights and professed sorrow at any pain he might have caused homosexuals. CBS, denying it had been influenced by a drop in the 60 Minutes ratings, made plain its satisfaction, and protests from black and homosexuals leaders were few.
But the most salient result of this unhappy episode is the enlargement of the taboo zone in public discourse and the concomitant slide down the slippery slope of thought control. The great lesson of the Rooney affair is that, from now on, people in the public eye who have views on particular sexual practices had best keep their opinions to themselves. Not exactly a happy ending after all.