It all began as an attempt at understanding, or so we Americans were told.
In March, the ABC television network brought back a popular show from another era. After a 21-year hiatus, “Roseanne” — the story of a white working-class family facing all the trials and tribulations of everyday life — was back on the air.
The reboot became a wild success, with comic Roseanne Barr reprising her role as the matriarch of the struggling Conner clan – a woman with a sharp tongue and strong views.
When we left them in 1997, Bill Clinton was president. When the show returned, the fictional Roseanne Conner had become a staunch supporter of President Trump, often at odds with her more liberal sister and children. They had different views, but they were living with and talking to each other.
The whole concept was the result of a strange and perhaps ill-fated partnership between television executives and a star who they felt would connect with an audience they very much wanted to attract: the Trump base. In Barr, they had someone who could pull in viewers in Trump strongholds in the nation’s mid-section and south. They also had a walking, talking time bomb.
Barr has had a long history of making incendiary statements on social media. And in the end, one of those statements got her.
It was a racist tweet about Valerie Jarrett, the African-American top advisor to former President Barak Obama. In that post, Barr called Jarrett: “the offspring of “Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes.”
The reaction came with lightening speed. Barr’s sent out her tweet at 2:45AM east coast time. At 10:33AM, she issued an apology on Twitter. At 1:45PM, her show was cancelled.
The New York Times TV critic captured it all in a few words: “Ms. Barr crossed a line and ABC drew one.”
On the one hand, the “Roseanne” reboot was a huge moneymaker for the network, bringing in an estimated 45 million dollars in advertising revenue during its brief first season. It had just been renewed and looked on its way to draw even more viewers in the fall.
It was, in short, a hit. And networks never cancel hit shows like this.
But the racist Valerie Jarrett tweet was too much for the executives at ABC and its parent company Disney. Yes, the same Disney that brought us Mickey Mouse and Disneyland.
In Disney, Barr was clearly messing with the wrong folks. The media giant has gone out of its way in recent years to combat stereotypes in television and the movies. Its reputation was very much at stake and that meant more than the millions it might earn from “Roseanne.”
It was, as Valerie Jarrett put it: “a teaching moment” – a time to think once again about the dangers of hate speech in this country and the lingering stain of racism.
Yes, we have a constitutional right to free speech but that does not give anyone the moral right to spread lies or spew the kind of venom that has shown up in Roseanne Barr’s Twitter feed.
Her feed wasn’t just racist… there were all kinds of conspiracy theories there. The Jarrett tweet was actually her second inflammatory post in a matter of hours. The other claimed Chelsea Clinton was married to the nephew of billionaire George Soros, a strong supporter of liberal causes. Barr also alleged Soros had been a Nazi collaborator “who turned in his fellow Jews 2 be murdered in German concentration camps & stole their wealth.” The truth is Soros was 13 years old when the Nazis marched into his native Hungary in 1944 — a child who struggled to survive the holocaust.
So it seems Rosanne Barr is an equal opportunity bigot.
There was little initial response to all this from her big fan at the White House. At first, spokeswoman Sarah Sanders refused to talk about “Roseanne,” saying President Trump was focused on his upcoming summit with North Korea’s Kim Jung-un, trade talks and rebuilding the military.
But before long, the President was commenting on Twitter. Trump — who once called Barr to congratulate her on the popularity of a show about “our side” — never really condemned her tweets. Instead, he focused on the personal apology Valerie Jarrett received from the head of Disney, Bob Iger. He said Iger “Never called Donald J. Trump to apologize for the HORRIBLE statements made and said about me on ABC.”
Yes, Mr. President… it is all about you.
Actually, if there is any big take-away from all this it may be that despite all its drawbacks, social media still has the potential to be a force for good.
If recent actions are any indication, American companies have become far more stringent about bad behavior brought to light on Twitter, Facebook and the like.
And it is not just in the world of entertainment.
Let’s say Roseanne Barr, after posting all those awful tweets decided she wanted to go to her neighborhood Starbucks for a latte. She might very well have found the doors locked.
That’s because at about the same time her show was cancelled, thousands of Starbucks coffee shops across the country were closed for anti-bias training. The sessions were set up after an incident at a Starbucks in Philadelphia where two young black men were arrested while waiting for a third to arrive for a business meeting.
Videos of their arrests were posted on social media, sparking widespread outrage. The company said it was shocked and wanted to make sure nothing like that ever happened again.
It’s the kind of quick response we got from Disney after Roseanne Barr’s tweets — postings the company deemed to be “abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values.”
In the end, Americans may have been surprised by the lightening speed with which Disney and ABC moved to cancel “Roseanne” but most agree the network executives did the right thing. There appears to be a lot of support for the cancellation and even those on the far-right who might be expected to support Roseanne Barr have, for the most part, stayed silent.
Barr has vowed to remain a voice for the causes — and conspiracies — she believes in and there is speculation she may return to broadcasting in some form, though none of the major networks will touch her.
She has been on and off of Twitter since her show was cancelled and at one point blamed her controversial middle-of-the-night tweets on a dose of the sleeping aid Ambien.
And here we have another case of a company responding to a tweet with swift action.
The maker of Ambien — the Sanofi pharmaceutical company —quickly issued a statement that said, “While all pharmaceutical treatments have side effects, racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication.”