Monday, April 28, 2008
The Crystal Method to His Madness
When I learned that Richard Quest had been busted with meth in his pocket, my first reaction was to chuckle a little and shake my head.
"Well, that explains a lot," I said to my wife.
Just about anyone who's seen the manic, occasionally unnerving on-air antics of CNN's resident eccentric Brit has probably -- at one time or another -- asked him or herself just what the hell Quest is on. The fact that, as it turns out, the answer is crank is as shocking as it is, well, not very shocking at all. During my years at CNN, particularly the time I spent as a senior producer in Atlanta, I admit that I rarely passed up an opportunity to put Quest on television; no matter where he was or what he was covering, his humor and brash unpredictability brought a welcome shot of pure adrenaline to the typically staid CNN proceedings. I looked forward to his stories, never doubting that they would provide the most memorable moments in any broadcast, and considered the man himself to be something of a rock star -- a true "personality" in a place that was, for the most part, sorely lacking any. His pieces didn't always carry the kind of weight that would make him a first or even second block hit, but there was no denying his special brand of insane gravitas.
Quest has always been one-of-a-kind, and despite the current scandal surrounding him, he's someone CNN is wise not to be summarily throwing to the wolves. But the fact that he does still have a job at the network, after what could very well be the most embarrassing arrest in recent memory, is a bit of a head-scratcher to someone whom CNN unceremoniously fired almost three months ago for the apparently unpardonable sin of personal blogging (Say What You Will/2.18.08). I admit, it just doesn't seem fair: Quest breaks the law and becomes a walking punchline and CNN issues an official press release wishing him a speedy recovery during his obligatory stint in rehab; I write on my own time, never once identifying myself as a network employee, and I'm sent packing with no warning and no severance -- despite my supervisors' knowledge that my wife and I are expecting our first child in August. Quest likely violated a morality clause in his contract and not only drew negative publicity to CNN, but may have damaged his future credibility beyond repair (as much as I'd like to believe otherwise, I'm not sure anyone will be able to look at him for quite some time without wondering what's wrapped around his crotch or stuffed into his boot), while I failed to note a single and comically vague line in the employee handbook which supposedly forbade me to write anything at anytime without first having it approved by CNN standards and practices.
CNN shouldn't fire Richard Quest, but if his indiscretion doesn't meet the threshold for termination then my offense didn't even come close.
For the record, I'm well aware of the -- pardon the pun -- bind that CNN finds itself in with respect to Quest: By predictably checking into rehab, he's making the claim that he has a serious drug problem, rather than simply being a recreational user (believe it or not, those still exist), and therefore wasn't responsible for his actions on the night of his arrest; the network can't legally abandon him. Meanwhile, whatever sexual kinks Quest may indulge in are his business and his alone; once again, from both a lawsuit-avoidance and a public relations standpoint, CNN can't be seen to cast a disapproving eye on his lifestyle. But it's damn interesting that a news network wouldn't be willing to risk offending the gay community -- and before anyone grabs the phone and begins dialing GLAAD, of course I'm not implying that gay-equals-deviant -- yet has no problem hanging both proponents of new media and the first amendment itself out to dry.
What this likely all comes down to, however, is something that was mentioned to me several times during the hoopla over my untimely dismissal: Many of those who were kind enough to support me wanted to know why CNN continued to pay opinionated blowhards like Lou Dobbs and Nancy Grace, yet found a writer with a personal opinion -- someone working completely outside the confines of the office -- to be unworthy of a place at the network. Needless to say, the reason was that the former -- the big-budget talent -- was using its collective voice to make money for CNN and Time Warner, while the latter wasn't. (He wasn't making money period.) It always comes down to ratings and revenue, and there's a reason that on-air talent is paid more than those behind the scenes: It brings in the dollars. Viewers will never tune in to watch the work of a smart producer or manager, but they'll damn sure be in front of their TVs if they like watching Lou Dobbs complain about Mexicans.
It's ironic that Richard Quest's notoriety as a familiar face on CNN is not only what made his arrest such a big deal, it's what will wind up saving his job in the aftermath of it. I love to watch him too, but that doesn't make the double-standard right -- the one that saves his job and not that of someone working behind the scenes.
Next time, I'm checking into rehab -- or if I've already been there, can I just grandfather that in?