Tuesday, October 05, 2010
The last time I worked with Rick Sanchez, during a fill-in stint he did on American Morning, he stood next to my desk for a few minutes and groused about the way CNN covered news. Not so much the stories it chose to pursue as what he felt was the needlessly byzantine series of standards and regulations at the network which, in his mind, was solely the product of institutional arrogance.
"Look at some of these people," he said, scanning the newsroom. "They take this stuff so fucking seriously -- like we're doing brain surgery or something." He then grabbed his crotch through his suit pants, flashed a wide smile and said, "This is what I think of that, you know?"
That was Rick all the way: brash, cocky, impulsive, occasionally crude as hell, with almost no knack for subtlety or concern for the trivialities of decorum. The proverbial bull in the china shop. Maybe that's why when I learned on Friday that he'd been fired for a couple of admittedly ill-advised comments he'd made during a radio interview, I couldn't exactly react with surprise -- not considering all I know about Sanchez after having worked with him on and off for the better part of the last two decades.
Let me go ahead and just get something out of the way right now. Regardless of the fact that I consider Rick Sanchez a friend and I've actually developed something of a fondness and appreciation for the qualities in him that others find so polarizing, this doesn't mean I'm going to blindly rush to his defense. That's not how it works, particularly when something he does creates a minor media shit-storm and therefore deserves to be evaluated as dispassionately as possible. That being said, I do think that while Sanchez's comments were, in keeping with tradition, breathtakingly artless and impertinent, he didn't say anything that he deserved to lose his job over. And I'd be making this statement even if I didn't know full well that what was going through Sanchez's mind at the time wasn't quite as inflammatory as what was coming out of his mouth. Once again, nuance has never been one of Rick's strengths.
By now you're probably well aware of what Sanchez said on Pete Dominick's radio show last Thursday that brought down the wrath of the network suits and officially ended his career at CNN just 24 hours later. No, contrary to the headlines that screamed from every direction -- the kind of incendiary reductionism that guarantees ratings or page views -- Sanchez didn't in fact shout that the Jews control the media. He absolutely called Jon Stewart a bigot -- an admittedly silly claim, likely based on nothing more than Sanchez's own hurt feelings -- and he certainly said that the people who run the television industry are "a lot like Stewart," but when you're talking about a fireable offense it's probably a good idea to take into account the fact that one or two words, even the way in which something was said, can change the entire meaning of what was said. Sanchez sarcastically implied that Stewart isn't a minority in the way that Sanchez himself supposedly is, and that the upper echelon of CNN and the TV business in general bears more of a resemblance to the Daily Show host -- white, liberal, "elitist" and, yes, Jewish -- than it does to a guy like Rick Sanchez.
And the resentment that oozes from every word of a statement like that speaks volumes about the motivation behind Sanchez's decision to say it in the first place.
Rick Sanchez has always viewed his rise to fame in almost mythic terms. He sees himself as the classic tough immigrant kid from the streets who defied the odds, took a whole lot of knocks, suffered through plenty of triumphs and traumas -- the latter, as it turns out, often self-inflicted -- and yet still stands tall. The guy they just can't keep down. You really can picture Sanchez on a stage somewhere, a tear running down his cheek as he belts out a karaoke version of My Way. Anyone who knows Sanchez understands that his resilience -- what his many detractors would likely refer to as cockroach-like -- is a major point of pride for him. This is a guy, after all, who infamously managed to get away with hitting and killing someone back in the early 90s while driving legally drunk; if talking your way out of something like that doesn't leave you thinking you're superhumanly charmed, nothing will.
The problem, of course, is that Sanchez has always been viewed as a lot of flash and bombast with no real substance. As a local anchor, he was brilliant -- really, the best I've ever seen. That's because he understood that television on the whole was largely bullshit and that local news -- particularly the kind done so well at WSVN in Miami -- was just a lot of superficial dazzle. He figured if you could talk and talk well, what you were saying wouldn't really matter. He deserves credit for what one producer we used to work with together jokingly called his unique ability to "demystify television." Given that WSVN was one of the first stations in the country to pull back the curtain and let viewers see the inner workings of its news operation -- and it was way ahead of the curve on this, doing a form of transparent media more than a decade before the digital revolution made that sort of thing absolutely essential for an outlet's survival -- Sanchez's eventual helming of a show that revolved around Twitter seems like destiny. Social networking fed the two qualities that were most undeniable in Sanchez: his ability to interact with viewers in a personal and off-the-cuff fashion and, of course, his inarguably impressive ego. There's no denying that he loved the notion that anybody could now be a journalist and that you didn't need the erstwhile kingmakers in the editorial adminisphere to tell you what was and wasn't news anymore; considering his background and his own self-mythology, this makes perfect sense.
Unfortunately for him and his crotch-grabbing indignation, the people at CNN did take the news very seriously, and while Sanchez's charm offensive had won him quite a few friends and admirers -- say what you will about Rick, he's a disarmingly nice guy -- there were also plenty of people at the network who felt like his shtick somehow sullied CNN's hallowed reputation. My attitude was always that when it came to fucking up the good name of the brand, Rick Sanchez was really the last thing CNN should've been worrying about; in fact, I actually considered Sanchez a bit of a breath of fresh air -- when taken in relatively small doses -- given that at least he understood that what we were doing wasn't the gold standard, capital-J journalism the network's promotion department would have the audience believe anyway. Apparently Jon Klein, the man who was largely responsible for CNN's well-documented slide from serious to ridiculous, also fell under the spell of Sanchez's wide-eyed enthusiasm, inexhaustible energy and complete lack of respect for the traditional way of doing things, figuring they were just what was needed to shake things up at stodgy old CNN. The trouble was a lot of people eventually saw Rick Sanchez as the personification of every embarrassing thing Klein was doing to the once-revered network; the fact that Sanchez himself willfully thumbed his nose at the elitist ethos plastered into the walls at a place like CNN didn't help matters.
Whenever anyone asks me what Rick Sanchez is like -- and it's a testament to the man's somewhat legendary status that I've been asked this an astonishing number of times -- I always say one thing: He's the easiest guy to work with I've ever met. Unlike a lot of other television personalities who straddle that insufferable line between narcissism and insecurity -- they believe the world revolves around them but they desperately need you to believe it, too -- Rick's ego has always been bulletproof, and it's counterintuitively made him a breeze to be around because he has nothing to prove. In his mind, he's 100% sure he's the shit and therefore he doesn't need you to remind him.
At least that's the way it used to be.
I think if you're looking for the seed that eventually blossomed into Sanchez's spectacular, albeit inadvertent, meltdown, it was this: something finally got to him. After years of wielding his confidence like a weapon and wearing the ridicule of his critics like a badge of honor, because he believed that any publicity was good publicity, he Peter Principled out -- if not by actually reaching his personal level of incompetence then by reaching a level at which a lot of other people thought he was incompetent. And in the savage Thunderdome that is today's media landscape, the mockery that can be heaped on you from every direction -- from those beneath you, beside you and far above you on the professional and cultural ladder -- can wither even those with the thickest of skin. Sanchez had become the personal punching bag of the host and writers of one of the most brilliantly acerbic -- and, more stingingly, most respected -- "news" outlets on television: The Daily Show. This was a show with tremendous cultural cachet -- and it had declared that Rick Sanchez was a fucking moron. A laughingstock.
If the criticism had only been coming from outside the four walls of CNN, chances are Sanchez could have shrugged off Stewart's taunts. But all it takes is a quick examination of what may be the most revealing part of the Pete Dominick interview to see that Sanchez felt that he wasn't getting any respect from the network brass either. Whether it truly is related solely to CNN's decision to put the new Eliot Spitzer-Kathleen Parker vehicle in the eight o'clock time slot rather than give it to Sanchez -- who filled in following the demise of Campbell Brown's show -- is anyone's guess. But Sanchez's comment that the "elite, Northeast establishment liberals" look at him and see "a guy who automatically belongs in the second tier" wasn't aimed at anyone but the bosses he felt were underestimating him, and it spelled out literally where he figured they saw him in the hierarchy of CNN talent. Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, Sanchez melodramatically played the Hispanic Immigrant, Steerage-Class card as the reason he wasn't a made man instead of considering the fact that he had a bad habit of making a boob out of himself on national television.
So with that in mind, when Jon Klein, Rick Sanchez's personal de Medici family at CNN, finally got shown the door two weeks ago, the clock may very well have begun ticking on the career of the man Klein even took the time to laud in his goodbye message to the newsroom. Maybe Ken Jautz and the new management were just looking for an excuse to get rid of him and, never one to disappoint, Sanchez slapped a giant banana cream pie of an excuse right in their faces. When you consider recent history, there's simply no way CNN wouldn't be willing to overlook Sanchez's minor transgression if he were somebody the network felt it couldn't live without. Need I remind anyone that Richard Quest was arrested a couple of years back with crystal meth in his pocket, a dildo in his boot and a rope tied around his balls and yet you can still catch him every afternoon pulling double duty on CNN and CNNi. Obviously it takes a lot to fuck your credibility beyond repair at CNN -- although it's certainly true that the last high-profile CNN dismissal was Octavia Nasr who, coincidentally, was also let go for making a comment that some claimed was anti-Israel.
The sad thing, though, is that whatever your opinion of Rick Sanchez, the speed and ease with which he was dumped may very well prove that the resentments he wore so brazenly on his sleeve last week weren't entirely unfounded. Maybe he was right. Maybe he never really was accepted at CNN, or by the pretentious media establishment in general.
I'd say that I almost feel sorry for him, because in spite of all the occasionally cringe-inducing quirks that make Rick Rick, I can't help but really like the guy. I'd say that, but I don't need to because I already know he's going to be fine.
Trust me, if history is any indication, you haven't seen the last of Rick Sanchez.
He'll have the last laugh. He always does.