Can Rick Sanchez be saved?
Sanchez, the Twitter-obsessed former anchor of CNN’s Rick’s List lost his job last fall just hours after giving an interview in which he called The Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart a “bigot” and suggested that Jews run CNN and the news media. He quickly gave interviews explaining and apologizing, and then stepped largely out of the spotlight.
Now nearly six months later, Sanchez seems to have achieved the unexpected: finding redemption from his harshest critic, the man who accused Sanchez of using his high visibility as a cable news anchor and author to spread hateful, anti-Semitic ideas. Abe Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, writing “in my view, this…should put the matter to rest…I hope that you will now be able to move on with your life.”
Sanchez’s life derailed last September, when he sat down for a satellite radio interview and said the words that would cost him his job:
“Everybody that 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.”
The fallout came quickly. By the following afternoon, Sanchez was gone, cut loose by CNN with a blunt, two-line statement from the network. “Rick Sanchez is no longer with the company. We thank Rick for his years of service, and we wish him well.“
The speed of the decision was described on a website set up by “friends of Rick Sanchez,” who wrote “it’s fair to say that Rick was blindsided by all of this. One day, you’ve got a job you love. The next, you get a phone call finding out you’re unemployed. In an instant, Rick’s life changed.”
Sanchez, who’d been the butt of frequent Daily Show jokes–especially for a segment where Sanchez was tasered on air–immediately took every opportunity to apologize to viewers, to CNN, and to Stewart, insisting fourteen hour workdays had left him exhausted, and in the interview he’d been “tired and careless” and as a result answered the interviewer’s questions in “a mangled and inartful way.” He also blamed the media’s “gotcha” mentality where “comments like mine are blown up while the bigger, more important issues of our day are ignored.”
But last fall, Abe Foxman was hardly convinced, turning the word “bigot” back onto Sanchez himself, and in a column on the incident, expressing hopes that the anchor’s influence would fade, since Sanchez’s words captured an enduring–and dangerous–notion assigning Jews the blame for all kinds of problems:
As often is the case with these situations, it took an unguarded moment for Sanchez to reveal his own bigotry, ironically, in awkwardly fashioning the same accusation against another media type. And there it was again: the age-old conspiracy theory about Jewish control of the news media, this time brought to the fore by a well-known television personality with a loyal audience following on CNN.
What’s interesting about a person like Sanchez making this claim is that he is not an extremist, not a religious fanatic and not an ideologue.
But could Rick Sanchez be forgiven?
Friends urged Sanchez to keep his head down and wait it out. He decided to wade right into the mess he’d made. “This wasn’t a controversy or story where I just laid low, waiting for it to blow over,” Sanchez told Mediaite. “I wasn’t laying low, expecting it would fade. I certainly got that advice from many people, but I ignored it. That’s not the way I live my life.”
Sanchez says he’s spent more than five months reflecting, and trying to make amends by “reaching out, on my own and privately, to Jewish leaders all over the country. I’ve personally apologized to them and done my best to learn from each of them.”
And one of those people was Abe Foxman. In February, Sanchez and Foxman met to talk, and Sanchez formally apologized. He followed the meeting with a letter:
We spent a great deal of time talking about the power and importance of words. In my work as a broadcaster, I know and appreciate that power. Yet, one day several months ago, in my life outside the newsroom, I forgot how powerful and meaningful words can be.
During our meeting, not only did you show me how wrong those words were, but you explained to me why they were wrong, and you reminded me that words can echo long after they are spoken. You are right: it doesn’t matter what I meant or intended to say. What matters is that I conveyed a message that I never should have.
My words were just plain wrong—wrong because they do not reflect what I believe, wrong because they do not reflect what is in my heart, and wrong because they conjure up some of the worst and most dangerous stereotypes of Jews, stereotypes that have been the cause of horrific atrocities committed against the Jewish people.
Ironically, there are no words strong enough for me to express my regret and sorrow over what I said. It was offensive, and I deeply, sincerely and unequivocally apologize for the hurt that I have caused.
Foxman accepted the apology and wrote his own letter, for the first time opening the door for Sanchez’s return:
“I appreciate your willingness to look squarely at the incident that took place, to apologize for it, and to be willing to learn about the forms and threats of anti-Semitism,” Foxman wrote. “In my view, this letter should put the matter to rest. I hope that you will now be able to move on with your life and to work, as we do every day, to make this a better and more respectful world.”
“Abe was certainly one of my harshest critics, but also perhaps the fairest because I don’t think he passed judgment on me as a person,” Sanchez says, vowing to work with Foxman “on important issues improving Jewish-Latino relations. I want to do my best to demonstrate my sincerity and make a difference. That’s not something only for now or in just in the short term. It’s a lifetime commitment on my part.”
Sanchez understands even a letter that “puts to rest” the controversy will not immediately lead to a new network news job. And Sanchez knows his efforts to apologize will be written off by critics as nothing more genuine than an orchestrated public relations campaign. But he insists his heart’s in the right place, and the words he’s choosing–very carefully–are exactly the ones he means. “I tell my children that when they make a mistake, they should take responsibility, atone and work to repair whatever they have done. For the past several months, I have followed that same advice and tried to be an example for them. I cannot take back what I said. I cannot undo the offense or controversy I caused; all I can do is to try and learn from this experience and strive to become a better person.”
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