Today's Post-Gazette contains a column by Tony Norman that, at first glance, contains nothing of any real interest. Mr. Norman, who is – and this is of key importance – one of the paper's Associate Editors and a member of its editorial board, focuses today on a seemingly minor little controversy out of the world of show business. It all centers on a rather ugly confrontation which occurred on the set of a television program called "Grey's Anatomy", which apparently is rather popular at the moment. One of the show's actors, Isaiah Washington, lost his temper with one of his fellow cast members. During Mr. Washington's tirade, he seems to have said and done a number inappropriate things, culminating in the use of what Tony Norman delicately refers to as a "homophobic epithet" directed towards one of the show's other performers.
Fascinating as this incident may be to many in our fame-obsessed culture, it is not normally the kind of thing that I bother reading about. But, as we shall see, Mr. Norman's column shines a very interesting spotlight on Pittsburgh's politics and the way in which our news is reported.
But first, let me offer a bit of personal context. I don't watch television. I don't even own a television, and haven’t had one for nearly seven years. I have never seen so much as a single episode of "Gray's Anatomy", although I have read enough about it to know that it follows the exploits of a young and rather attractive female physician. I couldn't tell you the name of any characters on the show, let alone the names of the actors who portray them. And until I opened my paper this morning, I had never even heard of Isaiah Washington. The man could walk by me on the street and I would not only have no idea who he was, but would not even have a sneaking suspicion that I had seen him somewhere before.
It should be clear, therefore, that Mr. Washington is not a very important person in my world. I rather doubt that he is a very important figure in most people’s lives, at least outside of his own circle of friends, relatives, colleagues, and acquaintances. From looking at his acting credits, he seems to have had a rather undistinguished career in show business. In nearly 15 years of acting, he has only appeared in two films that I have ever even heard of (“Bullworth” in 1998, and “Romeo Must Die” in 2000), and I’ve never seen either one of them. Mr. Washington seems have lead a fairly typical life for a Hollywood actor, spending years working in no-name movies and doing an endless sequence of guest appearances on television shows before finally landing a role that provides him with a small amount of fame. He is neither especially talented nor especially lucky, and is clearly not especially important person in the grand scheme of things.
So why is Tony Norman so upset with Isaiah Washington? Well, first and foremost because Mr. Washington was stupid enough to have used the aforementioned "homophobic epithet". To be more specific, Mr. Washington was engaged in a very heated argument with an actor named Patrick Dempsey. Some reports indicate that Mr. Washington may have physically assaulted Mr. Dempsey, although Mr. Washington, backed up by a few witnesses, claims that there was no physical contact. Whether the two men came to blows or not, it does seem clear that both of them used some rather strong language. At one point, Mr. Washington told Mr. Dempsey that "I’m not your little faggot like…" fellow cast member T. R. Knight.
Scandalous. Uncalled for. Disgusting behavior in the extreme. But that’s not what really has Tony Norman so worked up in this morning’s Post-Gazette. Instead, Mr. Norman seems most upset that Mr. Washington had the gall, when asked by reporters, to deny that the event ever took place:
Instead of thanking God every day for a gig on "Grey's Anatomy" in which his fair-to-middling talents are a small part of the mix, actor Isaiah Washington couldn't resist hurling a homophobic epithet at a colleague and lying about it -- twice.Imagine that. The guy got in an argument, wasn’t really thinking about the consequences of his actions, did something that landed him in trouble, but then lied to reporters – more than once! – and said that the incident never took place. That’s pretty bad, isn’t it? But it doesn’t end there. Mr. Norman is also infuriated about what he perceives as Mr. Washington’s insincere apologies once his lying became public knowledge:
So now he has to spend time in therapeutic lockdown to save both his job and his soul. Couldn't happen to a nicer guy.
Please, forgive me, but I'm an old-school sinner with an old-school impatience for flim-flam. When it comes to repentance, it's impossible to take it seriously when it's coerced, especially when the alternative is banishment from Hollywood.So the problem here, according to the Post-Gazette’s associate editor, is that Mr. Washington has done the wrong thing on so many different levels. He got into an argument that he probably shouldn’t have. He used very intemperate language during the argument. He may have used a bit of physical force, although that part is in dispute. He lied to reporters multiple times, denying that confrontation ever took place. And then, when he was caught in his own lies and could no longer deny things, he issued an inadequate and insincere apology.
Remember when hanging one's head in shame, proffering an unambiguous apology, confessing to God and maybe buying a beer for the injured party was enough to cover a multitude of sins?
Funny, but that sounds an awful lot like another public figure; somebody that we all know right here in Pittsburgh. And yet, Mr. Washington is the one who ends up getting taken out to Tony Norman’s woodshed, while our own Interim Mayor Luke “Handcuffs” Ravenstahl’s temper tantrum with a local police officer received little more than a grinning wink from Mr. Norman and the rest of the editorial board at the Post-Gazette.
In their editorial about the Interim Mayor’s arrest at Heinz Field on Halloween of 2005, Mr. Norman and his colleagues had little, if anything, negative to say about the then-City Councilmember's behavior: They note that Master Ravenstahl had been drinking, and that he used foul language during the confrontation. "But this is known to happen at Steelers games", they explained, as if the Interim Mayor’s conduct is acceptable merely because everybody else is doing it. They mention their suspicions that Master Ravenstahl might have been provided preferential treatment after being taken into custody, but then explain that away by noting that such treatment "would be very Pittsburgh". Mr. Norman and the rest of the editorial board finish by commenting,
… city residents may very well think of that expression made famous a few years ago by the elderly lady in the Wendy's commercials: Where's the beef?In their editorial, Mr. Norman and his colleagues have nothing at all to say about Interim Mayor Raventahl repeatedly lying to reporters about the Heinz Field incident. They don’t take him to task for a barely tepid non-apology when the story came to light. And yet, when the offender is a second-rate character actor on a meaningless sitcom – and not simply the interim mayor of a major American city – these things suddenly become very important to Mr. Norman.
This is a tale that seemed more interesting as an open secret than now as a banal, low-grade revelation. When the mayor's race begins in earnest this year, Pittsburghers would be wise to focus on issues of real substance.
Why the double standard? Why does Interim Mayor "Handcuffs" Ravenstahl get a pass on his juvenile behavior while Isaiah Washington gets castigated for his?
The actions of Master Ravenstahl and Mr. Washington aren’t exactly alike, of course. Mr. Washington used a somewhat-reviled slur, "faggot", that is seemingly well on it’s way to becoming forbidden language. In a few years, it might be right up there with the n-word, at least when used by those of us who are straight. Interim Mayor Ravenstahl, as bad as his behavior during the Heinz Field incident probably was, is not reported to have used any massively offensive terms of this sort. At least not that we know of, anyway.
On the other hand, Mr. Washington’s argument with another actor took place away from the public eye, while Master Ravenstahl was spewing his profanities in front of a crowd of football fans which included, by his own admission, a number of children. Mr. Washington also wasn’t under the influence of adult beverages, as Master Ravenstahl was at the time of his incident. Mr. Washington’s argument was with a co-worker, while Master Ravenstahl chose to get in the face of an on-duty city police officer. And most obviously, Mr. Washington didn’t end up getting led away in handcuffs at the end of his argument with Patrick Dempsey.
As yet, there is no word as to whether Mr. Washington had somebody call Dennis Regan to make the whole problem go away. But it seems rather unlikely.
In basic terms, these two incidents are far more similar than they are different. Both men behaved very badly indeed, both during their respective incidents and in their attempts to hide the truth afterwards. But only one of these two men earned the condemnation of the Post-Gazette’s associate editor, Tony Norman.
Frankly, you would think that the behavior of our city’s interim mayor would be more important to Mr. Norman than the antics of some largely unknown television actor who lives all the way across the country. But instead, for reasons that I simply can’t begin to fathom, it seems like Mr. Norman has it the other way around.
UPDATE: Click here to read the Admiral's response to many of the comments made about this post.