On Rick Sanchez, Jon Stewart, and Why We All Lose Playing the Oppression Olympics

by Latoya Peterson

Jon Stewart Rick Sanchez

CNN anchor Rick Sanchez was tired of being the butt of everyone’s joke.

He was done with hiding things. He was fed up with playing corporate games. So last Friday, Rick Sanchez went on Pete Dominick’s Sirius hosted XM radio show to get a lot of things off his chest.

Sanchez came out firing – and hit two targets, his own leg, and a few passerby.

His comments on the biased nature of news media were dead on until they veered into bigoted territory. His attacks on Jon Stewart, specifically about his ethnicity, veered fully into old antisemitic tropes. This led to Sanchez’s firing from CNN on the day the news broke.

The reactions around the media world are a mess, and unpacking the issues behind the situation becomes a wild ride through the dynamics of oppression, kyriarchy, professional passing, media conglomerates, and prejudice.

The Wrap has up a partial transcript of the interview (emphasis mine):

RS- It’s not just the right that does this. cause I’ve known a lot of elite Northeast establishment liberals that may not use this as a
business model but deep down when they look at a guy like me they look at a– they see a guy automatically who belongs in the second tier and not the top tier.

PD- Why do you say that? Give me an example – because you’re Cuban-American…

RS- I had a guy who works here at CNN who’s a top brass come to me and say, ‘You know what, I don’t want you to –

PD- ‘Will you wash this dish for me, Sanchez?’

RS- No no, see that’s the thing; it’s more subtle. White folks usually don’t see it. But we do – those of us who are minorities and women see it sometimes too from men in authority. Here, I’ll give you my example its this ‘You know what, I don’t want you anchoring anymore, I really don’t see you as an anchor, I see you more as a reporter, I see you more as a John Quinones – you know the guy on ABC. That’s what he told me. He told me he saw me as John Quinones. Now, did he not realize that he was telling me, ‘When I see you I think of Hispanic reporters’? Cause in his mind I can’t be an anchor. An anchor is what you give the high-profile white guys, you know. So he knocks me down to that and compares me to that and it happens all the time i think.

All true. I particularly like where Sanchez stops Dominick in his example to point out that racism isn’t always as overt as someone being compressed into an existing stereotype. Often, particularly in media, minorities face racism because they do not fit a certain mold. That’s something that always frustrates me when talking to well-meaning folks about racism. It’s very easy for them to identify really egregious examples – much harder for them to acknowledge some biases are quiet, yet devastating. After all, we aren’t hearing broadcasts from Ricardo León Sánchez de Reinaldo.

But now, let’s break down the rest of Sanchez’s comments:

RS – To a certain extent Jon Stewart and Colbert are the same way. I think Jon Stewart’s a bigot.

PD- You think Jon Stewart is a bigot? Hold on now were going to get into it, Jon Stewart my old boss, my friend.

RS: Yeah I think he’s a bigot.

PD: How is he a bigot?

RS: I think he looks at the world through his mom who was a schoolteacher, and his dad who was a physicist or something like that. Great, I’m so happy that he grew up in a suburban middle class New Jersey home with everything that you could ever imagine.

PD: What group is he bigoted towards?

RS: Everybody else who’s not like him. Look at his show! What does he surround himself with?

Now y’all know we have issues with both the Daily Show and the Colbert Report.

See these for background:

A Thin Line Between Stereotype and Satire: The Daily Show’s “Asian Correspondent” Olivia Munn
Dear Olivia Munn
The Daily Show Introduces Us to Gitmo
Open Thread: Cornel West on Stephen Colbert – Respect or Mockery?

One of the more distressing points about the type of comedy that Colbert and Stewart perform is that the boundaries blur so often between what they are lampooning and what they are reinforcing. I remember watching an episode of the Daily Show where Stewart made a crack about his writer’s room being white and male. The joke played on the realities of the television industry. However, what is always interesting to me is how often Stewart will discuss things that he has the power to change. I’m sure Jon Stewart can’t wave a magic wand and fix all the diversity issues in the media at large – but I’m sure he can make a difference on his own show.

But here’s where things get sticky:

PD: But listen he picks on Jews all the time, he’s a Jew. He focuses on them and I think he overcompensates to some extent.

[...]

RS: I think Jon’s show is essentially prejudicial. I think that Jon’s show is…

PD: Against who?

RS: Against anybody who doesn’t agree to his point of view, which is very much a white liberal establishment point of view. He cant relate to a guy like me. He can’t relate to a guy who’s dad worked all his life. He can’t relate to somebody who grew up poor. [...]

Here is where the Wrap transcript ends, but the quote that’s been all over the news is this one:

Very powerless people… [snickers] He’s such a minority, I mean, you know [sarcastically]… Please, what are you kidding? … I’m telling you that everybody who 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. [sarcastically]

Now, there’s an interesting assumption put forth here: that class privilege negates racial or ethnic struggle. Which it does not. And it’s one of those tropes used as an internal division, which I’ve seen employed against both Jews and Asians – the fact that many members of the group have found some measure of wealth and success means that they no longer face oppression.

The way in which Sanchez’s comment can be read is two fold: he could be talking about white people like Stewart, or he could be talking about Jewish people like Stewart.

The way the comment is interpreted has generally been toward the Jewish leaning – a play upon an old stereotype that Jewish people run the media.

Back in 1996, FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) debunked the myth in a report:

All such diatribe plays up your Eisners and your Sulzbergers–and plays down many other names: Jack Welch and Michael H. Jordan, CEOs, respectively, of GE (NBC) and Westinghouse (CBS); Rupert Murdoch (who owns 20th Century Fox); John Malone, CEO of TCI, the nation’s largest cable company; maverick globalist Ted Turner; and many more. Also tuned out are such goyische giants as Hearst Communications, Times Mirror, the Chicago Tribune’s empire, Reader’s Digest Inc.–and the Shintoist directorship of Sony (which owns Columbia Studios and Tri-Star Pictures).

The far-right media “critique” also ignores the role of major shareholders: buccaneers like Warren Buffett (Disney’s largest investor); cyberlord Bill Gates (who owns a big piece of Dreamworks and MSNBC); Gordon Crawford, who manages the media holdings for the secretive Capital Group (which owns a chunk of every major player).

But more important, the far-right attack ignores the crucial point about today’s media: Increasingly, their owners are publicly traded multinational corporations, chiefly answerable to banks, insurance companies and other institutional investors–and to advertisers, who are almost always the key source of revenue. Thus guided, corporate capitalism runs the show with no concern for any race or faith or for anything but profits.

But this meme will not die. Wikipedia, which is great for cross referencing things, provides a very useful current list of American mass media owners. Much national and international media is owned and controlled by just 47 people, many of whom share family lineage, making the numbers much smaller. On that list, four or so are identified as Jewish. Now, some will point out that this list includes only owners, not CEOs and decision makers. However, CEOs can be ousted fairly easily, but it takes a long while for a company to change hands.

However, Jon Stewart’s whiteness is a different type of issue. This is complicated by him holding both a white and Jewish identity. Stewart recalls being targeted because of his identity as a young man:

Lawrenceville wasn’t exactly a hotbed of Jewish life. Jon attended a yeshiva kindergarten in nearby Trenton, then joined his brother at the local public school. Stewart has recalled being punched in seventh grade and taunted as “Leibotits” and “Leiboshits.” “I didn’t grow up in Warsaw, but it’s not like it wasn’t duly noted by my peers that’s who I was—there were some minor slurs,” he said in a 2002 interview with The New Yorker’s Tad Friend.

Stewart’s comedic streak and verbal agility was evident at an early age. “I was very little, so being funny helped me have big friends,” Stewart explained in a 1994 People interview.

One would think that the two men would find some common ground, in being persecuted for their identities alone. Sanchez also referenced current rejection by other anchors and feeling like everyone was mocking him. And he is correct. Alex Parnee, over at Salon, digs up a video of Anderson Cooper making fun of Sanchez when he elected to be tasered on television. (The video appears to be down – it’s one where Anderson Cooper and a guest are discussing the tasering of a college student, and then cut to the Sanchez clip, saying “I could watch that all day.) Sanchez also appears to have little respect among his contemporaries – he is often labeled a dumb jock, and this acerbic take down from Parnee demonstrates the environment:

Is it really anti-Semitic to resent Jews for being so much smarter than you? Well, yes. But Rick Sanchez is a man who says things without thinking — like Blitzer, he is a professional sayer-of-words, not understander-of-words — and I think his heart is filled less with hate than with intense resentment and nagging inadequacy. He is a dumb, shouty guy who has gone about as far in life as a dumb, shouty guy can get, through sheer, admirable hard work — ever since he parlayed a football scholarship into a communications degree — but the nerds, they’re still laughing at him.

And with good reason! The man should not be an anchor. I mean, here’s Rick yesterday, calling “bullying” — bullying! — “a psycho-babble, media term that we’ve made up.” Thinking Rick Sanchez is a moron isn’t even a partisan issue: Glenn Beck called him the dumbest man on television in August. [...]

Jon Stewart, I can safely say, is prejudiced against people like Rick Sanchez, where “people like Rick Sanchez” means not “Hispanics,” but rather “complete idiots.”

Now, Rick Sanchez appears to be a lot of things. I haven’t watched his show so I am not fully familiar with him as an anchor, but there appear to be lots of gaffes in his career. There also appear to be some moments where Sanchez is trying to advance the conversation, particularly when Sanchez challenges Lou Dobbs. It is hard to parse out how Sanchez navigates his own identity, his self-identification, and his role on air. Even in the Dobbs clip, he appears to be going back and forth, between the presentation he needs to assimilate into mainstream society and wanting to represent for those at the margins. And it is hard to determine (from the viewer’s seat) how much prejudice Sanchez dealt with behind the scenes, and how that might have impacted how he saw all the jokes at his expense.

Still, despite the name adjustment, vocal training, and personal presentation, Ricky Sanchez still managed to be marked firmly as “other.” And Jon Stewart, since he’s white (enough, for now), managed to gain some access to the club. Now, this isn’t to be mistaken with full access – but Stewart is considered less of an outsider than Sanchez, which made him a convenient target.

It reminds me of a piece a friend sent me. After a discussion about anti-racist movements and anti-Semitic, and the peculiar positing of passing and whiteness, my friend mailed me a copy of a ten-year old New Yorker article called “The Other and the Almost the Same.” In the piece, Paul Bergman lays out a theory for black-Jewish prejudice and mistrust, believing that the similarities between the two groups lead to an aggravation of differences:

One of Freud’s earliest French translators was a man named Jankelevitch, whose son, Vladimir, became a hero in the French Resistance during the Second World War, then went on to a professor’s career at the Sorbonne, where he was much loved by his students for his white mane and his philosophy of music. And when Vladimir Jankelevitch died, in 1985, he left behind for posthumous publication some Q. & A. interviews, which caused a shock. The interviews were about courage and hatred. The old professor reminisced about the war against the Nazis. He remembered Jean-Paul Sartre and other famous thinkers from his own generation in France, and he said that in the face of Nazism those very great philosophers had been malingerers and opportunists and had afterward made a career of their undeserved reputation for bravery. He recalled some anti-Semitism within the Resistance, which was a bitter memory for a Jew like him. He forgave nothing. He despaired. In a thousand years, he predicted, people would still be muttering “Dirty Jew.” He offered a few philosophical observations, vaguely psychoanalytic in style, as befitted his father’s son. He wondered why certain populations feel so strongly about one another. Why so much irrational passion, nationality against nationality? And he proposed an explanation.

Hatred between peoples comes in two varieties, he said. Racism–this is a truism–is a hatred you might feel for people who are different from you: for “the other.” But the second kind of hatred is something you might feel for people who, compared with you, are neither “other” nor “brother.” It is hatred for “the almost the same.” In Jankelevitch’s theory, relations with the other tend to be chilly–which doesn’t make the hatred any less murderous, given the wrong circumstances. But relations between people who are almost the same tend to be highly charged. He invoked a passage in “Moses and Monotheism” in which Freud observes that “racial intolerance finds stronger expression, strange to say, in regard to small differences than to fundamental ones.”

Jankelevitch pointed to the Dutch and the Belgians, who have everything in common and hate each other zealously–at least, sometimes they do. If the old professor had lived a few more years, he would have certainly pointed to the mass insanity in the former Yugoslavia, where the warring groups resemble one another so closely that most if us in the world beyone the Balkans cannot detect any differences at all. Why do tensions between people who are almost the same heat up into uncontrollable hatred? It is a matter of self-preservation.

To the person whose resemblance to you is close, yet who is not really your double, you might easily end up saying, “You are almost like me. The similarity between us is so plain that in the eyes of the world you are my brother. But, to speak honestly, you are not my brother. My identity, in relation to you, consists precisely of the ways in which I am different from you. Yet the more you resemble me the harder it is for anyone to see those crucial differences. Our resemblance threatens to obliterate everything that is special about me. So you are my false brother. I have no alternative but to hate you, because by working up a rage against you I am defending everything that is unique about me.”

Since emotional relations fall under the star of irrationality, people who are almost the same might flip-flop into loving one another, bedazzled by their wonderful point of commonality. Or they might sink into confusion about the intensity of their feelings. “When you are in a state of passion, you don’t know if you love or if you hate, like spouses who can neither live together nor live apart,” Jankelevitch said.

Does anything in that analysis apply to the predicament of blacks and Jews in America? Not on the face of things. The American Jews and the African-Americans have never looked or sounded alike, and the difference in economic conditions has become more pronounced since the days of bedbug-Jewish-tenement poverty. As for the shared history of having someone’s boot press on their vulnerable necks, this experience has taken such different forms for blacks and for Jews as to be barely comparable. Any important element of Jewish-and-black almost the sameness, if it existed at all, would have to lie in the zone of the invisible, which is to say the psychological, where all is murk.

The whole piece is worth a read. While there are a lot of parts that I didn’t agree with, and Bergman is missing some major insights that ultimately damage his argument, the central idea – that groups that are experiencing similar oppression splinter from each other to preserve themselves – makes a lot of sense. And when racial hierarchies come into the mix, particularly with those complicated color, the results can be explosive.

So on Friday, Rick Sanchez exploded. And lashed out. But in all of his rage, it appears that he failed to see the much larger picture. And instead of drawing bridges and support for his experiences, he created new divisions and wrecked his career.

But even more than that, the outburst allowed all the truth in his statement to become buried by the weight of one prejudicial statement. And it allowed for those who are truly in power to laugh, check the ratings, and continue on with the status quo.