High-Profile Outburst: Do We Hit New Lows?

By Wil Haygood and Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 15, 2009

They are dazzling -- if uncouth -- moments of live theater. A hyped-up individual at a major public event suddenly seizes center stage in the most unbecoming fashion. And just like that, with necks yanking and eyes widening, the crowd has witnessed an unnerving public outburst.

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) calls the president a liar to his face.

Serena Williams threatens to stuff a tennis ball down a line judge's throat.

Kanye West stomps all over Taylor Swift's moment in the MTV Video Music Awards limelight.

Call it the unexpected news-shaking cameo.

It is the convergence of entertainment and moxie, shamelessness and passion. Despite the phalanx of publicists hired to advise a celebrity, an entertainer, an athlete -- maybe even a politician -- about the rules of decorum, they still seem unable to fathom the downside of outrageous public conduct.

For some celebrities and attention-hijackers, all press is good press, all the time. West, as some have noted, has practically turned this media hyper-awareness into an art form, delivering public fits of pique in precise, well-timed bursts. And after Wilson called out the president during a joint session of Congress, he went from a political unknown to a household name.

Of course, bad behavior knows no historical bounds. Still, this recent spate of spats has raised eyebrows and has some wondering whether new depths are being plumbed. Steve Blauner is a former movie executive and entertainment manager. The public outbursts of both Wilson and West unnerved him.

"I blame it on talk radio and TV," says Blauner, who lives outside Los Angeles. "Everything used to be more subtle. But you can say anything now." He goes on: "Kanye West got more publicity out of this stunt than he's gotten in the past year. And Joe Wilson was a total unknown except in South Carolina. Now he's a national figure. It's all rather demeaning. Of course, West can get away with this type conduct. He's got more money than God."

It has been a kind of trifecta -- West, Wilson and Williams -- that has dominated talk radio and the blogosphere.

"American life has always been coarse," says Angela Dillard, professor of Afroamerican Studies at the University of Michigan. "I'm unconvinced this type of behavior is new. I think the coverage is just more intense." She calls these three outbursts "a distinctive part of pop-culture history" in America.

There are those who wonder if certain segments of the populace have become even more emboldened as a result of the verbal clashing that went on during the town hall meetings discussing President Obama's health care plan.

"These meetings turned into public derision," says Toby Miller, chairman of the Media and Cultural Studies Department at the University of California at Riverside. "They were powerfully organized. I think it represents an extraordinary shift in the terrain. And don't forget that behaving badly is an important part of publicity these days. There are promoters who are seasoned to highlight this conduct. And of course then you have the chance for public redemption. That narrative -- of redemption -- has become a part of the narrative of American life."

Both Wilson and West have issued apologies. West apologized on his blog immediately after his tantrum on MTV, and issued another quirky mea culpa Monday afternoon.

"I feel like Ben Stiller in 'Meet the Parents' when he messed up everything and Robert De Niro asked him to leave . . . That was Taylor's moment and I had no right in any way to take it from her. I am truly sorry," West wrote.

Williams, too, offered a full apology Monday for her U.S. Open outburst, saying in part, "I need to make it clear to all young people that I handled myself inappropriately and it's not the way to act."

But apologies never receive the same degree of attention as the actions that made them necessary. And the sincerity of an apology can be questioned. There are those who feel that while the curve of public behavior has taken sharp and bewildering turns, there are measures in place to address those turns.

"We have much more elaborate sanctions -- fines and discipline -- in place for this type of behavior," Miller says.

The case of Wilson, however, perplexes Miller. "The office of the president is very different from anything else. He is head of state. So I think what Wilson did is extremely unusual."

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