Mainstream media do not entertain many voices from the great middle of the country. And those that break through do not usually maintain a residence in Minnesota or keep hunting and fishing in North Dakota. So Ed Schultz is a rarity. His nationally syndicated radio program and his nightly MSNBC show bring a distinct perspective to the debate, not just because the host comes from a different place but because the host in interested in different people and different issues.
Schultz focuses on the struggles of working men and woman and their unions. He goes where they live, to shipyards and factories, to the scenes of mass demonstrations for labor rights in Wisconsin.
Schultz works hard, producing three hours of radio programming every day, along with an hour of television each night. Along with Fox's Sean Hannity, he maintains a dramatically busier schedule than is common for major media personalities. And sometimes, in the midst of all that talking, he says the wrong thing.
That happened recently when Schultz was in the midst of a radio rant about right-wing criticism of President Obama's European trip. Schultz was taking apart the conservatives who were attacking Obama for being out of the country when killer tornadoes hit. In the midst of the conversation, Schultz said, "President Obama is going to be visiting Joplin, Missouri, on Sunday, but you know what (Republicans are) talking about, like this right-wing slut — what's her name? Laura Ingraham? Yeah, she's a talk slut. You see, she was, back in the day, praising President Reagan when he was drinking a beer overseas. But now that Obama's doing it, they're working him over."
In no time, the right-wing media monitors, who have been dogging Schultz ever since he emerged as a rare and steady critic of corporate abuses and conservative privatization schemes, were highlighting the crude language. But they were not the only ones objecting; sincere critics of sexism in the media, many of whom had come to see Schultz as a friend and ally, also raised their voices. "Laura Ingraham is no friend to women, and while we disagree with many of her views, the type of language Ed Schultz used, whether accidentally or on purpose, has the effect of legitimizing sexism and undermines the credibility of all women," explained Women's Media Center President Julie Burton. "Two wrongs don't make a right."
Schultz agreed, issuing one of the most heartfelt apologies ever aired by a television personality. Decrying his own use of "vile and inappropriate language," he opened Wednesday night's "Ed Show" on MSNBC by saying: "I am deeply sorry, and I apologize. It was wrong, uncalled for, and I recognize the severity of what I said. I apologize to you, Laura, and ask for your forgiveness."
And Ingraham accepted that apology, showing some class of her own.
I have known Ed Schultz for a long time, I have appeared on his radio and television shows, and I have written about the importance of the contribution he has made to the discourse. At the same time, I have spoken up for Laura Ingraham, whose savvy style and wry wit make her one of the better conservative talkers today. What Schultz and Ingraham have in common is that they both do good radio.
There's no question that Ed made a mistake. Nor should there be any question that he responded appropriately, with a heartfelt apology — and a voluntary one-week suspension.
As someone who has spent a good deal of time with Ed, I have never had a sense of the man as a crude character. Quite the opposite: He's devoted to his wife, Wendy, whose counsel he respects on issues big and small. I've always known him to be respectful of his guests and his fans. And I have been genuinely impressed by the seriousness with which he approaches the work of giving voice to working men and women, people of color and the farmers and small-business owners.
Ed would be the first to say that he's no saint. He blows up now and again. But I think the voice that Americans heard apologizing was the real Ed Schultz. Julie Burton makes much the same point when she says, "Ed Schultz has long been a friend and supporter of women's issues and an opponent of sexism in the society. That's another reason why we expected him to make an apology for his slip — and to do it on the air. We have to expect high standards from media people on the left and on the right of the political spectrum."
This slip will not define Schultz. But it will influence him. Good hosts learn from their mistakes. And Ed Schultz is one of the good guys.
John Nichols is the associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org