Note To Opie: Take Heart From The Andy Rooney-‘60 Minutes’ Fiasco

I have to admit that when I see the name Opie, I immediately think of Mayberry, Andy Griffith and Ron Howard before he shaved. Now I understand that shock jock Anthony Cumia was fired last week by Sirius XM for being, I think the technical term is, a tweeting moron. His on-air partner Greg Hughes — known to all by the same moniker as Sheriff Taylor’s kid — is said to be “devastated.”

Take heart, Opie — I promise, your Anthony will be back. Just remember what happened to Andy Rooney.

In the late winter of 1990 David Burke, the newly appointed president of CBS News, suspended Rooney, who was 71 at the time and the most popular cast-member of Sunday Night Live — I mean 60 Minutes — for three months. The trouble had begun a few weeks earlier, during a year-end special, when the curmudgeonly commentator expressed his opinion that “too much alcohol, too much food, drugs, homosexual unions, cigarettes [are] all known to lead to premature death.”

This was in the pre-Internet era, of course, which just goes to show that a) the Web didn’t invent mass-media stupidity and b) the Web also didn’t invent the widespread belief in  massively stupid commentary.

You’ve doubtless surmised by now that I don’t have much sympathy for Anthony Cumia’s predicament. I hate hate speech, in any form, but especially when promoted by people in power, which, certainly through no effort on my part, Cumia is. I have no sympathy for the woman who allegedly attacked him in Times Square to express displeasure over having her picture taken, or for the crowd that joined her in reacting to Cumia’s ranting umbrage at the time. But in going home or wherever he went to tweet his further thoughts on the incident, in the vilest language, he went beyond even the low, low bar of discourse on the Opie & Anthony show — which is about as low a bar as one could set — because the tweeting was a lone act, without even the buffer of a partner to challenge him.

Sirius management was shocked, shocked by the tweets. And so they dumped Cumia, leaving poor Opie without a sheriff or even a Barney Fife to comfort him.

Back to 60 Minutes. Shortly after making those less-than-enlightened comments about homosexuals, Rooney was quoted in The Advocate, a gay magazine, as also believing that ”blacks have watered down their genes because the less intelligent ones are the ones that have the most children” — a highly suspect comment, given Rooney’s unblemished history over four decades at CBS News and as a distinguished war veteran. But in an accompanying letter denying that he’d ever made those remarks, Rooney wrote in explicit terms that homosexuality remained a subject that made him, well, mighty uncomfortable.

David Burke was shocked, shocked, too, and said on Feb. 8,  ”I have made it clear that CBS News cannot tolerate such remarks or anything that approximates such comments, since they in no way reflect the views of this organization.'” And he kicked Rooney off 60 Minutes for three months.

That’s when Don Hewitt, the legendary CBS News producer who had turned 60 Minutes into the most profitable show in TV history (not news show; show, period) went into high gear, complaining to CBS management that the move had hurt his show’s ratings and making clear he thought Burke was an idiot and out of his league. And of course, 60 Minutes viewers rained down protests on CBS, demanding the return of the winking whiner with the animated eyebrows. The protesters accused CBS of taking action against Rooney for doing exactly what he was being paid $800,000 a year to do. Just as Cumia’s patrons are doing today.

CBS was in last place; no way was it going to undermine its most profitable show. It took three weeks for the network and Burke to cave. Rooney was back on the air on March 4, 1990.  This is what he said:

“There was never a writer who didn’t hope that in some small way he was doing good with the words he put down on paper and, while I know it’s presumptuous, I’ve always had in my mind that I was doing some little bit of good. Now, I was to be known for having done, not good, but bad. I’d be known for the rest of my life as a racist bigot and as someone who had made life a little more difficult for homosexuals. I felt terrible about that and I’ve learned a lot.”

I hope that when Anthony Cumia returns to the airwaves — as he will, I have no doubt — he can summon one-tenth of Andy Rooney’s grace.

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