I have sympathy for anyone who says something stupid into a microphone — any politician, pundit or nervous best man who makes an inane wedding toast.
Been there. Done that.
Mark Halperin, Time magazine's senior political analyst and a frequent commenter on MSNBC, was suspended by the cable network this week for using a locker-room profanity to critique President Obama's latest press conference. The hosts of the Morning Joe program assured Mr. Halperin that a seven-second delay switch would delete any coarse assessment that he wanted to make.
It didn't. Anyone who works a microphone should know that seven-second delays aren't surgical instruments. They give producers a few seconds to pull the plug on a caller who curses, or says that they mate with space aliens. It's not there to edit the epithets of Harvard men, like Mr. Halperin, who, as a big name, best-selling pundit, should know that you can't utter a vulgarity on live TV and expect it to be off-the-record.
But I have sympathy for Mr. Halperin. I've said a lot of stupid things into a microphone.
I once asked someone who was on a hunger strike to give us a voice check by asking, "What did you have for breakfast?" He was more gracious than I deserved when he replied, "Nothing. Isn't that why you called?"
I once called a man who had survived a shooting in a shopping mall by the name of the man who had done the shooting. He gently corrected me.
And while anchoring a presidential inauguration, I mangled a sentence containing the president's name and inaugural balls that caused one of our engineers to laugh so hard he fell off of our platform.
And those are just the blunders I have the nerve to tell you about. Every producer I've ever worked with has a favorite story about some idiotic thing that I've inexplicably said.
Mr. Halperin apologized almost immediately. And I didn't get the impression that he really meant his profanity about the president. Mark Halperin struck me as looking more like the studious kid in the class who wants to look cool by using a word that will shock. Cable news pundits are in their own political competition for attention. When Mr. Halperin delivers reasoned analysis, he gets a few thousand hits. When he lets a little trash talk slip, he becomes a Web sensation, like a kitten lip-synching a Madonna song.
When Mr. Halperin gets out of the punditry penalty box, I wonder if he'll be a little more understanding of politicians, from Joe Biden to Sarah Palin, who may mutter a vulgarity, get confused about a fact, or otherwise say something silly and regrettable into an open mike. As he now knows: It happens.