Yahoo News fired its Washington bureau chief less than 24 hours after an open microphone caught him joking that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney would not mind if African-Americans died in a hurricane.
“They aren’t concerned at all,” David Chalian, apparently unaware that his mic was live, said of Romney and his wife, Ann, during the live Internet broadcast Tuesday evening. “They are happy to have a party with black people drowning.”
The wisecrack, first reported by the conservative website Newsbusters, was an apparent reference to the 2005 Hurricane Katrina tragedy, which devastated the African-American communities in New Orleans.
Chalian made the joke as Hurricane Issac barreled ashore in Louisiana and threatened to disrupt the Republican National Convention in Florida.
The incident is the latest in a series of media scandals in recent years that have sparked national discussion of journalistic decorum against the background of America’s rancorous, hyper-partisan political landscape.
“David Chalian’s statement was inappropriate and does not represent the views of Yahoo!.” the company said in a statement Wednesday. “He has been terminated effective immediately. We have already reached out to the Romney campaign, and we apologize to Mitt Romney, his staff, their supporters and anyone who was offended.”
Chalian, who was hired by Yahoo last year to bolster its coverage of the 2012 presidential campaign, took to Twitter and Facebook to apologize for his remarks.
“I am profoundly sorry for making an inappropriate and thoughtless joke,” he wrote on his Twitter account Wednesday afternoon.
On Facebook, he added, “I was commenting on the challenge of staging a convention during a hurricane and about campaign optics. I have apologized to the Romney campaign, and I want to take this opportunity to publicly apologize to Gov. and Mrs. Romney.”
Attempts to reach Chalian for comment were unsuccessful Thursday.
Newsbusters describes itself as a “leader in documenting, exposing and neutralizing liberal media bias,” though several of Chalian’s fellow Washington journalists defended his professionalism in the wake of the incident.
Prominent newscaster Gwen Ifill, Chalian’s former colleague at PBS Newshour, described Chalian on Twitter Wednesday as “God’s gift to political journalism.”
Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker called him one of “the best and fairest political journalists in this business.”
Former U.S. vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, the subject of much media criticism and jokes herself, weighed in on the Chalian firing Thursday as well.
Appearing on Fox News, Palin said she was “glad” he had been fired. She accused Chalian of trying to change the context of her quotes in a 2008 interview, and called the journalist’s remarks “horrible” and “racist.”
The joke was an obvious slice of the type of gallows humor common to newsrooms, said Kelly McBride, a media ethics expert and a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute in Florida.
“I don’t know if Yahoo’s response was justified, but I think news companies have to protect their reputations,” McBride said. “And I think that what he said to an outsider is horribly damaging to the news organization’s reputation because it’s so easily misinterpreted.”
Reporters need to always be on their guard about making “troublesome or outrageous comments, because they would be preyed upon just like we might jump on a politician for the same thing,” said Curtis Wilkie, a fellow at the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics at the University of Mississippi.
Wilkie, who covered U.S. presidential elections for three decades said, “journalists don’t enjoy protection from their own embarrassment.”
Stephen Ward, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said he is concerned that Chalian’s firing constituted a knee-jerk response to pressure from conservative pressure groups.
“There are unbelievable numbers of political groups just watching the media and waiting to pounce on one wrong comment,” Ward said. “There is a whole system and intent to discredit journalists, and create pressure to get them fired. I think that’s wrong, and I think we should push back.”
McBride noted the irony in the Chalian case that print and online journalists often mock their broadcast brethren as purveyors of shallow reportage. Broadcast journalists are taught from day one to assume that any microphone you’re wearing is live, she said.
“[Chalian] made what is considered in the broadcast world an incredibly amateur mistake,” McBride said.