It’s easy to feel bad for AJ Clemente, the West Virginia University graduate who uttered two words you’re not allowed to say on broadcast television just as his first anchoring shift began on Sunday, April 20, on KFYR-TV in Bismarck, North Dakota.
The NBC affiliate quickly fired him, but cited “personnel issues” in saying little else. While it might have been technically legal under Federal Communications Commission rules, it was still shocking enough to managers who decided it was not worth trusting a newcomer. And even in a place that is Nielsen’s 151st Designated Market Area, the station can easily find another newcomer willing to work the Sunday night shift Bismark in hopes of climbing the TV news ladder.
Clemente says he made the mistake because he was frustrated while working to pronounce some words, and he didn’t have an earpiece or heads-up that the show was live. He called the gaffe “inexcusable,” and he says he didn’t know he said it until deep in the newscast and has not animosity toward the station.
He’s turned it into celebrity, from conversations on The Today Show to becoming the subject of a David Letterman Top 10 list that included other examples of potty-mouthed TV anchors. It’s always possible he can land another job.
As a former young broadcaster, I appreciate his pain and the inevitable on-air jitters.
Even more, I appreciate Malcolm Street, who hired me when I was 14 for an on-air job at WHMA AM-FM in Anniston, Ala. (He liked me, my voice was preternaturally low, and 14-year-olds work cheap.)
Before my first real shift, he sat me in his office and reminded me of a few things, closing with a life lesson: “Something unexpected will happen one day when your mic is live. If you don’t curse off the air, then you won’t curse on the air.” He taught Sunday School for more than six decades at Parker Memorial Baptist Church, so he easily quoted a Bible verse (Luke 6:45) to prove his point: “For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.”
And sure enough, my day to swear on the air came the Saturday morning when, with a live microphone ready to amplify my words over 100,000 watts from nearly between Atlanta and Birmingham, I touched a metal surface that sent a mighty shock through my finger. It really hurt, but a curseless yelp of pain was all the listeners heard. I was grateful then for Mr. Street’s advice, which I wish I still took today.
The ethics lesson here? Even if you’re not into New Testament scripture, it’s worth remembering that the best media practitioners live consistent lives whether they’re at work or not.
Aristotle (see pages 367-371 of Doing Ethics in Media: Theories and Practical Applications) and others who preach virtue ethics would remind us that trying to compartmentalize our lifestyle habits may be dangerous, particularly in communication jobs where likeablity and personality play a role. It’s always been true for broadcasters, and it’s now truer than ever for journalists whose credibility less from their organization and more from their personal brand. In this case, Clemente did not show arête, so his Bismark career sunk before achieving eudiamonia.
(apologies to Mr. Street)