The Ten Worst Media Disasters of 2010

Written by Brad Phillips on December 20, 2010 – 7:02 am

NEW! The Ten Worst Media Disasters of 2011 Is Here!

The Mr. Media Training Blog is pleased to announce the 10 worst on-camera media gaffes of 2010!

This year’s winners include a politician threatening to kill a reporter, a movie star threatening to kill his ex-girlfriend, a Prime Minister killing his own political career, and a CEO trying to “top kill” an oil spill.

The media spokespersons were selected based on the impact of their gaffes. All ten of the winners reinforced an existing narrative – about their lack of preparedness for office, their lack of discipline, or their lack of caring.

Here, without further ado: the ten worst media disasters of 2010:

Honorable Mention: Helen Thomas Tells Jews to Go Home

In June, 89-year-old Hearst Columnist Helen Thomas was asked her opinion about Israel. “Tell them to get  the hell out of Palestine,” she responded. She resigned within days, marking a sad end to a storied career.

This incident would have ranked higher, but it had little practical impact. The work she produced toward the end of her career was little read and uninfluential.


10. Sarah Palin Scribbles on Her Hand

If you’re a 9-year-old giving a speech to your fourth grade class, it might be adorable to write a few reminders on your hand. If you’re a former Vice Presidential nominee getting paid $100,000 for a high-profile speech, well, not so much.

In February, Ms. Palin reinforced the narrative about her lack of heft when she addressed the National Tea Party movement with these words written on her hand: “Energy,” “Tax Cuts,” and “Lift American Spirits.”




9. Christine O’Donnell Disowns Her Wiccan Past

If your campaign needs to put out an ad denying that you’re a witch, you’re probably going to lose.

Delaware GOP Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell should have known not to use the language of denial. It didn’t work well for Richard Nixon (“I am not a crook”), Bill Clinton (“I did not have sexual relations with that woman”), or Larry Craig (“I am not gay”), and it sure didn’t work for her.


Click here to read our full analysis of this incident, Christine O’Donnell’s New Ad: I Am Not a Witch.


8. Dr. Steven Duckett, Former CEO, Alberta Health Services

In November, Alberta’s hospitals had run out of beds, and the public was upset about long emergency room wait times. If you were Dr. Stephen Duckett, CEO of the Alberta government agency responsible for the health of more than 3.5 million Canadians, you probably wanted to express your unwavering commitment to improving the health care system for all Albertans.

He didn’t. Instead, he prioritized a baked good. And he got fired for this interview.


Click here to read our analysis of this incident, “I’m Eating a Cookie: An Instant Media Classic.”

7. Vice President Joe Biden’s Big ‘Effin Deal

It took almost a century for an American president to pass sweeping health care reform legislation. In March, President Obama achieved what past presidents couldn’t. And his signing ceremony represented an opportunity to bask in his achievement.

Instead, Vice President Joe Biden leaned in – near a hot microphone – and told the President the passage was a “big fucking deal.” Biden’s comments earned front page coverage, tainting coverage of the actual legislative accomplishment. And the Vice President reinforced the narrative about his lack of discipline.




6. Gov. Jan Brewer Forgets…Ummm…What Was I Saying?

During a September gubernatorial debate in Arizona, Governor Jan Brewer froze when asked to make her opening statement. If you hate the awkward humor in The Office, you’re probably going to hate this train wreck. If you’re a fan of the show, you now know what Michael Scott would look like as a southwestern politician.


Click here to read our full analysis of this incident, “Brewer Debate Freeze.” 


5. Carl Paladino (R-NY) Threatens to Kill Reporter

Even in an election year marked by unusually hostile press relations, New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino’s confrontation with a reporter stood out. 

When he ran into New York Post reporter Fred Dicker in September, he threatened, “You send another goon to my daughter’s house, and I’ll take you out, buddy.” When Dicker asked how, Paladino chillingly responded with one word: “Watch.”



4. Mel Gibson’s Unhinged Racial Rants

July’s release of phone calls Mel Gibson made to his ex made Michael Richards, Roman Polanski, and Phil Spector look like regal statesmen.

The racist tapes captured a deeply abusive man who threatened to murder his ex. The Hollywood pariah was briefly cast in a career comeback role in the upcoming sequel to The Hangover. But the cast – which had no problem working with convicted rapist Mike Tyson – drew the line at Gibson.

This video is definitely not suitable for work. Or children. Or small animals.



3. Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-NC) Assaults Interviewer

When Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-NC) was confronted by two young interviewers in June, he responded by striking the camera and violently grabbing the wrist and neck of one of the interviewers. It later emerged that the two interviewers were coordinated by Republican political strategists – but that’s no excuse for his stunning physical assault.

Rep. Etheridge lost his re-election bid by about 1,500 votes. This incident likely sealed his fate.



2. Bigoted Woman Ends Career of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown

Gordon Brown was locked in a tight re-election bid when, just one week before May’s election, he spoke with one of his constituents on the street. He politely ended the conversation with the woman, got in his car, and was driven away.

But he forgot that his microphone was still attached. As he was driven away, he called the woman a bigot. The tape was played on an endless loop in the press. And his party lost 91 seats in the election. 


1. BP CEO Tony Hayward Wants His Life Back

Every so often, a spokesperson delivers a phrase so ridiculous – so out-of-step with reality – that it becomes a national catchphrase.

Tony Hayward

When an oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April, eleven men were killed. Five million barrels of oil gushed from the sea floor. Tens of thousands of local workers who depended on the Gulf for their livings lost their jobs. Fishermen were left without seafood to sell, hotels were left without guests, and restaurants were left without diners.

Leave it to former BP CEO Tony Hayward to make the crisis about himself. “I’d like my life back,” he told reporters in May – a stunningly tone-deaf comment that appeared to slight the deceased oil workers.

Hayward’s highly-publicized media missteps created an irreversible narrative of a clueless company that just didn’t get it – and just didn’t care. Mr. Hayward was soon relieved of his duties, but the reputational damage to BP will take years to fix – if it can be fixed at all.


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  • About Mr. Media Training

    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

    Brad Phillips

    Before founding Phillips Media Relations in 2004, Brad worked as a journalist with ABC's Nightline with Ted Koppel and CNN's Reliable Sources and The Capital Gang.

    Brad tweets at @MrMediaTraining.

    Christina Mozaffari is the Senior Writer for the Mr. Media Training Blog. She is the Washington, D.C. vice president for Phillips Media Relations.

    Brad Phillips

    Before joining Phillips Media Relations in 2011, Christina worked as a journalist with NBC News, where she produced stories for MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, NBC Nightly News, and The Today Show.

    Christina tweets at @PMRChristina.

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