Why it’s harder to believe the worst of a host

Scandal-ridden talk-show hosts get a kind of support not often given to celebrities
Carolyn Kaster/AP; William B. Plowman/Getty Images; Mark Davis/Getty Images; CHRIS YOUNG/CP
Carolyn Kaster/AP; William B. Plowman/Getty Images; Mark Davis/Getty Images; CHRIS YOUNG/CP

After Jian Ghomeshi was fired from the CBC, he published a Facebook post with his account of the story, in which he addressed fans as “friends and family of mine.” Whatever the motivations behind the wording, it was apt for a talk show host. Unlike a movie actor, a host plays the part of an average guy surrounded by people more famous than he is, and when a host has a sex scandal—as Bob Barker, David Letterman, Jimmy Savile and many others have had before Ghomeshi—it feels almost like a pal is in trouble.

With his music background (he co-founded the band Moxy Früvous) and intermittent shaving, Ghomeshi became famous by portraying himself as a friend and colleague of the people who used to be called hipsters, even though he’s now 47, far too old to be a hipster himself. And now he’s appealing to his young, Internet-aware fans to come to his aid, and some of them are instantly taking his side. Justin Beach, who runs a Facebook group called “Friends of the CBC,” wrote on the Huffington Post that fans of Ghomeshi’s now-former radio show, Q, were demanding that he change the name to “Friends of Jian Ghomeshi.” And communications expert Taylor Mann wrote on his blog that “all over social media, people have been proclaiming, ‘Now we know!’ ‘The truth is out’ and ‘Down with the CBC!’ ”

Actors and musicians—the bigger stars Ghomeshi interviewed on a regular basis—don’t usually get that kind of support when they’re accused of misbehaviour; TMZ runs the story and everyone enjoys the schadenfreude. But people are often more reluctant to believe the worst of a host, someone who makes his living by portraying himself as one of us. Ghomeshi himself has already benefited from fans’ unwillingness to hear bad things about him. When journalist Carla Ciccone wrote an article last year about sexual harassment at the hands of an unnamed host—widely assumed to be Ghomeshi—the Toronto Star reported she “received hundreds of abusive messages and threats” from Q fans.

When Bob Barker was accused of sexual harassment by the bikini models known as “Barker’s Beauties” on The Price is Right, he denied any non-consensual acts and managed to keep his job and the love of millions. David Letterman and Bill O’Reilly are other hosts who command loyalty despite allegations of sexual harassment.

But these other hosts worked for networks that wanted to avoid firing them at all costs. The CBC pulled the plug on Ghomeshi even though its investment in him is huge: Q is not only one of its most popular shows, with its YouTube channel alone getting a reported average of 1.5 million hits every month, but it’s one of the few shows that links the broadcaster to a young, hip audience. In a Toronto Life profile of the host earlier this year, Courtney Shea wrote that “at the youth-starved CBC, he has become the go-to cool guy.”

For Ghomeshi’s fans, the fact that the CBC fired him is a sign of what his Facebook post called its determination to “have dominion over what people do consensually in their private life.” For those who think the worst of him, it may be a sign that worse news is yet to come. Either way, working for a public broadcaster, answerable to taxpayers, may have denied him the benefit of the doubt other hosts might get.

However, being fired leaves Ghomeshi with an option other hosts never had to use: going on the offensive and attacking the network. With the CBC not free to talk about the reasons for the dismissal, and his accusers afraid to come forward, Ghomeshi is free to tell the world he’s a victim of “a jilted ex-girlfriend and a freelance writer,” and while not everyone will believe him, he might get enough support to set up shop somewhere else.

The day after the firing, Ghomeshi’s picture had been taken down from the wall of CBC’s headquarters; he’d become an un-person in the building he used to rule. But if he continues to portray the CBC as the bad guy, it could hurt the company much more than his basically pointless lawsuit. When a host sides against his network, a lot of people side with him. After all, even if they don’t know him, he’s still their friend.