Leonard Pitts Jr.: Self-absorbed ESPN reporter gained fame, lost humanity

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts Jr.

One hardly knows where to begin.

There is much that could be said about the captured-on-video, made-for-the-water-cooler tirade by ESPN reporter Britt McHenry that lit up social media a few days ago and earned her a one-week suspension. McHenry, livid that her car had been towed after apparently being parked illegally, vented her spleen with acid condescension upon a woman who has been identified as “Gina,” an impound clerk at a tow yard in Arlington, Va.

In ranting about Gina’s size (“Lose some weight, baby girl”), dental work (“Maybe if I was missing some teeth they would hire me, huh?”) and presumed educational deficiencies (“Do you feel good about your job? So I could be a college dropout and do the same thing?”), while pontificating upon her own importance (“I’m in the news, sweetheart, and I will [expletive] sue this place”), McHenry revealed depths of classism, narcissism, entitlement and plain old nastiness that are truly awe-inspiring.

But one of her insults was not simply nasty. It was downright insidious. Meaning the part where she taunted Gina that “I’m on television and you’re in a [expletive] trailer.”

In other words, bad enough Gina — in McHenry’s estimation — is fat and ignorant and in need of dental work, but most damning of all: Somehow, she even neglected to get on television! How can she live with herself?

McHenry is on television, but let’s be clear: She is not exactly David Letterman, Julianna Margulies or even one of the lesser Kardashians — not, in other words, somebody you’d likely ever heard of before this. She is, rather, a rising reporter on a cable sports network — not a bad gig, to be sure, but not exactly a household name.

Yet, even given that rather tenuous toehold on fame, she seems to believe she has cracked the code, reached the apex of human potential. “I’m on television,” she snarks, like she just threw down a royal flush in the great poker game of life, while Gina is a loser because she works an honest, albeit unglamorous job. McHenry thinks herself great.

Because she interviews jocks on ESPN.

That belief is pathetic and absurd, but, in a culture where fame is more worshiped than Jesus, it is surprising not at all.

For what it’s worth, McHenry has since issued the usual soulless apology, expressing contrition without seeming to feel any. She blames her hissy fit on “an intense and stressful moment.” Because, yeah, having your car towed is just like finding out you have cancer.

Also for what it’s worth: Some observers have decried a supposed “rush to judgment” here, noting that the video the tow company provided contains only McHenry’s side of the exchange and that, for all we know, Gina gave as good as she got. Given McHenry’s behavior, let’s hope she did.

Neither the apology nor that caveat mitigates the conclusion that McHenry is a nasty piece of work. Nor do they render acceptable her apparent belief that being a little famous frees her from any duty of courtesy or simple respect toward those who are not. Like many of us, she seems to consider being on television proof of character and worth.

It is a delusion implicit in the very fabric of our culture, in its uncritical worship of the red carpet, the spotlight and the panacea of fame. But it is a delusion nevertheless.

Floating in the bubble of her own wonderfulness, McHenry has obviously had little opportunity to learn this. That failing has left her a stunted woman who believes herself a superior life form because ESPN pays her to smile prettily and talk to a camera about football. She is to be pitied.

If that’s what being on television does to you, maybe living in a trailer is not so bad.

Email: lpitts@miamiherald.com

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