A.J. Clemente wasn’t exactly a household name on Sunday night when he made his debut as a news anchor. What a difference a day — and a viral video — can make.
Bismarck, North Dakota is the 150th largest television market in terms of the number of viewers who live there. To put that in perspective, there are only 210 markets; we’re talking about a total audience of only about 150,000. So it’s not exactly what you’d call a major city. But even little old Bismarck can provide the world with the next viral video.
That’s what happened Sunday night, when A.J. Clemente stood behind the anchor desk for the first time on NBC affiliate KFYR-TV. Co-anchor Van Tieu was just about to introduce her colleague immediately after the newscast opening when he surprised her by uttering profanity. And not any mild profanity: it was two words, “f—— s—” that we still aren’t allowed to say on broadcast television. He has since explained that he was struggling while rehearsing the pronunciation of a London Marathon winner’s name; as if the profanity wasn’t bad enough on its own, the runner’s name was Tsegaye Kebede, and the first name was what seemed to give him trouble. As his microphone was activated, it caught the second syllable of the name, which made it sound as if he preceded the profanity with the word “gay.”
As Tieu begins to speak, there’s a hesitation. I can only imagine this was a producer screaming in their ears to stop cursing because mics were on. I can also only imagine that said producer was doing a great deal of cursing at that moment as well. What comes out of Clemente’s mouth next turned shock to incredulity:
“Um, thanks, Van. I’m very excited. I graduated from West Virginia University and I’m used to, um, you know, from being from the in, the east coast.”
Clemente, at least, was quick to make fun of himself after the broadcast, tweeting that his first night couldn’t have gone any worse. He was immediately suspended, then tweeted on Monday that the station decided to let him go.
I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on the “gay” thing; any name that begins with the letters Ts gives you almost nowhere to go to begin with. Add to that the anxiety about being on live television and the added anxiety about it being his first time as anchor, and there was a lot of nervousness to be felt. His news director stated that the error happened when he didn’t realize his mic was on, but added that this is no excuse.
It‘s no excuse for a broadcaster to use that kind of language on set for this exact reason: that sooner or later, a microphone will be turned on at the worst time. A little lawmaker named Murphy made that a mathematical certainty.
Once the video went viral, Clemente immediately earned a level of fame and name recognition he wouldn’t have achieved in 30 years at KFYR. Wednesday morning, he appeared on NBC’s Today. Wednesday night, he sat next to Dave Letterman, who told him the station owed him the apology. I’d like to think Clemente isn’t holding his breath on that one.
Still, this isn’t the first time an anchor dropped an F-bomb on live television. The most famous example came from WNBC’s Sue Simmons during a live promo in 2008: she read her lines and waited for her co-anchor to read his. When he didn’t, she yelled, “What the f— are you doing?” at her co-anchor, a man she says was obsessed with the internet.
Simmons wasn’t suspended: she appeared later that evening to issue her own apology. And she stayed on the air until last summer, when her contract wasn’t renewed. She signed off after 32 years from the station.
With that in mind, I just have to ask: