John Toomey in The Tonight Show green room. Photo NBC/NBCU

It’s interesting: sometimes a little thing can become a BIG thing!  Case in point: a soundbite in this morning’s KQED News about the Macy’s Santa Claus who lost his job, sparked quite a debate in our newsroom. 

John Toomey got fired from the Macy’s in downtown San Francisco after an adult couple complained about an off-color joke he told them. Toomey has since been hired to work at Lefty O’Douls pub, posing for Santa pictures and saying what he wants. I found a soundbite from last night’s “Tonight Show with Jay Leno” where Toomey appears as Santa, telling three jokes. 

(Watch Toomey’s appearance in Leno’s monologue here.)

From that I pulled one to air in the newscast, as part of a story that lasted 45 seconds or so. But my instincts said, “Eh… ask your editor first!”  So I did… which sparked an intense discussion about verbiage, taste, editorial judgment and (here’s where you come in) the nature of our audience.

So… how far is too far?

I argued that the potentially offensive joke (which did not air; we picked a different one from the monologue that was not risqué) was representative of the joke that got Toomey fired. I didn’t mind replacing it with something cleaner, but I felt it necessary to preface that he told three jokes: only one of which “seemed polite enough for public radio.” If we don’t air a joke that’s even a little raw, then the soundbite wouldn’t give context to the behavior that led to the firing. No need to be extreme, of course, but we ought to air something comparable.

The counterargument, which prevailed: we ought not portray listeners as “polite” or presume what people want to hear, but we must also be careful not to air potentially offensive material during our morning drive-time newscasts. Parents with young children, for example, could be listening, and they may not want to explain a dirty joke to their kids after hearing it on NPR! Besides, we can explain the story, air a cleaner joke from the monologue, and remove any language that might presume prudishness or hyper-sensitivity to that kind of material.

What do you think? What is your tolerance level for stories that may shock, offend or unnerve? We have no interest in turning into the Morning Zoo, I assure you! But news organizations battle all the time over how to present the world as it is, without being so raw that they turn their audience away.

From Our Newscaster: A Debate About Covering “Dirty Santa” 10 December,2010Joshua Johnson

  • Keith

    After all that verbal hand-wringing, I can’t believe you didn’t even post the joke in question *here*. I mean geez, you could have included a disclaimer, could have required an extra click to get to it, could have obscured the offending terms. But not to post it at all? Ahem….

  • Jon Brooks

    We’re going to try to put up the audio to the joke. You can watch the whole monologue here:

  • Speaking as John Toomey’s friend of forty years, I’m sure that those were not more of of his “adult” jokes from his Santa career but were rather provided by Tonight Show writers. I’m sorry he was not able to discuss his side of the story and hope he will be able to do so in another venue. Oprah comes to mind. I’ve noticed that both the left and right have taken him on as one of their own, The former see him a victim of thin-skinned intolerance while the right sees it as politically correct intolerance. Perhaps they are not mutually exclusive.

  • Teacher210

    If Mr. Toomey made his comments to ADULTS and the ADULTS were not offended, why is this a news story??? If the grown ups were offended, they can tell him to his face it was inappropriate.

    Did he make risque jokes to children as well? IF he made off color comments to children as Santa, I guess that would be a reason to reprimand him. What did his job description say? Had he done this behavior before?? I teach for a living and I can tell you that some parents allow their children to watch risque things, use words I would have NEVER used as a child so as with most things it depends on the parents.

    However in the world we live with sex tape, reality show ,youtube versions of what passes for “entertainment” some children may not find his comments a problem.

    The way this story has been reported, which I never know if its the “whole story” or part of the story, I dont think he should have been fired. Reprimanded maybe but losing his job is a bit much. However it seems he got the last laugh since he has been hired already so good for Mr. Toomey.


Joshua Johnson

Joshua Johnson is the creator and host of Truth Be Told, a special series on race from KQED and PRI. Prior to creating the show, he served as the station’s morning news anchor for five-and-half years.

Prior to joining KQED, Joshua spent six years as an anchor/reporter for WLRN Miami Herald News. He’s a native of South Florida, with degrees from the University of Miami. His reporting and newscasting have won awards from the Radio Television Digital News Association and from the National Association of Black Journalists. Joshua is also active in his union, SAG-AFTRA. He lives in San Francisco.

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