Slick Rick

Why won't those mean, old, sniping critics just quiet down?

 Wake Up and Smile!

That's the name of the imaginary early-morning news show in one of the funniest Saturday Night Live skits ever. Former cast members Will Ferrell and Nancy Walls play anchors who are full of cheer until, "Good God no!" their teleprompter breaks. After Ferrell repeats the last line on the prompter -- "I understand you have some cooking tips for us, Diane" -- several times, the pair is forced to improvise.

"Diane... I had a notion the other day."

Valerie Sebring

"Uh... well... uh...notions make... uh... this country happen."

"I... I was thinking someone should get a group together... uh... with guns to sweep out those ghettos."

"I... drive a red car."

"Make sure those poor people stay away from it... they've got sores."

Even as he's uttering the words, Ferrell is looking around helplessly, mortified at the unexpected peek into his buried consciousness. The panic level rises, and ultimately Ferrell decapitates the weatherman and gnaws on his bloody skull.

I love the skit because it confirms the natural suspicion that psychosis, social isolation, and homicidal violence lurk behind the smiles on many happy morning news shows. These days, one of the happiest airs from 9 a.m. to noon daily on MSNBC and stars none other than South Florida's own favorite son, Rick Sanchez, who was, of course, anchorman for the local Fox affiliate (WSVN-TV, Channel 7) before taking a job with the cable network 20 months ago. While here, his trademark was an uncanny ability to make a fatality on Interstate 95 seem as important and dramatic as a rogue state's nuclear attack on America.

Now Sanchez chums it up on national cable television every weekday morning with other not-ready-for-prime-time players. His regular cohort is a rather severe brunette named Christy Musumeci, but sometimes a rather severe blond, Alex "Not a Hint Of" Witt, takes her place. And there's usually a redheaded, bespectacled guy named John Elliott standing around with them in the studio trying to inject a kind of geekish humanity into the somewhat saccharine proceedings.

Sanchez, thank goodness, hasn't changed much since he left Channel 7. His talk is still happier than everyone else's, and like a good company man, he plugs his station at every turn, as in "More on the death and destruction in Bali, here on MSNBC," or "We'll return to the sensational story about the AIDS epidemic in Africa, here on MSNBC." He hasn't lost that signature assertiveness either. Sanchez doesn't interview; he interrupts.

Most important, he still shares his politics, which run just to the right of Pinochet, every eight seconds or so. As a Cuban-born refugee who came to South Florida as a child, he still burns with expatriate passion -- something that corporate cable news apparently can't steal away.

All these little quirks make him a perfect fit for the Bill Gates/General Electric news channel. He also seems an apt underling for the reigning Jabba the Hutt of cable news, "Editor-in-Chief" Jerry Nachman. A former editor of the New York Post, Big Jer brings an Everyman's common sense to an exciting mix of television journalism that runs the spectrum from generic to shallow. On a station with plenty of anti-Iraq war voices (Buchanan, Donahue, Matthews), Sanchez is Nachman's unquestioning bulldog when it comes to taking out Saddam Hussein. I hear, though this is only a rumor, that Nachman is about to change the name of the daily hourlong show Countdown: Iraq to C'mon: Invade Iraq Already!

So how, after completing his first calendar year on the job, is Sanchez really faring on the national stage? Starting with good news: He was nominated in 2002 for a national Alma Award for Hispanic journalists. The bad news is that he didn't win it, and some of his stiffest competition was Geraldo Rivera. (The winner was Elizabeth Vargas of 20/20.) Sanchez did take home a prize recently, though, something called the "Ted Baxter Award for Phoniest Voice," which was presented by TVNow.com, a website that provides entertainment news.

On another positive note, he helped host the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication convention this past August in Miami. Fittingly, he was a panelist for a workshop titled "Crime May Not Pay, But It Sells." Among the questions tackled: "Why do car chases garner such good ratings?"

As if that weren't distinction enough, he gave the commencement speech at Ramapo College, a small school in New Jersey. Unfortunately, most of the graduates left early to commence partying, according to a May 23 article in the Bergen County Record. Also on a down note, Sanchez said during the speech that his first-grade teacher labeled him mentally retarded. "I swear to God, it's right there in my transcript," he told the depleted crowd.

That revelation provides great intrigue, since we're left to wonder if the teacher was right. Rick's wild success as a news-reader would indicate that his IQ is on the sunny side of 70, but that heavy voice, large Cro-Magnon skull, and seemingly endless amazement at the most banal of facts... I don't know, toss a coin.

Whatever the answer, his commencement confession helps to explain an exchange on MSNBC a year ago. While Sanchez was busy interrupting a grief expert, he offered that his wife had a deep fear of intimacy. He hinted that her distance was the result of psychological problems, when, of course, it proves only that the woman is perfectly sane. Later, the expert (I don't recall her name) said that many children who lose parents wind up trying to fill the void of loss by overachieving. To this, Sanchez exclaimed -- with that smiling, wide-eyed amazement he should patent -- something to the effect of, "So it can actually be a good thing." Had the expert known about that first-grade diagnosis, she might have patted the poor anchor on the head, given him a little hug, and said, "No, honey, it's a bad thing." As it was, she just seemed taken aback and told Sanchez that she wouldn't really put it that way. Then she muttered something about irreparable lifelong traumas.

Unfortunately, this new year didn't begin with any mental fireworks from our former Fox frontman. Just last Friday, Sanchez was interviewing a doctor named Robert Zaleski about the cost of medical-malpractice insurance. The M.D. said he paid $800 for insurance in 1980 and now pays 200 times that. "I'll let you do the math," he told Sanchez.

"Good God!" Rick exclaimed. "That's $500,000."

"No, it's about $160,000. I'll do the math," Zaleski deadpanned, and Sanchez apologized for his multiplication mistake.

That Sanchez may well be mentally challenged puts all the criticism of him in a new light. It's mean, really. People seem to get their kicks from pointing out his more embarrassing gaffes, like the time he accidentally called Jesse Jackson "Mr. Sharpton." A peeved Jackson tried to correct Sanchez but was cut off by a commercial break. Some nitpickers took umbrage when Sanchez referred to the two D.C. sniper suspects, John Muhammad and Lee Malvo, as "these two gentlemen," but I think he was just being polite. And it's hard to forget the time he called Texas Republican Dick Armey, then-House majority leader, "Dick Leader Armey."

But anybody who jaws on television for three hours a day is bound to make a few mistakes. His critics don't stop there, however. They have the audacity to judge our ambitious anchorman. The most in-depth critique comes from Barry Crimmins, a veteran political humorist who wrote a web column this fall about Sanchez. Crimmins was upset that the MSNBC talker happily called the tale of death and destruction in Palestine a "great story."

"I couldn't believe someone could employ a superlative after seeing a tale of such boundless grief and horror," Crimmins wrote. "But then, this was my first dose of Rick Sanchez."

Crimmins then recounts the Sanchez experience:

Within the next few segments, Sanchez demonstrated that he is a media post-9/11 wonder. He's quick to editorialize, smugly supportive of the Purported War on Terror, and always interrupting what little information trickles in from other MSNBC staffers and guests. Cable news has become a word-association test for dopes like Sanchez.

Holding up a headline from a New York tabloid about violence in Bethlehem, he expressed outrage by bellowing, "BETHLEHEM -- WHERE JESUS WAS BORN!" Now there was something we needed in a story about the Middle East -- religious zealotry from a news anchor.

Another editorial comment came during a story about wide-scale regional protests against Sharon's assault on Palestinians. A camera cut to Mu'ammar Gadhafi at a Libyan demonstration and Sanchez scoffed something to the effect of "no surprise he's there." This courageous journalist isn't one to miss a chance to demonize someone his audience already reviles.

The capper comes when Sanchez endorses the use of torture on U.S.-held prisoners. "But then again it's torture watching Rick Sanchez and you get pretty bad information," Crimmins wrote. "... I turned off the TV but remembered the name, 'Rick Sanchez.' This new breed of news anchor candidly expresses his reactionary ignorance and, because of it, his days with MSNBC are numbered. FOX News is bound to steal him away very, very soon."

So it wasn't all bad -- Crimmins predicts a big future for our local boy done good.

A human-rights group called Democratic Fundamentalism, however, seems to hope for a quick end to Sanchez's so-far illustrious career. Remember the Los Angeles police beating of a handcuffed black youth in July? For a couple of weeks, it was a big hit on the cable circuit. On July 9, the group posted a report on its website basically accusing Sanchez of endorsing police violence. "Shame on Sanchez for supporting civil rights violations. As a Hispanic, he should understand that if it's okay to do this to blacks, it's okay to do it to Hispanics..."

How unfair. Reading that, you'd think Cuban expatriates were supposed to care about downtrodden people. Hell, it was downtrodden people who took over their country just when it was looking so promising under the Batista/Meyer Lansky regime. Do Democratic Fundamentalists think the Miami Cuban community takes responsibility for electing George II because he's committed to civil rights?

And Sanchez hasn't lost his ex-pat pride. He recently confessed to Sun-Sentinel columnist Tom Jicha that he was "salivating" for Castro's downfall and couldn't wait to cover the story. I can't wait to see that straight and sober report.

But hey, this is getting a little heavy. What about all that happy talk? Hasn't anyone noticed that Rick is a right cheery chap? Of course someone has. On July 1, Houston Chronicle TV critic Ann Hodges commented that Sanchez and his peachy cohorts will "talk your ears off talking to each other about what they think about everything. For about two minutes, maybe, I care. But [hours] daily? No way."

Now that's not very nice. Don Zacharias, who publishes a California literary review called Blue Mag, was also recently moved to write about Sanchez and company. The publisher wrote that the hiring of Sanchez proves MSNBC has decided to treat the American people "more like schoolchildren than adults."

I take that to mean he believes our homegrown anchorhead is young at heart. "This program has become an absurd experiment -- Rick Sanchez rolls up his sleeves and stands up with his hands on his Superman-like hips," Zacharias wrote. "Who decided that this was going to work? What American adult wants to be talked down to?"

Again, I choose to accentuate the positive -- didn't Zacharias compare Sanchez to Superman? Not bad, if you think about it.

Yet it still adds up to a lot of negative hype. I mean, it's not like Sanchez ever killed anybody. At least not intentionally. In 1990, he accidentally (and, yes, drunkenly) ran his brand-new Volvo into a fan after a Dolphins' football game in the parking lot of what was then called Joe Robbie Stadium. The victim, Jeffrey Smuzinick, was paralyzed and later died at the age of 35 of complications related to his injuries. Sanchez was never charged with causing the accident (Smuzinick was also drunk) and ultimately pleaded no contest to DUI.

But haven't a lot of highly ambitious, career-oriented people killed at least one person while driving drunk? South Florida's own David Farrall, the former FBI agent who was involved in the accident that killed those two Jamaican brothers, is a good example. And look at Ted Kennedy. Chappaquiddick might have cost him the White House -- he's still a senator.

So please cut Rick Sanchez some slack. I personally hope he celebrates many more years on morning cable. He's entertaining, especially when he's not really trying to be. And props should also go out to MSNBC for hiring him and, in the process, giving disabled people around the world new hope that they one day might land a daytime show on a national cable news network.

We should also be grateful to MSNBC for giving the man a teleprompter to guide him. All I ask is that they never, ever let it break.

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