You’ve probably heard the news by now: ABC has cancelled the Roseanne reboot after Roseanne Barr’s racist tweet about former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett. Normally it’d be surprising to see a company cancel the third highest-rated show on network TV. This is Roseanne Barr we’re talking about, though. Her Twitter feed has long been a home of fact-free, far right conspiracy theories ripped straight from Infowars and talk radio. It’s the kind of stuff you’d expect to read on Breitbart instead of having pumped onto your phone straight from the star of the biggest sitcom on network TV. ABC and its parent company Disney made the right move canceling her show now, but it only brings back an unanswered question many have been asking since the reboot was first announced: why give the Roseanne Barr of 2018 any platform at all?
ABC was intentionally trying to court the kind of voters who propelled Donald Trump to the White House in 2016: disaffected working class whites who refused to vote for Hillary Clinton. Let’s set aside the open racism that defined the Trump campaign and focus on the portion of Trump voters who were driven by actual economic concerns and not by right wing grievance politics. The Roseanne of the ‘90s might have spoken for those voters—it was a show about pro-union working class whites struggling with a changing economy, after all—but the Roseanne Barr of the 2010s was clearly a terrible spokesperson for anything other than fringe crackpots.
Here are the facts: Barr has been writing and sharing unhinged, hateful comments on Twitter since well before ABC brought Roseanne back. She deleted many of her most inflammatory tweets long ago, but you can easily find articles written about them at the time, like this Jerusalem Post article from 2016 that quotes Barr as calling Clinton aide Huma Abedin “a filthy nazi whore” and stating that Clinton “is surrounded by jew haters who make fun of the holocaust and jewish suffering.” This Daily Beast article details how she shared conspiracy theories blaming the left for the death of Seth Rich. She was openly transphobic and Islamophobic on Twitter years ago, has consistently liked and retweeted various conspiracy mongers and alt-right activists, and ABC still willingly went into business with her. She tweeted repeatedly about “pizzagate” and “pedogate,” accusing Democrats and the Clinton campaign of running a child sex ring. Just last night, when she wasn’t making racist comments about Jarrett, Barr was using right wing conspiracy theories to attack Chelsea Clinton and George Soros. And don’t forget that photo shoot for Heeb magazine, where Barr dressed like a Hitler baking human-shaped cookies in an oven.
ABC had to have known about all of this. Barr’s extreme rightward tilt hasn’t been a secret: it’s been right out in the open on social media, and covered by multiple websites and newspapers. And yet the network still gave her a half-hour of prime time every week to air a show that was openly and intentionally rooted in politics. Disney, ABC’s corporate parent, suspended ESPN’s Jemele Hill for voicing a political opinion in a calm and rational way on Twitter, and then turned around and gave Barr a show. ABC wouldn’t let Black-ish air an episode about the NFL national anthem protests, but let an unhinged conspiracy theorist portray Clinton voters and Women’s March participants as laughable buffoons in the first episode of her rebooted sitcom. Hell, ABC let Roseanne take a shot at Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat on their own damn network. ABC had no problem giving a political extremist access to its airwaves, and shoulders just as much blame for today’s controversy as Barr herself.
Roseanne fans like to point out that Barr isn’t the only actor or writer on the show. Sara Gilbert, a cast member and producer of the show, today tweeted that Barr’s tweet about Jarrett doesn’t “reflect the beliefs of our cast and crew or anyone associated with our show,” and that the show is “separate and apart from the opinions and words of one cast member.” I don’t think anybody believes that every cast and crew member, or ABC itself, shares Barr’s political beliefs. The show’s still named after her, though. She’s still the main character. Her character is flawed but at the end of most episodes is still portrayed as the wisest, most sensible member of the family. It doesn’t matter what Gilbert, or John Goodman, or Laurie Metcalf, or ABC believes; Roseanne Barr is the heart of the show, and she spends much of her time tweeting hateful, racist, conspiratorial invective on Twitter. Giving Barr her own show in 2018 would be like building a sitcom around Alex Jones or Sean Hannity. It’s something no major network would do, and something ABC never should’ve done.
ABC returned Barr to prominence despite her fringe political beliefs, and during a culture war where far right activists are looking for any reason to discredit and tear down mainstream media. It wouldn’t be surprising at all to see far right activists use Roseanne’s cancellation as more proof of “anti-conservative bias” within the media. Trump is probably itching to tweet about how unfair ABC has treated Barr. This cancellation could easily make her an even bigger star within the right-wing world, after their fake outrage and grievance machine is done with her. By giving Roseanne Barr a show in 2018 ABC helped promote her beyond-the-pale political beliefs, and by cancelling it to save face they’ll only make her a martyr to the far right. ABC and Disney put themselves in an impossible position by making a crucial mistake they should’ve known not to make.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.