Much has been made recently about the deplorable comments by MSNBC host Martin Bashir about Sarah Palin.

Bashir recently criticized Palin for her remarks comparing U.S. indebtedness to China to slavery. He cited the diaries of a former plantation overseer who punished slaves by having someone defecate in their mouth or urinate on their face. He suggested the former Alaska governor receive similar treatment.

Bashir's comments, for which he has subsequently apologized, have short- and long-term implications.

The short-term implication further reveals how amorphous the term journalism has become. Whatever Bashir was thinking when those words were written, loaded into the teleprompter, and I suspect rehearsed, was not anything remotely close to journalism.

What was once proudly known as the fourth branch of government has collectively sunk into the bowels of depravity, dominated more by titillation and ratings than by informing the populace.

That is not to suggest that there are not men and women who remain committed to the original efficacy of journalism, but too many loosely wear the title, bearing more resemblance to P.T. Barnum than Walter Cronkite.

The long-term implication of Bashir's comments was that they obfuscated Palin's words. No American should be so caviler with the use of the term slavery.

I wonder if Palin, or any other American, would be so casual in using the slavery analogy had she taken the courageous step to watch the movie "12 Years a Slave?"

Whatever growing financial dependency the United States has toward China cannot be compared to slavery, as it was practiced in America -- a gruesome, disgraceful, repugnant system that was physically and mentally brutal in equal measure.

The issue of slavery is as vital to the creation of the American experiment as the Declaration of Independence. In fact, it is unlikely there would be a United States of America, as we know it today, were it not for the Three-Fifth Compromise in 1787, where slaves were counted as three-fifths in apportioning members in the House of Representatives and direct taxes.

Palin stands behind her use of the term slavery, defining it as being, "beholden to a master."

But that definition conveniently ignores America's unreconciled past. Slavery was a system that sought to rob all parties involved of their humanity -- victim and victimizer alike. It very nearly ripped the nation asunder.

Based on a true story, "12 Years a Slave," tells the narrative of Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, who is abducted and sold into slavery.

One is privy to the unspeakable horror that was the institution of slavery. It is not "Gone with the Wind," or for that matter "Roots." It is an unvarnished depiction of America's ugliest hour that will render the majority of viewers feeling uneasy.

Through the 12-year odyssey of Northup, one is forced to sit for 2 hours and 13 minutes of the most unflattering aspect of American history. This is why I strongly believe that it requires courage to see this movie.

A society overly dependent on clinging to an incomplete account of who and what America is could benefit from this sobering counter narrative that uncomfortably fills in the blanks.

Alas, it was a missed opportunity on Bashir's part.

Instead of simply letting the power history tell the story, Bashir took it upon himself to "Out Palin" Palin. His attempt at outlandish sensationalism backfired in that it allowed the current public discourse to retreat to its familiar silos of oversimplifying the significant and overanalyzing the insignificant.

It was a teachable moment to move the nation to a place where cavalier references to American slavery are uniformly unacceptable. Instead, another "journalist" who for the sake of titillation and ratings has made himself the story is what dominates the conversation.

Contact Byron Williams at 510-208-6417 or byron@byronspeaks.com.