Watching the near collapse and resurrection of actor, rapper, and TV host Nick Cannon’s career in real time has been a masterclass in reputation rehab. After Cannon was heard spouting anti-Semitic Louis Farrakhan talking points on his podcast Cannon’s Class, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center tweeted, “Anyone seeking a Ph.D. in Jew-hatred should watch this ‘interview’ in its entirety.” The SWC regularly points out hate speech, but in this instance, a media storm of condemnation followed culminating in ViacomCBS severing their relationship with Cannon. Cannon’s initial explanations did him no service, but then Cooper was surprised when Cannon emailed the SWC wanting to talk. He found their ensuing 35-minute conversation even more unexpected.
Lesson 1: Turn to your most credible critic
Over more than 40 years, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Museum of Tolerance have stood for responding to Hate all over the world and to anti-Semitism in particular. That’s why Rabbi Cooper’s tweet had such an impact. And why Cannon was right to turn to them.
Lesson 2: Do your homework
Cooper had asked Cannon to first read the SWC report on Farrakhan’s long history of anti-Semitic, misogynistic, anti-gay, and anti-Hollywood rhetoric. Cannon did, and surprised Cooper when he shared that he is pursuing a PhD in theology and can quote from Jewish law.
Lesson 3: Apologizing isn’t enough
Cannon apologized for any hurt he had caused, but Cooper told him that wasn’t enough. He had to repudiate the false claims he made to his audience and to Jews all over the world. Cannon reportedly asked, “What can I do to make this right?” and offered to come meet in person. Although the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Museum of Tolerance had both been closed since the shutdown orders in March, a meeting was quickly arranged at the museum.
Lesson 4: Hire Howard Bragman
Nick Cannon arrived with crisis PR expert Howard Bragman. Hollywood’s go-to guy for reputation management, Bragman has smoothed over sticky situations for everyone from National Enquirer editor Dylan Howard to Louise Linton (aka Mrs. Steven Mnuchin) to former White House press secretary Anthony Scaramucci. But even with Bragman in tow, Cannon did the talking, telling his story, admitting his shortcomings, and expressing a desire to learn more. The SWC team who hosted him consisted of Rabbi Marvin Hier, Rabbi Cooper, Rick Trank who leads the center’s Oscar-winning documentary and content department, and Michele Alkin, the SWC’s communications director.
Lesson 5: Show a willingness to learn
Cannon was shown a signed 1919 letter from Adolph Hitler recommending the elimination of the Jews, he was shown the replica of Simon Wiesenthal’s office and told about Wiesenthal’s undying belief that people could change as he spelled out his book The Sunflower, which Cannon reportedly ordered on the spot. Cannon was taken next door to a synagogue for the first time where he was shown the Torah in its parchment scroll and the bound volumes of the Talmud. “The message,” Cooper says, was “the power of words.” The meeting ended with good-faith promises of continued learning and conversation.
Lesson 6: Actions speak louder than words—and tweeting is an action. “I don’t know any human being who can look into the heart of another person,” Cooper tells me. “So we only have what they say and what they do with their lives.” Cannon’s tweets about what he learned, Cooper says, were meaningful.
Lesson 7: Beware the backlash
Cooper warned Cannon that as great as the condemnation was from his original post, he will suffer criticism from all sides for showing remorse—which is precisely what happened, at least among people sympathetic to Farrakhan’s point of view.
Lesson 8: Take your audience along on the journey
Many jaws dropped when on July 31 when Cannon’s Insta and his tweets spoke of having fasted for Tisha B’av, the Jewish fast day mourning the destruction of the Great Temples, along with a discussion of Bari Weiss’s book on anti-Semitism.
Final Lesson: Move forward
Rabbi Cooper continues to believe in Cannon’s path and hopes for great things to come between him and the center, and he looks forward to a day when the Center and the Museum reopen so that they can return to providing anti-Hate training to law enforcement officers and students all over LA. “If ever there was a time when we need a Museum of Tolerance,” he said, “It is now.”
Cooper says that as far as the Center is concerned it’s not enough “to blow the whistle on hate.” If you find the opportunities to see people blossom as allies in the fight against hate, whatever their station in life if they turn out to be real, they can impact millions of people.