The Troubling Dichotomy of Corporate Censorship
At the end of the 1960s, Nicholas Johnson wrote extensively about the idea of Corporate Censorship, first for TV Guide and then an expanded version in a book, addressing a problem almost a half-century ago that is still very much a problem today. Essentially it boils down to where the legal meaning of “free speech” diverges with the ideal behind it.
At the time of Johnson’s writing, the moral high-ground – at least, how we see it through the lens of hindsight – was clearly on his side. He railed against the decisions to not televise hearings on Vietnam happening in Congress, the airing of a poem that was called anti-Semitic, and with very idea of cigarette ads and the suppression of the fact the product they advertised was deadly.
While there has been much discussion of how a Corporation is not, in actuality, a person nor can it hold religious beliefs. Yet, that has never stopped us from attributing human qualities to them when do something we agree with. Companies that embraced gay rights early on were called “brave” and “daring” – and the actual people behind that decision may have been – and thus we come to support a certain kind of censorship.
As far back as the early 1990s, “open racism” was already anathema to our culture. This is neither to say that there were more (or even fewer) racists than today nor to suggest that they simply stopped giving voice to their feelings. They just simply changed the way they talked about it.
A group of researchers conducted a study of the debate surrounding welfare during the Clinton Presidency. What they discovered was that the way his opponents (Republicans) talked about welfare actually caused racial bias to appear where it hadn’t been before. Combined with “law and order” rhetoric, this coded language is far more hurtful in real-world ways than the personal pain caused by slurs and other hate-speech.
And advocates for any number of social causes, actually help the other side by going for the “easy win” by attacking those who expressly state their bigoted belief or poke fun at it in an ambiguous way.
Firstly, it gives the real racists someone to denounce, giving them further credibility to continue to spread the idea that blacks are lazy or that the homosexual lifestyle is somehow threatening or whatever nonsense they are pushing (however cleverly they parse their words). Secondly, it makes a martyr of the person.
After Phil Robertson’s trip around the news cycle for saying stupid things dressed up as “just folks’ religion” earned their Christmas special 9 million viewers – around 600,000 more than watched their record-breaking season 4 finale – and it was surely on the strength of the “negative” publicity. As the Media Beast moved on to fresher meat, the season five ratings of Duck Dynasty dismally declined.
Perhaps the corporations that strike down people who say regrettable things, such as Anthony Cumia who was fired from the Sirius/XM channel that bears his name, are trying to do the “right thing.” But in acting before there is an real outrage about it – outside of a barrage of tweets while the story is trending – they don’t give the Free Market any real agency. It’s not their customers’ choice or even the will of the publc-at-large, but the decision of a handful of executives. By self-censoring, they are saying they know best what we should hear.