Critics across the political spectrum are lashing out at those who have organized an advertiser boycott of Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show over the host’s most recent vile comments about immigrants. Raising the overused and often distorted rallying cry of censorship, these critics forget the fact that Fox News, like every other network, carefully monitors who and what appears on its airwaves every day.
Fox News condemns and even bars content it views as crossing a line. So by standing by Carlson, it’s actually the network that has forced activists’ hand: The only way to stop Carlson from spewing hate and lies on Fox News’ air is to hit Fox News where it hurts.
In the past two weeks, Carlson has lost a slew of advertisers — including IHOP, Bowflex, Land Rover and TD Ameritrade — after an undeniably racist rant in which he said immigrants make our country “poorer and dirtier and more divided.” It was gross, but it was also perfectly in line with the host’s record. He has for years been attacking American diversity in a way that makes every white supremacist proud, has stoked the idea of a “white genocide” and has held up “alt-right” figures as heroes.
This year Carlson laughed off a gay survivor of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida — who later received death threats — who spoke out against the homophobic views of Vice President Mike Pence. And Carlson has frequently made his show a platform for bashing transgender people.
The companies that have joined this boycott have been informed of Carlson’s vile views by prominent individuals like Hollywood director Judd Apatow and by online activist groups like Sleeping Giants. Their pressure has led the companies to decide they don’t want an association with Carlson.
This is not an infringement of Carlson’s free speech. It’s combating him with more speech. Consumers have the right to speak with their voices and their wallets, and advertisers have the right to speak with their ad dollars.
It’s as American as apple pie.
No one, least of all the government, is seeking to censor Carlson from expressing these views. He has the right to speak his mind on a street corner or in a public park or anywhere else. He can even organize a parade chock full of expressions of those views (though, as with other regulations surrounding the First Amendment, he will likely have to get a permit, which would be granted him, as vile as the parade would be).
There, is, however, no right to a television program on a privately owned network whose owners have their own rights and, more important, their own self-defined responsibilities.
This should be clear as day, but without fail, every time a hatemonger on a major news outlet is boycotted by companies responding to consumers, there are those who get all wobbly, worried about stifled speech.
Media columnist Jack Shafer at Politico wrote of the current Carlson debacle, “I’m made queasy by crusades that charge corporate advertisers with the power to decide what ideas should be discussed and how they should be discussed.”
He picked up on a tweet by polling analyst Nate Silver, in which the FiveThirtyEight editor-in-chief worried about the hypothetical ramifications of advertiser boycotts:
Shafer agreed that the boycotts would effectively mean allowing advertisers to dictate the news, writing, “Seriously, I barely trust IHOP to make my breakfast. Why would I expect it to vet my cable news content for me?”
These takes are overblown and discuss the issue in the abstract. It’s doubtful that Shafer and Silver believe that ABC or CNN should allow a commentator to derogatorily use the N-word on air or that we should be concerned if advertisers pulled out as a result.
That’s an extreme example, but that’s the point. Just about every successful — and that’s the key word, successful — boycott of a broadcast show or outlet is about an extreme case, and Carlson’s open promotion of white supremacy and racist ideology is an extreme case.
Boycotts are hard to organize and sustain, and to be effective, the target must be engaging in egregious behavior that offends a vast array of Americans across age, race, gender and locale. Merely having different points of view — whether conservative or progressive — isn’t going to sustain an advertiser boycott. Thus, Silver’s concerns about companies responding to consumers not liking, for example, The Washington Post just because of the bent of its coverage, and pulling advertising is alarmist. Advertisers don’t just blithely give up solid forums to sell goods.
Boycotts are successful because those who create them believe they are morally right and necessary and because a groundswell of consumers agree with them.
CBS was hobbled in 2001, for example, when it tried to launch Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s television show. The radio host had made a name for herself with crude perspectives about women and minority groups, including calling gays a “biological error.” Concerned gay people, myself included, created a campaign building an advertiser boycott of the show. Many companies, seeing how out of step the comments were with the American people at the time, agreed.
Anti-LGBTQ groups, on the other hand, have tried over and over again to boycott everything from Disney to Apple because of what they vilify as a pro-LGBTQ agenda. But these boycotts have failed miserably every time because the groups couldn’t get support beyond their limited demographic of conservative evangelicals.
The hypothetical that Shafer and Silver fear hasn’t happened, and we’ve been at this for quite some time.
There’s also much that Fox News could have done and could still do in the current situation to forestall a boycott.
In June it strongly condemned a guest’s use of the term “cotton-picking mind” to describe a black Democrat. The network called the comments “deeply offensive and wholly inappropriate.” The guest, Donald Trump’s former deputy campaign manager David Bossie, was made to apologize. I didn’t see the censorship police coming to his defense.
On Thanksgiving a Fox News host cut off a guest who compared Hillary Clinton to herpes. Host Rick Leventhal, became uncomfortable after guest Anna Paulina said Clinton “won’t go away. She’s like herpes.” According to reports, producers cut Paulina off the air as Leventhal called the comments “not appropriate” and then apologized for “some of the language that was used in the segment.”
Later, another network host made a more emphatic apology.
“We want to reiterate that we do not condone the language that Anna Paulina just displayed here, and we apologize to Secretary Clinton for that,” Arthel Neville said. “Fox News does not condone her sentiment.” (Paulina issued an apology on Twitter the next day.)
Again, where were the censorship police? And why does Fox News have a double standard? Those insults are clearly not worthy of the network, but saying immigrants make our country “dirtier” is?
“It is a shame that left wing advocacy groups, under the guise of being supposed ‘media watchdogs’ weaponize social media against companies in an effort to stifle free speech,” a Fox spokesperson said this week, responding to the boycott. “We continue to stand by and work with our advertisers through these unfortunate and unnecessary distractions.” A later statement from the network echoed the characterization that Carlson was being “censored.”
If someone other than Carlson had said what he did, would Fox News have the same stance? Remember how Sean Hannity was given a pass (a mild rebuke) by the network when he went onstage with Trump at a rally last month — even though it is against Fox News policy? Of course, he, like Carlson, is a cash cow for the network and thus likely untouchable.
The real story here isn’t about censorship or free speech, it’s about a network that allows one of its hosts to spread messages of hate and bigotry on the air. Those who are claiming otherwise are letting it off the hook.
Michelangelo Signorile is a HuffPost editor-at-large. Follow him on Twitter at @MSignorile.
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