The left really seems to want corporations to play speech police. That’s the logical conclusion of the boycott campaign aimed at Tucker Carlson.
Of course, as the owners of media companies like Fox News and MSNBC, corporations already play speech police to some extent (although we expect some independence between news outlets and their financial backers). But the left is asking them to exert even more control over political speech in mass media by urging advertisers to pull out of Carlson’s show.
Last Thursday, Carlson criticized the Washington establishment’s immigration policy, as he often does on his nightly program. “We have a moral obligation to admit the world’s poor, they tell us, even if it makes our own country poorer and dirtier and more divided,” said Carlson.
His use of the word “dirtier,” in particular, seems to be the impetus for the boycott campaign, organized by liberal groups including Media Matters and Sleeping Giants. (Never mind that two sentences earlier he described immigrants as “Nice people, no one doubts that.”) After delivering his monologue, Carlson segued into an interview with Tijuana Delegate Genaro Lopez, who explained how the illegal immigrant caravan had wreaked havoc on his community, and was “trashing the street.” Carlson noted as much when confronted about the line by Alan Dershowitz on air this week:
That was in the context of a conversation with an elected official in Tijuana about the filth … of his city and he was complaining about how dirty it had become, which was a byproduct of the policy decisions pushed by the American left and I noted …. There’s a lesson there perhaps for us. So I’m not — and I would never describe people as inherently dirty. I don’t think that they are. I’m pro-people. That’s one of the reasons I’m against abortion, strongly.
He’s absolutely right. At no point did Carlson describe people as inherently dirty, nor have his critics actually refuted the claim in question, of which I’m not at all qualified to evaluate the veracity. But it hardly seems unreasonable for Carlson to queue up a segment with a guest prepared to discuss the caravan “trashing” the streets of Tijuana by asserting that an effect of their migration is to make a destination “dirtier.” (That’s why this representation from Erik Wemple at the Washington Post, which leaves out information about the interview with Lopez, does not tell the full story of the segment.)
Arguing, implicitly or otherwise, that migrants are inherently “dirtier” people would be reprehensible. But that’s not what Carlson did.
All this is to say his claim was hardly outside the bounds of acceptable speech, which is why calls for a corporate ad boycott are absurd. Over at Politico Magazine, Jack Shafer, who’s no fan of Carlson’s, said it well: “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. Seriously, I barely trust IHOP to make my breakfast. Why would I expect it to vet my cable news content for me?”
For the boycotters, he continued, an ad is perceived as “an act of agreement with content.”
“Without boarding the slippery slope, we can see the media wreckage that will follow such a viewpoint should it become ascendant,” Shafer wrote. “Advertisers tend to be timid, overreactive, running from controversy and conflict, and in times of perceived crisis, their timidity spreads to publishers, which is bad for journalism. It’s easy to imagine today’s boycotts turning into tomorrow’s blacklist.”
From Nate Silver to Cenk Uygur, other observers outside the conservative continuum have voiced their opposition to the boycott. “Let the audience make that decision,” said Uygur. Siding with Shafer, Silver argued, “The logical endpoint of deeming advertisers to have endorsed the political messages of the shows they run ads on is that only milquetoast both-sidesism with a pro-corporate bent will be advertising-supported, if any political content is ad-supported at all.”
The boycott is effectively asking corporations to function as the gatekeepers of our political dialogue, and financially intimidate the media out of expressing ideas they decide are objectionable. That’s a very dangerous way to approach advertising, which is what keeps journalists working in this environment. It should also be said that the left is constantly narrowing the boundaries of what constitutes acceptable speech, so if corporations cave on Carlson, we could be in for a never-ending series of boycotts that basically aim to push anyone to the right of Rachel Maddow off the air.
Inviting corporations to seize more control over political speech in the media is a bad idea, full stop, whether it’s the left or the right being targeted. If you want Tucker Carlson off the air, seek out methods of protest that don’t involve empowering corporations over the press.