I don’t care much for what is called "reality TV." Like the propaganda Michael Moore disguises as documentaries, reality shows are selective in their reality, and in being so, manipulate their viewers. Of course, many viewers are clearly aware of this, but still watch avidly, either to laugh at or laugh with the characters.
But unlike Moore’s manipulation, reality TV adds one element: what some media studies call the “camera effect.” That is, the characters in the shows are aware of what the producers expect of them. So teenagers know, for example, that playing a “slacker” is a tried-and-true character on MTV reality shows.
It’s no surprise, then, that the most popular reality show, "Duck Dynasty" uses characters we’ve seen in American culture for centuries. The Robertson family appears to be the “wily backwoodsmen,” the guys who appear a little slow but who possess uncommon common sense, articulated in a drawl meant to bring in the unsuspected.
But recently, one of the Robertson brood went off script, and that has brought out a hysterical response from some.
In an interview with GQ magazine, Phil Robertson had quite a few comments about homosexuality, some of which probably won’t be printed in a newspaper.
But among the quotes that can be published is this one:
“Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men. . . . Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers - they won't inherit the kingdom of God. Don't deceive yourself. It's not right."
Well, at least we know where Phil stands.
And we know where his show’s network, A&E, stands, too. Because their immediate reaction was to suspend him from the show.
(Interesting, since how can you “suspend” a real person from a show about himself?)
The suspension brought out a silly argument, that somehow Robertson’s free speech was violated. Which this is anything but.
Defenders of Robertson, like Sarah Palin and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, mistakenly believe that Robertson’s free speech is being infringed upon.
Said Palin, “Free speech is an endangered species. Those ‘intolerants’ hatin’ and taking on the Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing his personal opinion are taking on us all.”
Uh, no, Ms. Palin.
Gov. Jindal? As muddled as his Alaskan counterpart: “Phil Robertson and his family are great citizens of the State of Louisiana. The politically correct crowd is tolerant of all viewpoints, except those they disagree with. I don’t agree with quite a bit of stuff I read in magazine interviews or see on TV. In fact, come to think of it, I find a good bit of it offensive. But I also acknowledge that this is a free country and everyone is entitled to express their views. In fact, I remember when TV networks believed in the First Amendment. It is a messed up situation when Miley Cyrus gets a laugh, and Phil Robertson gets suspended."
Palin and Jindal are, at best, confused here. This is an issue of capitalism, not free speech. A&E hasn’t stopped Robertson from speaking out; he can go on Fox News, the Today Show, Palin’s Facebook page, street corners in his home state and elsewhere, shouting to the rooftops his views. Unless he tries to provoke a riot, his right to speak out is protected.
Just like A&E has the right to protect its financial interests. In fact, it has more than a right, it has a responsibility to its owners or shareholders to protect the brand. And if executives believe keeping Robertson on the show hurts the network’s brand, then it has every right to suspend him.
You can argue whether what he said deserves the kind of punishment he’s received, whether the network’s being, as Jindal claims, politically correct in dumping on Robertson.
But you can’t argue that his right to speak has been denied. That is a silly argument, one that doesn’t deserve much consideration.