Editorial by John Ziegler

Corporate Censorship is Getting Scary

6/18/2002

Though the vast majority of Americans haven't a clue as to how dangerous or pervasive the phenomenon is, it is hardly a secret that many media outlets routinely alter programming and content based on the interests of either their corporate parent company or their own particular agenda. Even new organizations (some of which I have worked for) often fall prey to the temptation of putting corporate interests above the public's right to know.

Sometimes such censorship is relatively harmless (such as the numerous situations in which a corporation owns both a sports team and the media outlet that covers them), but with increasing and frightening regularity information is being withheld from the public purely because some "suit" is going to be made to feel uncomfortable.

In just the last week, there have been two, relatively ignored, examples of corporate censorship that have seemingly set new standards for outrageous media behavior (if that is even possible in the age of Larry King and Katie Couric).

The more prominent of the two cases involves country singer Toby Keith being booted off of ABC-TV's 4th of July music special. Keith claims that he was told that ABC anchorman Peter Jennings did not feel that his performance would be appropriate for the festivities and had him unbooked for the show.

Keith was scheduled to sing his new hit song "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)," which has been called "controversial" because it uses the word "a--" and because it seems to celebrate American retaliation for the September 11th attacks. Just in case you think I might be putting a positive spin on the song's lyrics, here are the allegedly offensive stanzas:

Now this nation that I love is fallin' under attack.
A mighty sucker-punch came flying in from somewhere in the back.
Soon as we could see clearly through our big black eye,
Man, we lit up your world like the fourth of July.

Hey, Uncle Sam put your name at the top of his list,
And the Statue of Liberty started shaking her fist.
And the eagle will fly and it's gonna be hell,
When you hear Mother Freedom start ringing her bell.
And it'll feel like the whole wide world is raining down on you.
Ah, brought to you, courtesy of the red, white and blue.

Oh, justice will be served and the battle will rage:
This big dog will fight when you rattle his cage.
An' you'll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A.
'Cos we'll put a boot in you're a--, it's the American way.

If, only nine months after what we all experienced on 9/11, those words are inappropriate to be sung on the AMERICAN Broadcasting Network, then we are all in a LOT more trouble than even a pessimist like myself had previously believed.

The absurdity and the irony of a Canadian like Jennings making the call to ditch the song was not lost on Keith. "I find it interesting that he's not from the U.S. I bet Dan Rather'd let me do it on his special." (Note to Toby: Have you SEEN Dan Rather's broadcast lately?!)

ABC is desperately trying to sell the notion that Keith's portion of the holiday special was canceled for logistical reasons. However, it seems to me that Keith's charges ring true (partially because a mutual friend tells me he is as straight a shooter as there is). If so, the fact that a liberal news anchor from a foreign country can keep a patriotic song off the ABC airwaves during an Independence Day special is truly disturbing and worthy of far more note than it has currently received.

Speaking of outrages receiving very little publicity, the other recent example of corporate censorship has received even less news coverage than the Keith/Jennings flap.

That situation deals with CBS, despite being offered cold hard cash, refusing to air a TV commercial from discount stockbroker Charles Schwab. Now, for a TV network to turn down good money to run an ad in a soft advertising market is about as common as Tiger Woods blowing a final round lead. It almost never happens and when it does there are usually extremely unusual circumstances surrounding the event. However, this is not the case with the Charles Schwab commercial.

The ad in question didn't get shelved for using inappropriate language or video. It didn't make any claims about the product that are in question. It didn't even offend a particular social group or break any of the rules of political correctness. What the commercial did do is, in a humorous, effective and subtle way, make light of the recent scandal involving competitor Merrill Lynch, who was forced to pay a $100 million fine for conflict-of-interest allegations by the New York State Attorney.

In the rejected ad, a sales manager is getting his troops ready for the work day by saying, "OK, kids, here's today's magic stock. We've got big incentives on this one, so get on the phones-we've got a lot of stock to move: Don't mention the fundamentals, they stink. Now let's put some lipstick on this pig!"

CBS has justified dumping the imaginative and brutally honest ad by claiming that, even though Merrill Lynch is not mentioned, the "pig" reference implicitly impugns the ethics of Merrill Lynch (yeah, and?) because the term was used in the "smoking gun" e-mail between Merrill analysts. Apparently it is just a mere coincidence that Merrill Lynch is a major advertiser on CBS and spends over twice as much per year on TV advertising as Charles Schwab does.

So let me get this straight: A company can get caught in the most heinous type of conflict of interest scandal one can imagine, pay a relatively tiny fine that is apparently tax deductible, and then, when a competitor tries to point out those facts in an innocent and perfectly legal manner, spike their competitor's ads simply because they spend more money (which they earned by ripping off customers) on advertising with a network that doesn't seem to mind conflicts of interest?!!

This is clearly an injustice that requires an investigation from the most esteemed journalistic body in the history of television (no, not "Inside Edition"), "60 Minutes." There is just one problem. Not only is "60 Minutes" owned and operated by CBS, it was also supposed to be the very show on which the Charles Schwab ad was intended to run.

I wish I were making at least some of this up.

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