Profiles in Cowardice
My three favorite media stories in recent weeks were how Bill "Politically Incorrect" Maher kept his job at ABC-TV, how Ann Coulter got herself fired from National Review and how all the networks simultaneously agreed to the Bush Administration's request that they suppress any future Osama bin Laden tapes.
I also got a kick out of the Dan Rather interview on a cable channel in which he answered questions about whether it's OK for a network in the interests of objectivity to ban anchors from wearing American flags on their lapels, while a simulated American flag flew in the logo on the lower left-hand corner of the screen. (Rather himself prefers not to wear a flag but said nothing about appearing with a flag logo in the lower left-hand corner.)
Bill Maher got into trouble on Politically Incorrect when he correctly observed in the aftermath of September 11 that it's wrong to call the suicide bombers "cowards" and impolitically added, "We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away: That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly."
Two advertisers, Sears and Federal Express, pulled their ads, seventeen stations canceled his program and Maher apologized for being, well, politically incorrect. Or rather for being misinterpreted ("I offer my apologies for anyone who took it wrong," he said), although why he should apologize to people who misinterpreted him he never explained. The defecting advertisers claimed patriotism, but in fact they were the cowards for withdrawing ads from fear of the controversy Maher's remarks might spark.
So what do we learn from this first profile in cowardice? Maher demonstrated that at best he is only incorrect within permissible limits. The advertisers should come back, the seventeen stations should reinstall the show (if they haven't already) and Maher should resign, not for what he said but for flying under false colors. You can't have a show called Politically Incorrect and then abjectly apologize for not being PC.
Next case. Ann Coulter, rudely dismissed by the Boston Globe's Alex Beam as "a right-wing telebimbo" for her colorful but intemperate attacks on the Clintons, was fired by National Review after she wrote in National Review Online that "we should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity." My question is, In which order?
Technically, they didn't give her the boot until she wrote a follow-up about requiring passports from "suspicious-looking swarthy males." Now there are two possibilities here: One is that National Review fired her because they didn't like what she said. The other is that National Review fired her because by saying what too many National Review readers believe, she embarrassed the home team. Solution: After Maher apologizes for apologizing and resigns, Politically Incorrect should hire the truly politically incorrect Coulter.
Finally, on the networks, I don't understand why Condoleezza Rice didn't include Al Jazeera in the request to suppress the bin Laden tapes. It's true that Washington doesn't control the Qatar network, but it doesn't control the major US networks either, and surely Al Jazeera has a higher quotient of terrorist viewers. Originally, I thought the Administration's request had to do with not showing enemy propaganda, and I wondered whether this meant that the networks' much-vaunted claims of political neutrality--giving equal time to both sides in a dispute--stopped at the water's edge. But the Administration said the issue had to do less with propaganda than with national security, claiming that bin Laden might be using the occasion to send a message by secret code.
Since potential terrorists can still get bin Laden's message via Al Jazeera and via the Internet, I am baffled as to the networks' true motives, unless, like Maher, his advertisers and National Review, they are also in the controversy-avoidance business.
What this incident does show is that you don't need media concentration to have homogenization of the news. The simultaneous capitulation of all the major TV networks proves that concentration or no concentration, they are perfectly capable of marching in lockstep on their own.