Yesterday, a Jezebel headline about my weekend brouhaha with Sarah Palin’s Alaska summed up what I promised TLC I wouldn’t discuss on record: “Sarah Palin’s Alaska is scared of their own viewers.”
Jezebel’s Anna North’s post brings into stark relief how certain segments on the right are using fear and intimidation to create a chilling effect over media content. As North summarizes, I was booked to discuss Sarah Palin’s Alaska on the official TLC podcast after Sunday night’s latest episode of the show. Then, I was abruptly uninvited from podcast because, as its host and social media strategist said, “Sarah Palin’s Alaska is not a political show” and my presence would have made the conversation — about a series-long unpaid political advertisement for the former GOP vice presidential nominee and potential future POTUS candidate — “inadvertently political.” (Yep, I know. I deconstructed that fun little bit of irony yesterday, as did Media Matters.) But, as North writes, that official explanation wasn’t the whole story. In fact, “organizers were worried about what Palin supporters might do if they got too riled up.”
Jezebel asks if my segment’s cancelation was “because the organizers of the show can’t handle anybody even mildly badmouthing Palin? Well, not exactly.”:
I held back from discussing this out of respect for Brian Reich, whom I plan to work with in the near future. And I will continue not to write about the off-the-record conversations we had about the reason I was kept off the live portion of the podcast. But it is a relief that Jezebel has reported this story with quotes directly from Reich, allowing me to finally address the fact that, yes, security concerns were a major reason why I was kept off of the podcast.
In previous posts I was only able to mention their fear of a flame war erupting, so I’m glad that Reich admitted to Jezebel that their decision to keep me off the podcast wasn’t really about me at all, but was a reaction to their fear of their own viewers. (That seems to be the clear implication of “the response to her blog post was ridiculously negative — and not negative in the appropriate ways, negative in ways that go way beyond what we’re comfortable with.”) Tailoring programming choices to quiet inappropriate responses that make media staffers uncomfortable — while alluding to the Discovery Channel gunman? That’s as close to a definition of a “chilling effect” over media content as I’ve seen in a long time. Self-censorship based on fear and intimidation may be an understandable reaction to threats of violence. Yet it sets a scary precedent for art (though I’m using that phrase very loosely when it comes to reality television), entertainment, and even news media.
To be clear, the #SPAlaska podcast isn’t journalism, it’s simply a public relations platform to promote a reality series. Reich and his team have zero responsibility to seek journalistic balance,
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which is why I was pleasantly surprised that they were interested in bringing me (a pull-no-punches critic of the reality genre) into the discussion in the first place. But they did want to have me on, even after I gave them my honest appraisal of the show, said I wasn’t a fan and that I considered it problematic in the way it allows a politician to use the unscripted television format to get her message out. They wanted to have a richer, more nuanced discussion than many public relations teams would normally want to have, and I respected that willingness to move past blind soundbites. That is to Brian Reich’s and TLC’s credit. Yet as Jezebel notes, they felt they had to alter their planned conversation in order to avoid the potential for “inappropriate” responses from live callers — or as Jezebel’s post indicates, possibly some more drastic form of reprisal.
Yes, this was “just” a PR-supported podcast, for a cable network reality show. But who’s to say that this small segment of frothing, threat-spewing Palin fans won’t target a news outlet next, trying to force journalists to do what Palin’s campaign explicitly demanded from news media back in 2008: show her “deference”? Where will this kind of media intimidation end — especially when it is now proven to work? If all it takes to silence debate is a few threats, we won’t have freedom of the press or freedom of expression in this country. We’ll have given it away.
When I last spoke with Reich, we planned to work together to record a future conversation and turn the transcript into a series of blog posts for Sarah Palin’s Alaska. I have done my best to remain respectful of he and the #SPAlaska team in my responses to this whole thing, and I’m going to continue to keep his off-the-record comments to myself. (Sorry, curious readers who’ve been emailing for the back story: this is all you’re getting.) But I also have to do my job. As a media critic, it is impossible for me not to weigh in on what this Jezebel post has revealed about the tenuous state of debate and dissent in the face of intimidation from a small segment of Americans who’ve decided to make a practice of bullying media into silence at the first hint of a discussion they may not like. I recognize that I may no longer be welcome to work with the #SPAlaska team in any capacity as a result of this post. I hope that is not the case, but I am prepared if it is. I wasn’t going on the podcast because I “need” the PR, I was going to have that conversation because I want to bring media literacy concepts into a forum that doesn’t usually offer such information, to encourage their audience to become more critical, active media consumers. That’s what I do. Hopefully, that opportunity is still available, as I haven’t broken any promises to TLC. And if not, we’ll understand why.
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