Defining Moments: How Language Shapes Our Lives

No constitutional right to a megaphone

sprovost@thetribunenews.comDecember 24, 2013 

Steve Provost

Up front: I’ve never seen “Duck Dynasty” and probably never will. I have very little interest in watching so-called reality TV, because I have enough reality in my life, thank you very much. If I want to see something about a duck, I’ll watch Daffy in a Looney Tunes short. If I want to watch “Dynasty,” I’ll find an old episode featuring John Forsythe and Joan Collins. (On second thought, maybe not: I never cared much for that show.)

Because I haven’t seen it, I won’t address the show itself or, for that matter, the content of what was said. Suffice it to say, many (myself included) found that content offensive, and A&E, which airs the show, decided to suspend Phil Robertson — the guy who said it in a GQ magazine interview — from appearing on the show as a result.

I find it ironic that many of the same people who typically argue for unfettered capitalism and put their trust in “the marketplace” are suddenly up in arms over this. It’s highly likely that A&E made a business decision that was, in fact, based on unfettered capitalism: Its executives appear to have concluded that Robertson’s views were more likely to cost the network viewer share (and revenue) than to add to it.

It’s also possible, the cynic in me says, that the furor over Robertson’s remarks will boost the show’s ratings further, which would mean A&E made a shrewd decision in suspending him but keeping the show on the air.

But, cynicism aside, why is everyone so surprised? Media companies make this sort of decision all the time. They have finite resources at their disposal, and they have to decide not only what to publish (or televise), but what NOT to carry. This is, it seems to me, an important element of a free press: The media not only get to decide what they want to share, but also what they don’t.

On many days, part of my job is to help choose which stories appear in The Tribune. Because we have a finite number of pages, I also have to decide which stories don’t appear. Some will disagree with those choices, and I’m always open to feedback. In fact, I welcome it. If someone comes up to me on the street and asks, “Why aren’t you covering this?” it can create an opportunity to explore a news story that might have been missed and might be of interest to readers. That’s a good thing.

But we can’t publish everything everyone wants to read. For one thing, we just don’t have the space. For another, we choose not to publish some information we think is inappropriate for our audience.

If my bosses were to decide they didn’t like my column , they could stop publishing it. I’m not paying for the paper it’s printed on or the electricity needed to keep the presses running. It’s a privilege to write this column, not a right. I have the right to say whatever I want, but I don’t have the right to increase my audience by using a megaphone that belongs to someone else.

Phil Robertson has every right under the First Amendment to speak his mind. But he doesn’t have a right to use A&E’s megaphone to do it. In fact, I would argue that A&E has a First Amendment right to decide how that megaphone is used as it determines what it televises and what it doesn’t. (For the record, the First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law,” not “A&E shall make no policy,” abridging freedom of speech.)

I don’t have much sympathy for Phil Robertson. According to celebrity http://networth.com, he’s got a net worth of $15 million. Not too shabby. He can afford to buy his own megaphone, if he wants one. If everyone had a fundamental right to express his/her views on television, guess what? Everyone would BE on television. And the television companies forced to accommodate such mass access would all be out of business, because no one would watch it all. A lot of the material would be boring. A lot of it would be offensive.

Phil Robertson doesn’t have any constitutional right to a megaphone. He’ll have to settle for a duck call.

Steve Provost is a Tribune copy editor.

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