Corporate Media Play It Safe -- Again

The hair-trigger firing of corporate-media journalists, commentators and execs for single acts of offensive speech has gotten way out of hand.
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Rick Sanchez, Lee Abrams and Juan Williams. CNN, Tribune and NPR. The hair-trigger firing of corporate-media journalists, commentators and execs for single acts of offensive speech has gotten way out of hand.

CNN made news by terminating the employment of Rick Sanchez earlier this month, ostensibly for implying that Jews control the media in a satellite radio interview. Sanchez should have been dropped long ago -- his show Rick's List had become an embarrassment for CNN, the once proud network founded by Ted Turner in the '70s as an innovative, independent voice -- but what effect did his instantaneous disappearance have on the rest of the network's already timid voices?

Last week, the Tribune Company -- owner of the L.A. Times, Chicago Tribune and other giant media properties -- dispatched its "Chief Innovation Officer" Lee Abrams shortly after he'd forwarded a raunchy video from the Onion to fellow staffers already rattled by the company's endless bankruptcy proceedings. (It's hard to keep up with the almost daily absurdities at Tribune: It now appears that the company will install a Gang of Four to straighten out its gang-who-can't-shoot-straight culture.)

Abrams's pre-Trib claim to fame was in rock radio, a milieu that's often more likely to celebrate sexism than to punish it. At Trib, he was known for a sort of Abrams List of staff memos full of unintentionally hilarious ruminations, some of the juiciest of which can be found here. In my favorite, he concluded a pointless ramble with, "Are the above points valid? I don't know, but that's not the point."

An open letter Abrams posted online underscores the inconsistency of the conglomerate that is the Tribune Company: "I do find it ironic that The Onion is a business partner of The Chicago Tribune and that very clip was shown at a recent Chicago Tribune sales meeting to a rousing and positive reaction.

I could go on. Hearst fired Helen Thomas for some horrible remarks about Israel. CNNcanned Octavia Nasr after a Tweet that some interpreted as pro-Hezbollah. But with NPR's abrupt firing Thursday of veteran commentator Juan Williams in the wake of a stupid remark he made about Muslims on Fox News's The O'Reilly Factor, where he is also a regular contributor, it's time to call a trend a trend.

Granted, much of Williams' commentary on Fox -- where he's positioned as their house liberal -- isn't much more than a suck-up to the network's hosts and, worse, is at often at odds with his Centrist, more reasoned NPR spots. NPR issued a statement that said Williams was fired because despite repeated warnings, he violated their fundamental rule that "In appearing on TV... NPR journalists should not express views they would not air in their role as an NPR journalist." But isn't the chilling effect of canning the guy more damaging than, say, putting him on the air to explain himself?

Williams told his buddies at Fox -- where within hours of his NPR firing he signed a $2 million contract for an expanded role -- that he asked the axe-wielding NPR exec, "We don't have that chance to have a conversation about this?" Her reply, according to Williams, was, "There's nothing you can say that will change my mind.'" It may be that any NPR commentator also employed by Fox is a mismatch. But for staffers and listeners with their own memories of being dismissed without a fair hearing -- and I'd guess most of us have been there -- this hardly creates confidence in what aspires to be a great institution.

Weeding out poor journalists, commentators and execs is obviously a good thing. Wouldn't it be something if their huge salaries are redirected to save lower-level jobs or for investigative reporting endeavors? (Fat chance.) But it's a very bad thing that CNN, Tribune and NPR -- and most of the rest of corporate media -- are playing it extra-safe, evidently in the belief that beige content, vanilla personalities and a squeaky clean PR image will burnish their all-important brands and spur higher ratings.

It's likely these moves will have the opposite of their intended effect, again revealing how disconnected from the living, breathing world the self-perceptions of media behemoths can be. The last thing today's fragmented audiences want is over-amped political correctness. Cynical operators like Fox, Beck and Limbaugh may continue to ride high with ditto heads and Tea Partiers. The rest of us, instead of turning to CNN, the L.A. Times and, sadly, NPR, will migrate more and more to independent sources, where journalists are unafraid of losing their jobs for one remark, however ill-advised.

What's happened to the ideal of a free press speaking the truth -- or even screwing up the truth -- no matter whom it offends? America is on the verge of electing a bunch of delusional wackos to high office in spite of -- and in some cases because of -- remarks far more dangerous than anything from Sanchez, Abrams or Williams. Any of the powers that be in corporate medialand thinking about that?

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