The outrage machine may be careening out of control.
Last Sunday, Delta and Bank of America dropped sponsorship from a production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” because it depicts the assassination of a Trump-like ruler. And the very next day JPMorgan Chase pulled its ads from NBC and its affiliates over displeasure that NBC News anchor Megyn Kelly interviewed Alex Jones, a far-right conspiracy theorist who has spread the abhorrent and false idea that the murders of 20 children in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012 were faked.
Advertisers these days are reacting at breakneck speed, distancing themselves from controversy almost as soon as it earns a hashtag on Twitter.
“Right now any time anybody doesn’t like anything, they go to the advertisers and that’s ridiculous,” Angelo Carusone of Media Matters tells HuffPost. As president of the liberal nonprofit, Carusone is intimately involved in the mechanisms at play here. Media Matters was instrumental in the successful campaign earlier this year to get advertisers to drop Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, which ultimately led to the conservative host’s ouster.
It’s fine to be mad at Kelly and to criticize her, Carusone said. The parents of those children killed in Sandy Hook have received death threats because of Jones’ rabid rhetoric. Their anger is well-founded.
Jones is now leaking pieces of the interview that make it appear Kelly went easy on him, but the conspiracy theorist’s version of the truth can hardly be trusted on its own. The fact is, we haven’t yet seen the whole interview.
But trying to scare off sponsors and move the show off the air before anyone even sees it is going too far, Carusone said, echoing comments from other progressive activists HuffPost spoke with for this article. There is a flirtation with censorship happening now that could ultimately endanger free speech on both sides.
It’s worth asking: How did we even get to this place?
Trying to scare away advertisers, historically, has been the province of conservatives. In 1989, the TV show “ThirtySomething” ― an angsty drama about baby boomers struggling to become adults in an era without avocado toast ― lost a reported $1 million in ads because of a scene on the show depicting two men in a post-coital conversation. Much of the pressure came from the conservative, anti-gay American Family Association, now considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
In 1997, advertisers ― again pressured by the AFA ― backed away from Ellen Degeneres’ sitcom after her character came out as gay.
“We don’t think it is a smart business decision to be advertising in an environment that is so polarized,” a spokeswoman for Chrysler said at the time.
But thanks to the growing bravery and activism of the gay rights movement ― with more and more Americans coming out of the closet ― the culture grew more accepting. And by 2000 ― two years into the successful run of “Will & Grace,” which depicted a gay man living with a straight woman ― the left picked up the mantle of outrage and censorship.
By all accounts, the first target of gay rights activists ― including GLAAD, founded in 1985, and other grassroots players ― was another controversial conservative woman. Dr. Laura Schlessinger, a popular radio host in the 1990s known simply as Dr. Laura, had been spewing rabidly anti-gay comments for years: regularly calling gay men pedophiles, for example, and categorizing homosexuality as deviant and unnatural. She was as popular as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity in her heyday.
But in 2000, Paramount gave her a TV show, which CBS picked up, and all hell broke lose.
“We were like, ‘Are you freaking kidding me,’” recalls John Aravosis, a Democratic political consultant who was part of a massive campaign to get the show pulled off the air. Aravosis, who now also edits America Blog, took action. He found an email alert sent by AFA and used it as a model for what he calls a “gay alert.”
“I took their font. I totally mimicked it and sent it to my friends,” he says. This was the early days of email, before inboxes were packed with newsletters and sales alerts from every store you ever shopped at. There was no Twitter, no Facebook, no hashtags. With little competition, his email took off.
“The damn thing went viral,” he says now, noting that shortly after that, he gave a talk at New York University and most of the audience was familiar with it.
What happened next is by now a familiar story: Activists mobilized protests in front of CBS affiliates, met with advertisers behind closed doors, got publicity on TV and sent more emails.
Though the show made it onto the air, within a few months it lost about 100 advertisers and was canceled within the year. Dr. Laura went back to the radio until 2010 when she went on a rant full of racial slurs after being asked for advice by a black woman on how to deal with her racist neighbor.
Media Matters and other activists drew blood, and Dr. Laura left the public airwaves. She now can be found on Sirius satellite radio and refuses to talk to the press.
The “Stop Dr. Laura” campaign was a model for subsequent movements against other conservative TV and radio hosts including Glenn Beck, Michael Savage, Limbaugh and, most recently, O’Reilly.
“We unleashed this monster, and sometimes it’s a great weapon for social justice and sometimes it’s people censoring and sometimes it’s both,” Aravosis says.
“With Dr. Laura, we had a track record saying she shouldn’t be on TV,” he says. “In Kelly’s case, I’m not convinced there’s an argument.” She did step into controversy at Fox News (just Google “Megyn Kelly black Santa”), but her track record doesn’t come close to Beck’s or O’Reilly’s. If NBC hired Jones himself, Aravosis says, then there would be a clear case.
“We unleashed this monster, and sometimes it’s a great weapon for social justice and sometimes it’s people censoring and sometimes it’s both.”
Advertisers have always tried to steer clear of what’s considered contentious content. In 1952 that meant Lucille Ball and her co-stars on the hit comedy “I Love Lucy” couldn’t say the word “pregnant” on national TV because advertisers told the network they felt nervous about being so edgy.
What’s changed, however, is the frequency and pace with which these battles happen. Thanks to Twitter and Facebook, and the ease of petition websites like Change.org, it’s never been simpler to channel outrage into activism. And with the ascent of Donald Trump, there’s quite a lot of outrage in the air right now.
Experts in the advertising industry say it’s hard to know for sure if the pace of protest has increased this year, but most agree that something more intense is happening.
“There is heightened sensitivity [postelection] to having a brand appear alongside content which itself might be inflammatory,” says Brian Wieser, a media analyst at Pivotal Research.
In the face of mounting controversy ― Sandy Hook parents have threatened a lawsuit ― Kelly and NBC have reportedly made changes to Sunday night’s program, inviting the parents of children murdered at Sandy Hook to appear and editing the segment to come down harder on Jones.
And for now, NBC is standing by the show and its host.
A spokesman told HuffPost on Friday: “We remain committed to giving viewers context and insight into a controversial and polarizing figure, how he relates to the president of the United States and influences others, and to getting this serious story right.”
CORRECTION: Sandy Hook Elementary is located in Newtown, Connecticut, not a town called Sandy Hook, as originally stated.