Imus, The Sequel: Marketplace Censorship

        Free speech advocates who railed against Imus’s dismissal, warning that it would embolden the censorious forces of political correctness, will soon be saying “I told you so.”  This week, two New York City shock jocks were suspended indefinitely by CBS after an inflammatory prank call to a Chinese restaurant, following protests by the Organization of Chinese Americans.  According to an AP report, the group’s New York City president complained that if CBS failed to fire the DJ’s, “it will be a double standard.” 

        When private pressure groups begin enjoying the power to dictate programming, with little public debate, free speech advocates are right to worry that fear of giving offense to any and every anti-defamation group will dull and diminish our discourse.  I share these concerns, (notwithstanding the ways in which discourse is also diminished by the nasty stupidities of people who speak fluent epithet.)  But the challenges posed by private pressure groups are complex.  We are not simply engaged in a conflict between brave, thick-skinned advocates of free speech on one side and over-sensitive guardians of civility or political correctness on the other. 

        Public opinion generally rules what is aired or published by mainstream media.  Fear of giving offense, or simply not engaging the interest of one or more targeted groups of consumers, are the rules of the road.   Free speech advocates who generally ignore these rules, perking up to condemn them in high profile cases, when shock jocks are fired, are a bit like people who only become aware of red lights when they or their friends are caught running them. 

        Of course, I’m not suggesting that they shouldn’t stress the troubling implications of firing people like Imus for giving offense.   I‘m not even suggesting that they shouldn’t crow “I told you so,” as more firings, suspensions or self-censorship follow.  I am asking them to broaden and de-simplify their analysis to consider the larger and much more problematic context of  marketplace censorship that determines what we see and hear every day. 

        The Internet alleviates the problem by providing venues for unfettered speech, but elsewhere, programming is still a zero sum game.  Risk averse, bottom-line oriented media executives always aim to please their targeted consumers, (the better to please their advertisers) and, in general, the larger their targets, the more carefully they’ll cleave to the middle of the road.  Why are they better protectors of a healthy, diverse marketplace of ideas than various collections of consumers who use their own First Amendment rights to express their preferences directly, (either to get shows off the air or keep them on) instead of passively hoping to be recruited by focus groups?  That is not rhetorical question. 


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