Jack Shafer: Advertiser Boycotts Encourage Corporations to Police Free Speech

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In a Politico op-ed titled “Not in Defense of Bill O’Reilly But Against Calls for Advertiser Boycotts,” Jack Shafer explains that campaigns targeting corporate sponsors have unintended consequences for free speech.

Currently 47 companies have pulled their advertising from Fox News’ “O’Reilly Factor” as a result of an activist-led boycott of host Bill O’Reilly following reports of sexual harassment allegations made against him.

From Shafer in Politico:

Cheerleading the boycott with pitchforks held high over their heads are the faultfinders at Media Matters, David Brock’s sometimes useful agitprop outfit, which has been waging a declared “war” against Fox since at least 2011. If the charges of sexual harassment against O’Reilly are true—the $13 million Fox and O’Reilly have paid in settlements to five women suggest they very well could be—the campaigns may succeed in capitalizing on his self-inflicted wounds. Media Matters wants Fox to fire O’Reilly and take seriously the culture of sexual harassment that Fox and former CEO Roger Ailes—accused of sexual harassment himself—have allegedly sanctioned.

It constitutes no endorsement of O’Reilly, Fox or sexual harassment—which all decent people vocally oppose—to pause and think through the consequences of the calls for advertiser boycotts. Obviously, advertisers have every right to decide what sort of programs their spots air against. Before the scandal broke, Mercedes, BMW and others purchased time on O’Reilly’s show not because they agreed with his idiosyncratic right-wingish political views or approved of his bullying TV demeanor. They were, presumably, agnostic on those points. They advertised because they believed his viewers were likely to buy their products. Today, they’re changing that tune, fleeing the show because O’Reilly’s foes have convinced them that their advertisements signal approval of the man.

When we encourage corporate advertisers to police content and commentators, we end up making them the guardians and arbiters of journalism, always a bad choice….

Of course, nobody is policing O’Reilly’s content directly. Instead, they’re using the harassment accusations to implore advertisers to scuttle his show. Media Matters President Angelo Carusone has called for O’Reilly to be fired over the charges, but Carusone’s organization would want O’Reilly sacked if he were as chaste and pure as a Mother Superior. The charges just give them an opportunity to destroy O’Reilly by other means. Every strident television voice knows that his enemies will eventually appeal to his advertisers to silence him.

Read the rest here.