A Recent History of the Heckler’s Veto

From #IStandWithPhil to #CancelColbert

The television world has weathered quite a few controversies in the last several months, many of which have one disturbing thing in common: They are fomented and sustained by people who are hurt, saddened or otherwise aggrieved and think that this gives them the right to demand that an offending television program cease production. At the risk of being blunt, I don't think this is a trend that should excite or please anyone who is serious about art or entertainment or indeed, the use of words and/or images to communicate, and the trend seems to transcend traditional liberal/conservative divisions (isn't it nice when people come together?). Following are a few examples.


  • This weekend, we had #CancelColbert on Twitter, a firestorm over a tweet sent from the @ColbertReport account that excerpted a cringe-comedy line from a topical bit on The Colbert Report about the Washington Redskins. “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever," the text read. In context, the gag is clearly a reference to 'Skins owner Dan Snyder's announcement that his team would be forming a charity called Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation. "Because," Colbert said, "'Redskins' is not offensive if you only use it once in your name." (Colbert also suggested in a previous segment on the team that Potato Skins should change its name for fear of offending the Irish, which passed without comment.)
  • Just a few days before the Colbert flap, ABC Family announced that it was scuttling a pilot it announced the previous week, Alice in Arabia. Anger about the series came from Muslim advocacy groups and focused on the show's logline (since it hadn't been shot), which described a young woman "surviving life behind the veil" after being kidnapped by her Saudi extended family in the wake of an unspecified tragedy that befalls her parents. The Council on American-Islamic relations, among others, protested, and BuzzFeed obtained a copy of the pilot and declared it "Exactly What Critics Feared," which must have meant that it was such a terrifyingly direct and effective incitement to violence that readers could not be exposed to any but the briefest excerpts from its text, which did indeed appear to be offensive. This reporter would like to thank BuzzFeed for its bravery in reading the whole thing so that no one else would ever, ever have to do so.
  • In December, just in time to provide everyone with something to argue about over Christmas dinner, Duck Dynasty's folksy millionaire patriarch Phil Robertson held forth on the topics of homosexuality, race relations, religion and sundry others to GQ writer Drew Magary. Liberal commentators, gay rights groups, African-American groups and others expressed anger and offense at Robertson's remarks, calling the reality star poorly informed and his ideas ahistorical. Robertson had plenty of supporters, who took to Twitter with the #IStandWithPhil hashtag to defend him, including several conservative politicians for whom a galvanized base is never a bad thing. A&E briefly suspended and then quickly reinstated Robertson, who returned just in time to see ratings on the new season plummet.
  • Last fall, MSNBC had a hat trick of outbursts that resulted in firings: GLAAD, among others, protested Alec Baldwin's apparent use of an anti-gay slur at a paparazzo (Baldwin was fired after disciplinary leave); a Twitter account manager got the ax for saying that "the rightwing" would hate the follow-up to an interracial Cheerios ad that had angered white supremacists; and Martin Bashir apologized but was canned anyway after saying some very nasty stuff about Sarah Palin.
  • After years upon years of protest from African-American rights groups, Fox finally canceled Cops in May of last year with 25 seasons under its belt (the show immediately went to Spike for season 26). The decision was applauded by Color of Change, which has long criticized the show for its one-sided portrayal of showdowns between people being arrested and police officers, with particular emphasis on how often the producers used encounters with African-American suspects. It would be wrong to attribute Fox's decision entirely (or even mostly) to protest, but the show's 25th anniversary was certainly an occasion Color of Change took full advantage of—the group ran advertisements in print and launched an email blast campaign.

Depending on where you sit on the political spectrum, some of these cases will seem like egregious examples of grievance-borrowing by whiny jerks, and some will seem like the legitimate complaints of the marginalized. It's hard to apportion blame when dealing with the networks—with the exception of A&E, all the companies that air the above television series are publicly traded and have perception to worry about on several fronts, including with stockholders worried about share price and with advertisers terrified of boycotts. If a show appears to be creating enough outrage to cause problems for either group, it has little choice but to cancel that show. (Perhaps this excuses businesses from moral obligation to too great a degree, but it does at least explain predicable behavior.)

Part of the problem with the debates that bloom around these controversies is that one side invariably invokes freedom of speech, and the other side invariably makes the point that corporations are not the government and that no one has a constitutional right to a television show. But this, too, is disingenuous. Corporations are in many cases more powerful than governments. The entertainment market mirrors public taste, which is, in an imperfect way, an expression of a more absolute understanding of "free speech." I'd suggest that demanding artificial interference in the marketplace of ideas is also a form of censorship, or at least an aspiration to censorship, and that there are fundamental flaws in the argument that entertainment boycotts are morally superior to draconian obscenity laws. These are not calls to greater understanding, after all; they are calls to silence.

But we're in an era now when special interest groups across the political spectrum have discovered the power of heckling—if you can get a hashtag trending or a comment thread flaming, you can start a snowball of social media outrage and eventually news media coverage that can get your offended point of view a very public airing. Take a look at Suey Park's tweet that set off the whole #CancelColbert maelstrom:

That's not good. It's not good for art, it's not good for news, and it's not good for commentary. Pick a mode of public expression. Blind outrage is not good for it. It is undoubtedly frightening to see an ignorant or cruel perspective gain common currency and even wild popularity, but the troubling solution of choice in an age of instant public communication seems to be the demand that no one express the offending perspective. The opposite of a lie is not silence. The opposite of a lie is the truth.