How A&E Ducked the Duck Dynasty Controversy

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How A&E Ducked the Duck Dynasty Controversy
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How A&E Ducked the Duck Dynasty Controversy

Can we just start letting the customers decide?

A&E has suspended Phil Robertson, star of its wildly popular Duck Dynasty, over comments he made in GQ that were critical of homosexuality.

His suspension comes in the wake of several high-profile media personalities losing their own shows because of things they have said, including Alec Baldwin and Martin Bashir of MSNBC, and, earlier, television chef Paula Deen.

In all of those cases, and the dozens of others that preceded them, the corporate parents decided that the risk of losing sponsorship dollars demanded some sort of action. (It should be noted that the show will go on with Duck Dynasty, just presumably - for the moment - without scenes with the family's patriarch.) It is, after all, about the money.

Related: How the Robertsons of Duck Dynasty Conquered America

But, should it be more about the audience? Is there not an advantage in knowing the beliefs and values of the people whose media you consume, then making a decision based on that level of transparency about whether you want to continue to watch? And should media organizations be more upfront about the beliefs of their biggest stars, letting the viewers and listeners decide?

First, for those screaming for unfettered free speech, we need a caveat. The is no free speech in commerce, at least how we practice it in this country. It is a right as a citizen, but those protections don't allow you to go into jobs each day and offend the person sitting next to you in your cubicle. Speech can sometimes violate state and federal labor laws, and managers have to be careful to ensure that employees are not offended. What's more, company owners can be free to make any statements they choose about issues, even if those conflict with their employees. Paula Deen could say what she likes, but the Food Network had no responsibility to endorse it. Same with MSNBC and A&E.

Still, when companies intercede in situations like the Robertson controversy, they also have to live with the backlash from their audience and customers. That is where the Duck Dynasty problem is especially tricky: There was already a distrust of A&E because of attempts early on in the show to tone down the deeply held Christian beliefs of the Robertson family.

That is the rock and hard place A&E is now wedged between. On the one side are those who label Robertson as dangerously homophobic, despite Robertson's legitimate and honestly held religious objection to homosexuality (which, incidentally, is far from unique to American Christian evangelicalism, but is found in Catholicism, Islam and Orthodox Judaism). On the other side are those who view this as Hollywood's anti-Christian bias, and a slap in the face to people who try to live good lives as best they can, following the dictates of their faith, only to be criticized as toothless, uneducated rednecks.

Related: What Role Should Religious Values Play in Business?

As with most controversies, it is far more complex than the black-and-white way it is portrayed. The loudest arguments are coming from the poles on either side, and, at least in the Twitterverse, there is little sympathy for those trying to find a middle ground. Suggest Robertson should be allowed to continue in some way and you are branded a homophobe. Criticize the tone and nature of what Robertson said to GQ and you are called anti-religious or a member of the politically correct thought police.

This controversy, though, could be less about free speech and more about free markets. A&E could not sit silent, but it could have condemned the remarks and still let the audience decide whether Robertson was worth watching. Every episode, every theme on the show, could be parsed by all the sides of the debate, but, in the end, the viewers would vote with their eyes, and - more importantly for the marketplace - sponsors could decide how they wanted to position themselves.

Knowing what people believe, as abhorrent as you might find it, is helpful in determining whether you want to watch their show, vote them into office or follow them on Twitter. Knowledge is power. This situation could have been a meaningful test of the power of the free markets, and how they could serve as a forum for a debate over ideas. Sadly, all that might now be lost in the rhetoric.

What do you think about A&E's decision to suspend Phil Robertson:

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