Cable news feasts on controversy that reflects nation's deep cultural divide
A steamrolling controversy rife with socio-political implications that amount to red meat for cable news coverage is not what A+E Networks topper Nancy Dubuc wanted for Christmas.
The “Duck Dynasty” imbroglio took a predictable turn Thursday evening when family members issued a statement backing patriarch Phil Robertson following his suspension from the hit reality series. A&E suspended Robertson from the show on Wednesday after he was quoted in a GQ article making inflammatory statements about homosexuality as well as African-Americans and practioners of the Islam and Shinto faiths.
By mid-day Thursday, the chorus of commentators staking out positions on both sides of the Robertson divide was deafening. There was no more dominant story across the cable news spectrum on Thursday.
The bearded millionaires of “Duck Dynasty” already have been championed in right-leaning media circles as a rare example of red-state heroes crossing the nation’s cultural divide with their oh-so-American success story and folksy humor. Anyone who’s been shopping at a Walmart in the past six months knows how popular the “Duck Dynasty” crew has become, judging by the volume of T-shirts, toys and other merchandise on display.
Conservative firebrands including former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin were quick to condemn A&E’s suspension, calling it a violation of Robertson’s First Amendment rights. The “IStandWithPhil.com” online petition demanding his reinstatement, launched by the org Faith Driven Consumers, had more than 125,000 signatures as of Friday afternoon. And Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal defended Robertson (a notable show of support given that the state provides tax subsidies for the show to be produced there).
Meanwhile, liberal media watchdog orgs are working overtime sending out press releases condemning her and others who come out in support of Robertson. And a rival online petition to keep Robertson off ‘Duck Dynasty’ was launched Friday by an org dubbed Faithful America that asserts: “There’s nothing Christian about racism or anti-gay bigotry.” It had collected more than 18,400 signatures by Friday afternoon.
Jon Stewart walked a fine line of defending Robertson’s right to say “ignorant #$%^ on television doesn’t get you kicked off that medium” (even though the incendiary remarks were not made on air) in a segment on Thursday’s edition of “The Daily Show” — and still managed to skewer “the free speech absolutists” on Fox News in the process.
In the hothouse environment, media watchdogs have been quick to scrutinize the differences in the response from the punditry to Robertson’s statements, and A&E’s reaction, to MSNBC’s dismissal of Alec Baldwin after just six weeks on the air after the actor used a homosexual slur in an off-air confrontation with a photographer.
Although observers on both sides were quick to describe the Robertson family’s move as setting up a standoff with A&E, the careful wording in the statement signals that the clan, led by Willie Robertson (son of Phil and the leader of the Louisiana-based hunting supply businesses that made the family’s fortune), is taking a more pragmatic approach. The statement said the family is now “in discussions with A&E to see what (the suspension) means for the future of ‘Duck Dynasty.’ ”
The strongest language in the seven-sentence statement references the clan being “disappointed that Phil has been placed on hiatus for expressing his faith, which is his constitutionally protected right” and that they “cannot imagine the show going forward without our patriarch at the helm.” That’s not a declaration of war — or even a vow to breach the family’s contract with A&E to film additional episodes.
A&E at present has nine new episodes ready to roll starting Jan. 15. Production on a new batch of episodes was tentatively set to begin in the spring. Gurney Prods., the unscripted production company that birthed the show for A&E, has stayed mum on the controversy.
A+E, the corporate parent of A&E Network, declined to respond Friday to the Robertson family statement. It’s unclear how significant the conversations between Willie Robertson and A+E execs are at present — if there’s been much contact at all. No doubt execs are hoping to take a beat during the holiday period and hope that cooler heads will prevail in the new year. However, that will probably depend on the intensity of the backlash against A&E in the coming days, and whether Robertson family members decide to speak out more forcefully.
But given their experience as successful entrepreneurs, Willie Robertson and Co. may well resist the temptation (no doubt the phones are ringing off the hook) to fan the flames during the holiday-light news period. Taking a more aggressive stance could make them more heroic in some circles, but it could also cost them the TV platform that made them stars. Willie Robertson has kept mum about the issue on his Twitter feed — he hasn’t sent a message from his @williebosshog account since Dec. 11.
Even Phil Robertson acknowledged in his interview with GQ writer Drew Magary that “Duck Dynasty” isn’t going to be a Nielsen phenom forever.
“Let’s face it,” he told GQ. “Three, four, five years, we’re out of here. You know what I’m saying? It’s a TV show. This thing ain’t gonna last forever. No way.”
Photo credit: Jeff Reidel/GQ