Netflix’s Squirm Game: Defending Chappelle Again Doesn’t Help Matters

Netflix's Squirm Game: Defending Chappelle Again
Variety Intelligence Platform; AP Photo; Netflix

A company like Netflix doesn’t become as successful as it has without a surefooted sense of how its every move is going to resonate in the marketplace. Which makes it all the more mystifying Wednesday how misguided its defense was of its latest comedy special, “The Closer,” featuring Dave Chappelle, which justifiably drew outrage from the trans community and its allies.

Keep in mind that co-CEO Ted Sarandos’ leaked memo actually delivered his second comments on the subject, the first having come days earlier. What he explained Monday as sticking up for the “artistic freedom” of stand-up comedians was subsequently supplemented by a broader rationale: “content doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm.

To the surprise of absolutely no one, the many critics who were already none too happy with Sarandos’ first message were just as appalled the second time around. What has made this a headache for Netflix is that a segment of its own employees are in open revolt by Sarandos’ decision to make Chappelle’s special available to stream, with a walkout at the company’s HQ scheduled for next week.

With the stock price at record heights as its breakout hit “Squid Game” conquers the planet, Netflix isn’t exactly going to crumble to the ground even if Chappelle-gate continues on its turbulent trajectory. But you would have to go back a decade to the company’s infamous Qwikster fiasco to recall a decision that seemed as memorably off base as this one is.

Let’s put aside that first artistic-freedom defense, which has its own problems. It’s the “content doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm” statement that is so problematic. And while it’s just one sentence in a broader memo, what makes those eight words so troubling is it doesn’t even matter that Netflix seems to be suggesting content providers shouldn’t be held responsible if their content influences people to commit violence. The issue is that no matter what anyone at Netflix believes, there are plenty of people who would strongly disagree, so taking some kind of hard line on the matter is just wrong.

The stance Sarandos is taking here is also so diametrically at odds with the progressive, inclusive principles Netflix often expresses. That doesn’t mean those principles leave Netflix no choice but to offer only watered-down programming that offends no one. What is does mean is Sarandos can’t just shut down any future contention that Netflix is acting irresponsibly with a sentiment that can easily be interpreted as granting the company some kind of broad immunity against any such accusations in the future.

Netflix prides itself on allowing its employees to openly debate and dissent, which is quite admirable. But to then turn around and state that content can’t have any causal link to violence, as if it’s some kind of company philosophy, is just a bridge too far.

The more Sarandos publicly explains himself, the less he’s going to be able to contain the debate over Chappelle. Next week’s walkout will only bring more bad headlines.

Maybe it’s not too late for Netflix to walk this one back, though issuing a third memo isn’t a great look for any company. The unfortunate thing is Sarandos has painted himself into a corner regardless of whether any further clarification is made. Netflix will face this same dilemma again and again, and critics are going to cite his quote when the controversies arise, fair or not.

“As a leadership team, we do not believe that ‘The Closer’ is intended to incite hatred or violence against anyone,” Sarandos writes in the memo. There couldn’t be a clearer expression of what Netflix management doesn’t get here: What any artist or streaming service “intended” is completely beside the point. If content is misconstrued by someone who is irrationally inspired to violence, intention is irrelevant. Neither Netflix or any programmer can shield themselves from criticism no matter how noble their intentions.