Why 'Duck Dynasty' is on TV and MSNBC's Martin Bashir is not

One month ago Phil Robertson of "Duck Dynasty" was not controversial.

A little more than a month ago Martin Bashir had a show on TV.

And weeks ago few people knew Mitt Romney’s family included an adopted black grandson.

But in the mash-up of politics and culture that now passes for news all three of those people have become hot topics.

Liberals and conservatives have picked sides. The ideological divide has led to partisan demands from one side or the other that someone be fired as a matter of decency and principle for their crude words.

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But the real lesson of the last month is that both the left and the right are being fooled.

None of these controversies was about ideological principle or politics.

It was all about money.

In the "Duck Dynasty" controversy the A&E cable channel thought they might lose money – advertising dollars – if they did not suspend Robertson for describing gays as the equivalent of people involved with bestiality. He also made crass comments about various openings on the male and female body.

A&E felt the pressure to suspend Robertson when the gay rights group “Human Rights Campaign” led a loud campaign demanding some punishment.

A&E flipped within a matter of days, however, when conservatives and evangelical groups turned on the network. The backlash was stronger than any of the pressure coming from the gay groups.

And even while the suspension was in place A&E ran 25 episodes of the "Duck Dynasty" show – all starring Robertson – as part of a highly rated Christmas marathon that benefitted from the attention generated by the controversy.

The same financial bottom line got the Cracker Barrel Old Country store restaurant chain to do an about face. They had yanked "Duck Dynasty" merchandise off the shelves when the controversy first broke. Within days they were apologizing to customers and putting the mugs and T-shirts back on display.

It was all about money. The truth had nothing to do with their decision. Principles had nothing to do with it, either. Even claims that the comments amounted to bigotry came a distant second to money.

The role of money, politics and interest groups in limiting honest debate is a major theme of my 2011 book “Muzzled: the Assault on Honest Debate.”

I’m sorry to report that in the two years since that book came out, the problem has only gotten worse.

By worse I mean the money feeding these phony “controversies” has grown in impact and become swifter and more brutal. And money-hungry fingers continue to shape today’s media world.

Money as the bottom line was also evident last month in the downfall of MSNBC host Martin Bashir. He harshly criticized former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin in the past for equating U.S. debt to China with human slavery. But he went even farther by saying the governor should be subjected to the same degrading treatment given to slaves, including one particularly awful act.

Bashir apologized but he resigned after his bosses felt the pressure and decided his show was not raking in enough ratings and advertising dollars to make it worth the trouble. 

If his show had “Duck Dynasty” ratings Bashir would still be on the air.

The same MSNBC bosses decided to keep another host who caused a stir, Melissa Harris-Perry. She led a panel that mocked the Romney family for a holiday picture that included the former presidential candidate’s adopted black grandson. The Romney family is white and Perry-Harris’ panel felt free to demean the adoption as an act of racial tokenism.

To her credit, Ms. Perry-Harris issued an emotional on-air apology and Mitt Romney accepted it during an appearance on “Fox News Sunday.”

Bashir also apologized. But MSNBC and its advertisers concluded the outrage over Perry-Harris’ offense did not put their ratings and dollars at risk for now.

These three stories in the last month are a reminder that in the current partisan media, the world of entertainment is not about conservative or liberal ideology.

It is not about moral judgments of right and wrong, fair and unfair. The angels above will have the final say on those matters.

Television executives with the power to pull the plug on rude TV personalities don’t care about left wing or right wing, right and wrong. The only thing that matters is damage to their brand, the ratings and losing money.

They are not immoral so much as amoral. They don’t care unless it hits them in the wallet.

That is far less interesting than politics and ideological fights. But it is true.

America, we are better than this. When will our better angels stand up?

Juan Williams currently serves as a co-host of FOX News Channel’s (FNC) The Five (weekdays 5-6PM/ET) and also appears as a political analyst on FOX News Sunday with Chris Wallace and Special Report with Bret Baier. Williams joined the network as a contributor in 1997.