Conservative politicians jumped on the “Duck Dynasty” uproar Wednesday faster than you could load a hunting rifle.
And they came out firing at A&E Networks for having the temerity to suspend Phil Robertson, the reality show’s star, for calling homosexuality a sin and equating it with bestiality.
Despite all the rhetoric you’ll hear, this is not a free speech issue. Robertson is entitled to say whatever he wants, as he did in the GQ interview, and A&E is entitled to pull him off the air if it deems the comments offensive. There is no First Amendment right to appear on a television show.
At the same time, A&E hired Robertson to be the hunting, praying, opinionated Christian patriarch on the show, and its executives can hardly be shocked if he says things that alienate the politically correct.
But it’s one thing to say that, as a matter of faith, you consider homosexuality a sin. It’s something else entirely to say the following (NSFW warning):
“It seems like, to me, a vagina — as a man — would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical…
“Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men.”
It didn’t take long for Sarah Palin, Bobby Jindal and Ted Cruz to react to Robertson’s suspension.
Jindal, backing his fellow Louisianan, complained that “the politically correct crowd is tolerant of all viewpoints, except those they disagree with. I don’t agree with quite a bit of stuff I read in magazine interviews or see on TV. In fact, come to think of it, I find a good bit of it offensive. But I also acknowledge that this is a free country and everyone is entitled to express their views,” the governor said.
Palin, a Fox News contributor, wrote on her Facebook page that “free speech is an endangered species. Those ‘intolerants’ hatin’ and taking on the Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing his personal opinion are taking on all of us.”
And Cruz tweeted, “If you believe in free speech or religious liberty, you should be deeply dismayed over treatment of Phil Robertson.”
They are playing to the religious right, and I have no doubt they are actually outraged. But the issue is a bit more complicated than people “hatin’” on Duck Dynasty.
In announcing the indefinite suspension, A&E said it is “extremely disappointed” in Robertson’s comments, “which are based on his personal beliefs” and “in no way reflect those of A&E Networks, who have always been strong supporters and champions of the LGBT community.”
So you could say A&E’s action is political, in that it comes from a liberal point of view and identifies itself as a “champion” of gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people. At the same time, A&E made “Duck Dynasty” a monster hit. The network, in a show of tolerance, could have criticized Robertson’s comments without taking him off the air.
But that probably would have required an abject apology from Robertson, which he apparently was unwilling to give. Robertson offered a more tolerant statement to Fox411, saying he is a reformed sex-drugs-and-rock-‘n-roll guy who found Jesus and “would never treat anyone with disrespect just because they are different from me.”
Robertson previously clashed with the network over whether Jesus’ name would be cut out of the on-air prayers recited by the family, and the program adding fake “bleeps” to convey the impression that family members were cursing, when they were not. Reality TV, as we all know, can’t have too much reality.
A&E was in a box. Network executives did not want to alienate part of their audience that would be offended by anti-gay comments. But the suspension is ticking off some of the show’s hardcore fans, not to mention conservative commentators and politicians.
For those who are crying double standard, keep in mind that MSNBC recently dumped uberliberal Alec Baldwin over an alleged anti-gay outburst against a photographer.
No one is saying Robertson should be muzzled. But given his cable television platform, he had some responsibility to think about the impact of his words on many who may view him as a role model.
What A&E would undoubtedly love is for the controversy to blow over so Phil Robertson can return to “Duck Dynasty,” with a whole lot of people who knew nothing about the show tuning in to find out what the fuss is about.
Andrew Sullivan, while denouncing Robertson's remarks as a gay journalist, makes a fascinating argument against A&E:
"Robertson is a character in a reality show. He’s not a spokesman for A&E any more than some soul-sucking social x-ray from the Real Housewives series is a spokeswoman for Bravo. Is he being fired for being out of character? Nah. He’s being fired for staying in character – a character A&E have nurtured and promoted and benefited from. Turning around and demanding a Duck Dynasty star suddenly become the equivalent of a Rachel Maddow guest is preposterous and unfair.
"What Phil Robertson has given A&E is a dose of redneck reality. Why on earth would they fire him for giving some more?"
Katie Couric's daytime show got the ax Thursday, and this did not come as a shock.
With Couric already having signed on as Yahoo's "global news anchor," the program, syndicated by ABC, will finish its second and final season next June.
The two sides put out a statement saying this was a mutual decision. Couric's show drew decent ratings but never became a breakout hit like Ellen.
My own take is that the former CBS anchor would only go so far in playing to the daytime crowd, and still wanted to do some serious topics of the kind that don't move the needle in the afternoon. Having recognized the limitations of the genre, I think she was ready to call it quits.
I don't see her rejoining her former producer Jeff Zucker at CNN. So whether the onetime queen of morning television is done with regular television remains an open question.
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz.