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The Cancellation of Bill Maher's "Politically Incorrect"
-by Jaclyn Sakow, October 3, 2007
Politically Incorrect, a late night talk show hosted by comedian and political pundit, Bill Maher, was cancelled in May 2002 by the ABC Network. The broadcast came to an end months after Maher made a controversial comment on the September 17, 2001, episode of the show. While discussing the characterization of 9/11 terrorists as cowards, Maher stated, “We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly”.
Maher’s comment was certainly received as “politically incorrect” to some, including Federal Express and Sears who soon after pulled their advertisements from the show. Some ABC affiliates canceled “Politically Incorrect” from their schedule and White House press secretary, Ari Fleischer, issued a statement: “people have to watch what they say and watch what they do”. Despite the backlash, ABC Chairman Lloyd Braun stated that the controversial material discussed on the show had no bearing in its cancellation.
In the midst of 9/11 and the war in Iraq, other media figures, academics, and journalists have had situations similar to Bill Maher’s. Ward Churchill, a professor at the University of Colorado, stirred debate with an essay that compared some 9/11 victims to “little Eichmanns”, an organizer of Nazi Germany’s extermination program. The essay gained media attention after Hamilton College in New York invited, and then because of controversy, uninvited Churchill to speak in 2005(Richardson). Churchill was later fired from the University in July 2007. He was reviewed by the University of Colorado Board of Regents who cited that Churchill be terminated for plagiarizing aspects of his scholarly research; the board denied that he was fired in connection to his 2001 essay. Yet, Churchill and his lawyer still claim that the decision was brought on by the contentious essay(Frosh).
NBC correspondent, Peter Arnett, was fired in spring 2003 after NBC executives felt he had compromised his objectivity when he appeared on Iraqi television and expressed that the coalition battle plan failed. CNN terminated Arnett in 1999 following the network’s retraction of “a report he delivered raising accusations that United States forces used nerve gas against defectors in Laos during the Vietnam War. Mr. Arnett said that he was simply reading a script that was handed him”. When Arnett asked major networks to send him to cover Afghanistan after 9/11, they refused citing CNN’s retracted report.
In a telephone interview, Robert Lichter, president of The Center for Media and Public Affairs, stated that he thought these figures from media and academia received so much backlash because the bad timing of their comments. “There are two different periods: there was right after 9/11 and then there was later on after no weapons of mass destruction were found. After that is when these viewpoints became more popular and acceptable”.
It could be argued that these figures, especially because they were subject to the patriotism that surrounds war and 9/11, had their voices “filtered”. In the book, Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky outlines a “propaganda model” of media filters. The final filter, “Anticommunism as a Control Mechanism” can be taken as a sieve that captures an array of ideas that are dissident towards the government, such as unpatriotic sentiment or sympathy towards terrorism. Chomsky argues that within the propaganda model, “In the opinion columns, we would anticipate sharp restraints on the range of opinion allowed expression…we would anticipate outcries that the worthy victims are being sorely neglected, and that the unworthy are treated with excessive and uncritical generosity”(35). Yet, there are also some who disagree with Chomsky, such as Eli Lehrer, former editor of American Enterprise. He contributed an essay to Anti-Chomsky Reader, which stated, “His [Chomsky’s] analysis is very much that of an outsider who knows relatively little about the media…His theories are based on illogical, flawed or fallacious arguments”(68).
Chomsky, Noam and Herman S. Edwards. Manufacturing Consent: the Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon Books, 1988.
Collier, Peter and David Horowitz. The Anti-Chomsky Reader.
San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2004.
Frosch, Dan. "Professor Fired in Free Speech Case; Colorado
Regents Fault Scholarship." The International Herald Tribune.
July 2007. http://web.lexis-nexis.com/.
Richardson, Valerie. "Professor is Disinvited to Speaks." The Washington Times. February 2005. http://web.lexis-nexis.com/.
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