Monday, September 04, 2006


Should A CEO Be Allowed To Violate The First Amendment?

I am no fan of Tom Cruise, but I don't believe Sumner Redstone has the right to cancel his contract because of what the star says in public. All the guy did, really, was jump on a couch, dis psychiatry, call Matt Lauer glib, and criticize Brooke Shields for taking prescription drugs. Oop... Prescription drugs? Tom doesn't like those, does he? And yet the pharmaceuticals industry is one of the most powerful and price-abusive industries in the world. Perhaps the canny Sumner, in his Passion To Win, so to speak, kicked Tom out the door not because of the declining (if still vast) profits from his latest movie, but because Tom's remarks might someday damage the ability of his movies to sell lucrative advertising spots to drug companies when they are shown on TV. I don't know what percentage of TV ads are plugs for drugs, but they appear ubiquitous. Try to think of a movie or a TV show you saw in the last month or so that didn't have a spot for something like Zocor, Ambien, Prilosec or whatever. Viewed in this light, Sumner's clamp-down on the star's First Amendment rights seems not to arise from an offended sense of decorum at all. Nor did it arise from artistic differences or even the star's box office appeal. Tom criticized an industry, a vast cohort of advertisers with fabulously deep pockets, and for that he must die.

This is an ominous trend. If it grows, it will not only make celebrity reporting much less scandalous and amusing, it will create a ripple effect that will muzzle even the well-considered opinions of serious artists and intellectuals. What would happen if a journalist cannot even publish - much less discuss on a talk show - any book that portrays a corporation, an industry, a product class - or just business in general - in a less than flattering light? As a matter of fact, that is probably already happening.

It is one thing to control speech in the office, but quite another for a corporation to censor the remarks of its employees or vendors in the world at large. I am reminded of a boss I had back when I lived in North Carolina. Although he was merely the proprietor of a third-rate mail order house for women's clothes, he behaved like one of the more paranoid and, dare I say it, imperious of the Roman emperors. He once explicitly warned us not to talk about the "company" - and I mean in any context - when we were in public. He even engaged some of his lesser managers to act as spies. I caught one of these brown-nosers one night while I was entertaining my fiancee and my future in-laws at a local restaurant. There he was, all six-foot-eight of him, with a physique as sadly Coke bottle-shaped as Billy Pilgrim's in Slaughterhouse Five, "pretending" to read flyers on a wood-paneled wall behind us. On noticing him, I extolled the "company" with radiant praise until finally he got the message and huffalumped off to an undisclosed location. I could actually have been fired if I'd said anything even obliquely critical. Now - you tell me. Is that right?

Yet, as corporations displace the state as the real government of America, we will see this more and more often. Your voice will longer be your own - not just on television, but in your local watering hole, on the golf course, even on street corners. Anything you say could be held against you and used as the pretext for your expulsion, on the grounds that somehow, somewhere, and no matter how tenuously, it could have an effect on "profit". The anal retentive pursuit of profit, writ as large as the planet Uranus, will command our silence from here on in.

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