To a journalist, there’s no graver sin than censorship.
As playwright Eugene O’Neill once said, “Censorship of anything, at any time, in any place, on whatever pretense, has always been and will always be the last resort of the boob and the bigot.”
This week, one of the largest owners and distributors of AM and FM radio is being accused of censorship for deciding not to air an interview with one of the leading presidential candidates. The company, Cumulus Media, is conservative. The candidate is a Democrat and gay. On its face, it would seem a clear case of politically motivated censorship — and quite a boobish and bigoted one at that.
But this isn’t entirely fair, and critics of the move may be politically motivated themselves.
I’ve praised and admired South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s willingness to take his message to unexpected and off-beat places. He started out with virtually no national name recognition and is now in the top five of most polls among the Democratic candidates for president thanks in large part to his accessibility.
In that vein, the campaign reached out to country music radio host Blair Garner, whose nationally syndicated show reaches many listeners less likely to hear from a left-of-center politician — or any politician at all.
Garner himself was surprised at the request. “But more than surprised, I was EXTREMELY flattered,” he wrote. “One of the few truly viable candidates in the race raised his hand and asked for a place at the table. I was willing to give him that seat. I would have also given a seat to any other viable candidate, from both sides.”
His gratefulness was evident as Garner heaped praise on the candidate throughout the interview. According to Buttigieg’s spokeswoman, “it was a great discussion,” and it accomplished the campaign mission of reaching unexpected audiences.
But Cumulus refused to air it, citing FCC rules regarding equal time for political candidates. At best, that’s probably a misinterpretation of equal time rules. But some believe it’s much worse, a convenient excuse to silence a gay Democrat whose views their audiences wouldn’t much like.
That claim falls apart in a few ways.
For starters, the conversation focused heavily on Buttigieg’s Christian faith and Scripture. Further, Buttigieg’s sexuality never came up; he mentioned his marriage only in passing. In fact, Garner invoked a well-worn homophobic conspiracy theory to ask Buttigieg whether President Trump had “nudes” of Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, whose one-time criticism of Trump has turned into fawning loyalty.
Buttigieg talked in broad platitudes about Democratic policies, but he didn’t bash Trump or Republicans. He discussed his service in the Navy. If Cumulus’s aversion to the interview was purely political, it isn’t exactly clear why.
It should also be noted that Cumulus, which could technically claim it owned the Buttigieg interview, still allowed it to air on Garner’s personal SoundCloud page. As of this writing, it’s been played more than 57,000 times.
The clearest justification for Cumulus’ decision, though, is that politics is outside the purview of Garner’s show. By his own admission, “I’m not a political guy. My radio show isn’t political, nor does it aspire to be that.”
And yet, the 20 minute interview at times veered into weedsy issues like the efficacy of the Electoral College and redistricting. I listened to the whole thing — and if I were a country music fan expecting my usual melange of music and light banter, I’d be pretty peeved I was being subjected to a long discussion better suited for NPR or C-SPAN.
Other media outlets have suffered from encouraging politics to infiltrate otherwise entertainment programming. ESPN’s Dan Le Batard recently criticized the company’s new policy to avoid getting political, a lesson the network learned the hard way after viewer backlash to its mixing of sports and politics.
Maybe Cumulus knows its audience is just there for the music.
The narrative is tempting: Buttigieg, a liberal media darling is being “silenced” by right-wing country music fanatics. But I wonder if the same people would be just as outraged if a pop music station based in Los Angeles refused to air a radio host’s interview with Mike Pence. The very premise is laughable.
Pete Buttigieg is a talent, and I think more people should get to know him. His willingness to venture into unfamiliar, even hostile territory is truly commendable. But just because Buttigieg wants to go everywhere doesn’t mean everywhere must give him a platform. That’s not always censorship; sometimes it’s just good business.
S.E. Cupp is the host of “S.E. Cupp Unfiltered” on CNN.