June 1, 2018

Should Roseanne Have Been Canceled?

Roseanne Barr Utah Pride Festival 2011Amidst all the Roseanne-related outrage, lies the question of whether ABC/Disney should have canceled her show. We know they did it. We know they had the right to do it. Should they have done it? It is an interesting question and one to which a majority of U.S. adults recently polled said "yes." Are they right? It seems like there are at least a few perspectives that could be considered here and that they might produce different answers to the question.

Suppose you were in charge of ABC/Disney. Ultimately, your job is to make money for your shareholders. Sure, it might be nice if this wasn't the case and you were in the business of promoting artistic expression and other more noble pursuits. But just because we might want something to be true does not make it true. With our outrage culture being what it is these days, I suspect that ABC/Disney realized that canceling Roseanne's show would spare them the boycotts and loss of advertisers that would quickly result in a blow to their bottom line. From this perspective, canceling Roseanne's show was an understandable move.

We can also look at a broader perspective in which we consider the notion that a major TV network might have some sort of social obligation. I realize this may sound hopelessly naive, but I don't know if it is really that far-fetched to suggest that a major network ought to have some social responsibility. If so, providing a platform to someone who has said the things that Roseanne has said might be difficult to reconcile. From this perspective, the decision to cancel her show would seem to be sensible regardless of the financial impact of not doing so. Of course, defining this social responsibility and figuring out how we might apply it consistently are not easy tasks.

We might also consider the perspective of those who have convinced themselves that the decision to cancel Roseanne's show had little to do with anything she said and was primarily motivated by a distaste for her politics. That is to say, the main reason it was canceled was that Roseanne is a vocal Trump supporter. While I have real trouble believing that there is any truth to this, I am aware that some people do see it this way. If they are correct, then it would seem that ABC/Disney likely made a mistake. Roseanne's political views would not have been a good reason to cancel her show.

Some want to make this a free speech issue, and I think that is okay. Remember, free speech is much broader than the First Amendment. Not all free speech issues are First Amendment issues. We can think of this one as a free speech issue without claiming that it has anything to do with the First Amendment. By canceling her show, ABC/Disney took a platform away from Roseanne; however, they did little to silence her. I think it is difficult to argue that they impinged upon her free speech in a meaningfully restrictive way. She still has a massive platform, as a result of who she is and the sort of fan base she has. While she no longer has her own television show on ABC, I am quite confident that she'd be welcome to appear on many Fox "News" programs whenever she'd like.

Should Roseanne's show have been canceled? I have little trouble understanding why it was canceled, and I think that it was a smart business decision to cancel it. But I'm not especially fond of employers firing people for speech with which they disagree when such speech occurs outside the workplace. I recognize that an employer has the right to do so, and I recognize that it often makes good business sense to do so. That doesn't mean I must like it when they do so, and I do not generally like it when they do so. In this particular case, I would have liked to see an intermediate step where Roseanne was provided with an opportunity to make a sincere public apology and not just on Twitter. I think this might have been more productive.

H/T to jobsanger