Wednesday 12 December 2012

Censoring the Aspiring Censors

The other day, we referred in our Jack Benny post to the unusual demise of one of the shows that appeared in Jack’s TV time-slot when Jack didn’t—the forgotten “This is Show Business.” Its crime was an incident I hadn’t heard about until researching the post. One of America’s great 20th Century playwrights, George S. Kaufman, was a panellist on the show. By December 21, 1952, he had had enough of hearing Christmas carols on commercials and blurted out on the programme “Let’s make this one program on which no one sings ‘Silent Night’.”

Kaufman expressed a pro-religious sentiment. He wanted a carol to be held in higher esteem than for commercial purposes. But that didn’t sink into the heads of pro-religious viewers who bleated that Kaufman was being anti-religious, and then engaged in pressure tactics that resulted in Kaufman being fired from the programme (Merry Christmas, George). He was reinstated several days later but if it was a victory, it was hollow as the show was leaving the air.

I wondered if one of the era’s most perceptive TV critics, John Crosby of the Herald-Tribune syndicate, had anything to say about it. Sure enough, he did. In fact, he was so annoyed at what happened he wrote two columns. Crosby’s words remain as important today as they did when they were published almost 60 years ago. There still are people and groups who want the media to reflect only their particular tastes and bias because they insist only their opinions are morally correct. They want others to behave as they do.

Both columns are from early 1953.

Silent Kaufman
NEW YORK, Jan. 3 — 1 have never fully understood what constituted irreverence In this country. Practically anything, I guess. Just try uttering a deprecatory remark about Kate Smith and you’ll find yourself accused of being unpatriotic, anti-religious and probably subversive.
The latest man to run afoul of the letter writers was George S. Kaufman, one of the few genuine wits ever to find his way on to television. Mr. Kaufman, one of the original panel members of “This Is Show Business,” happened to remark a couple of weeks ago: “Let’s make this one program on which no one sings ‘Silent Night.’” Along with several million other people, Mr. Kaufman was fed up with “Silent Night” when used—as it is used—to sell toothpaste before Christmas.
Four or five hundred protesting letters poured in to the Columbia Broadcasting System, and Mr. Kaufman was fired from “This Is Show Business.” Why? Was it because of the religious implications of the remark? No, junior, it wasn’t. It was because the letter writers threatened not to buy any more of the sponsor’s products.
Which brings us back to the question: what constitutes Irreverence? Irreverence, according to this interpretation, is tied inextricably to the sales chart. If sales drop, it’s irreverent. If they rise, It’s sacred. It’s all right to commercialize one of the world’s best-loved hymns to sell products. It’s not all right to make wisecracks about it. That leads us with acute intellectual discomfort to consider whom we are supposed to pay reverance so—a commercial company?
The commercialization of Christmas has upset a great many genuinely religious people besides Mr. Kaufman. It’s ridiculous to call the remark—as so many of the letter writers did — anti-religious. “Silent Night” is dinned into our cars much too much on both radio and television. Out of deference to the Christmas carol it ought to be held down to some decent limits. In any case, Mr. Kaufman’s remark was a mild enough one and also one that I heard in several homes by people who were not at all anti-religious, who were merely sick and tired of “Silent Night.”
What’s the matter with people that they get so easily upset these days? Least upset of all is George Kaufman who calls the whole thing “a tempest in a teevee.”
“That’s the kind of business it is,” he remarked sourly. “It shouldn’t surprise anyone. It’s a fear-ridden industry, and that’s the way it’s ruled. When they get some letters, they’re afraid not to fire somebody and then they’re afraid to hire him back. I have no complaint. After all, I didn’t have to get into television. It’s bad news for the dramatic critics, though. It means I have to go back to show business.”
Kaufman, one of the country’s most distinguished playwrights with two Pulitzer Prizes to his credit, had been on the panel of “Show Business” since it started Nov. 2, 1949. He confessed that he’d been wanting to quit for some time because “I had said nothing in as many ways as know how to say nothing.”
He had lacked the courage because the program was such an easy way to make a living. “This has given me strength,” he added.
“This Is Show Business” is going off the air in a couple of weeks anyhow and whether it ever gets back again is problematical. Without Kaufman, whose acid wit and basic common sense were the bulwarks of an essentially phony idea, it won’t be much of a show.
So the affair Kaufman be comes largely a matter of principle. How innocuous does television have to be? And who runs it—the letter writers or the broadcasters? If the audience is going to have the last say let’s poll a few more than four or five hundred of the millions who listened to “This Is Show Business.” “Silent Night” is a perfectly splendid title for this particular issue. We’re all perforce becoming silenter silenter about everything.

The Customer Isn’t Always Right
NEW YORK, Jan. 9—Completely apart from the principle, the affair George Kaufman ought to act as some sort of useful guide to sponsors’ conduct in future occurrences of this sort which are bound to take place. It ought to but it probably won’t.
The principle involved the original ousting of Mr. Kaufman, who has sensibly been reinstated by the Columbia Broadcasting System, is a very simple one. But it is, I think, dangerously wrong not only on moral grounds but also on practical ones. It is that a sponsor is trying to sell his product to all the people and cannot afford to offend any of them. Therefore any program or personality which offends any minority must go. Now that, from a businessman’s point of view, is very sound doctrine—if it works.
But in radio or television broadcasting it very conspicuously hasn’t worked. There’s hardly a radio on television program that doesn’t offend SOMEBODY. But the reactions vary. Some people just turn the darn thing off. The more militant ones write or phone. This is usually a fairly small group of malcontents but a highly aggressive and sometimes highly organized group. While it is as entitled to protest as anyone, this group is hardly qualified to act as arbiter of taste for all of us. Their private discontents are not necessarily the discontents of those quieter members of the community who don’t rush to the telephone or to the writing desk the moment their sensibilities are ruffled.
However, purely as a practical matter, there is another graver objection to this way of doing business. Every time one of those cause celebres has arisen, whether it be Jean Muir or Philip Loeb or George Kaufman, there has been an uproar in the press. Two or three hundred people get upset about something—and let’s not, for the moment, worry about what upsets them—and so the sponsor either cancels a program or fires an entertainer.
Then the uproar begins. The original handful of protesters is now joined by hundreds of thousands of others, most of whom will take sides one way or another. I didn’t hear Mr. Kaufman make his now celebrated remark about “Silent Night.” I read about it. So did thousands of others who would never have heard about it if Kaufman hadn’t been fired. A very tiny tempest suddenly blew up into a great big one. If the idea is to keep out of trouble with the customers, this is one hell of a way to do it.
Messes of this sort spring up, it seems to me, because of that old precept that the customer is always right. This philosophy works very well in a department store where each man’s problems are dealt with separately. It doesn’t work at all on radio or television where millions of people, with conflicting opinions and tastes, are in the front row. You can’t just fire the saleslady this case. If you do, you mollify one customer and outrage a hundred others.
In other words, the idea yielding to every small bleat of anguish from the listeners is not only morally indefensible but practically unworkable. No one was appeased by the Kaufman ousting and his subsequent re-hiring. Far from solving the problem, the timidity simply created one. I bring it all up at this late date because this sort of thing has cropped up time after time and, sure as God made little apples, it’ll happen again.
The most hardheaded way to settle the next batch of letters that comes in is to throw them in the wastebasket and settle the issue on its merits. Sooner or later popular opinion will force the sponsor to do this, anyhow.

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