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That Was Fast: Phil Robertson Back on “Duck Dynasty”

That Was Fast: Phil Robertson Back on “Duck Dynasty”

What the duck?! Mere weeks after reality TV show star Phil Robertson’s controversial GQ interview, which included racist and homophobic statements, led to his suspension, parent network A&E has announced that his suspension is over: right on time for filming the 2014 season. From “indefinite suspension” to back in front of the cameras in a remarkably short period of time. So short, in fact, that his suspension didn’t even affect his appearance on the 2014 season: he won’t be missing a single episode. What happened here, and what does it say about media, pop culture and activism in the United States?

The controversy started when Robertson’s interview hit the internet, and a collective outburst of anger about A&E’s tolerance of a racist, homophobic star led to an explosion of discussion and debate about a show many people had never even heard of. While “Duck Dynasty” had a somewhat considerable following, many of those involved in the criticism of the show were just tuning in, so to speak, and they all had opinions about whether the network should be providing a platform and a footing for the conservative Christian’s rhetoric.

Some called for his suspension or firing, while others hotly defended him, and a battle raged over whether his “free speech” was at risk — mostly from members of the conservative right. It is worth noting, of course, that while free speech is a constitutional right, this right does not extend to mandated televised airings of anyone’s speech or commentary. Television networks are free to hire and fire at will regardless of the expressed views of their stars and staffers, as this doesn’t constitute a restriction of free speech rights.

Those opposed to the star’s continued appearance on the network noted that it constituted an offense to black and LGBQT viewers, employees, and friends of A&E. They argued that supporting the continued presence of stars like Robertson contributed to homophobic and racist cultural attitudes, by allowing them to pass unpunished. Meanwhile, defenders of Robertson argued that he was free to express his opinions (as indeed he is) and compared a proposed network suspension or firing to censorship.

Quickly seeing that the controversy was growing ever-larger, A&E chose suspension and a statement noting that Robertson’s comments in the private GQ interview didn’t reflect the network’s beliefs or ethics. Robertson’s supporters criticized the decision while those infuriated by his comments were delighted — but now, it appears we are back at square one, with Robertson restored to his position on the show without any real penalties.

“Duck Dynasty” had been in hiatus when the controversy erupted, thus meaning that the suspension was largely a PR and political gesture, as it didn’t affect filming. By lifting the suspension nearly a month before filming resumes, A&E ensured that he would continue to appear uninterrupted in the next season, and the network appears to have sent a mixed message to critics and commentators. Those angry about his suspension are pleased to see him back, even as they claim the network may simply have caved to pressure and didn’t actually support Robertson’s “free speech” rights.

Those upset by Robertson’s comments, meanwhile, feel betrayed by A&E’s move, which turned what could have been a sharp rebuke into a slap on the wrist. Instead of making a statement about tolerance for homophobia and racism, the network quietly capitulated, but the decision and the reaction raise some larger questions. Those offended by Robertson’s comments were unlikely to be among the demographic that watched the show in the first place, after all, and Robertson certainly hadn’t made any secret of his conservative Christianity and values before, so the remarks certainly didn’t come out of nowhere.

The larger question isn’t about whether people will continue watching “Duck Dynasty,” but whether some activists may decide to drop A&E from their viewing schedule in protest of the network’s decision to reinstate Robertson. A coordinated protest might send an effective message to the network that when it comes to corporate responsibility, viewers expect A&E to behave with a minimum of human decency, and not reward racist and homophobic behavior followed by hostile pressure from the conservative right.

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Photo credit: David Wright.

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144 comments

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12:35PM PDT on Apr 4, 2014

None of these so-called Reality Shows are Real. And people who believe they are seeing every minute of every day in their lives are just as stupid as the networks who pay them.
Hate to burst some bubbles here, but they actually have producers, etc., that approve/disapprove content & they edit-edit-edit. Get Real people.
I quit watching A&E quite a while ago and have no intention of watching it again any time soon.
Television is for entertainment-if you're disgusted by these hillbillies don't watch them.
We can turn Religious Fanatic shows off, I just wish we could do the same with the Teabagger Politicians that were paid for by Big Oil, Big Banks, & Big Donors.
Those ones are frightening, these TV ones are irrelevant!

2:11AM PST on Jan 13, 2014

Don L you are absolutely right! I don't watch ANY of the reality shows...I think they are ridiculous! Networks only produce them because they are cheaper to make.

10:17PM PST on Jan 9, 2014

what a Neanderthal jerk!!

2:43PM PST on Jan 4, 2014

Why does anyone really care what a character from a "reality" show thinks? Like the vast majority of these kinds of shows, it's not truly reality anyway. While they may not have scripts, per se, everything that happens is set up and everything that is said is for the benefit of the camera. And even if one were to believe that the show actually follows these people everywhere they go, filming every moment of their lives, the network still edits a week or more worth of footage down to about 45 minutes, so of course, they edit out anything too boring. They want the drama and the controversy.

The "reality" is that someone at A&E probably encouraged him to make those statements because they knew it would create controversy they could capitalize on. The act of suspending him and denouncing his comments and then reinstating him was all part of the plan is nothing more than a publicity tactic. As they say, any publicity is good publicity.

1:48PM PST on Jan 3, 2014

I watch Sharpton for fun almost every night. Sure he's biased. Sure he's liberal. But hate speech? Al? I have yet to hear him talk hate- ever. If your definition of hate speech is calling out the biggots and quoting them word for word and giving their stupidity national airtime, then Go, Sharpton! As long as you are out there spewing the hate bile from your minds, those catching the filth will more than likely throw it right back at you. WAnna say it? Go ahead! But the response is just as legal as the right to make the comment.

10:43AM PST on Jan 3, 2014

Are we sure all the hullabaloo wasn't just a big publicity stunt?? Say something really nasty and cloak it in religious freedom, get a bunch of attention!!!!

3:46PM PST on Jan 2, 2014

I thought the show was being cancelled due to salary demands and lack of ROI by the network. Frankly, I agree with Sherri S. Never watched the show (nor any other idiotic reality shows plaguing television) and don't have plans to. Robertson's comments were simply expressing his viewpoints. As long as he is not inciting violence, that's his right.

11:40AM PST on Jan 2, 2014

WHO CARES????

11:04AM PST on Jan 2, 2014

Funny, when 'that' guy was making his remarks about gays, and what it morphs into, he failed to mention that it is also wrong for the the clergy to bugger little boys, and sometimes little girls. In my opinion, that has got to be the worst sins, as well as criminal. Most pedophiles go to jail, so why look the other way for some of them. I guess the laws don't apply to the religious zealots. And you can say anything you want if you are rich and religious.
.

10:07AM PST on Jan 2, 2014

....sigh....(they should let you know when you've run out of characters)

...entertaining.

I've heard they want more money so should they not get what they want and choose to return to their real lives then hopefully we won't have another round of poor Phil et al if they pack it in.

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