November 27, 2005
The Heart Of Darkness At Time Warner
A few weeks back, the employees of Teen People (a spin off of Time Warner's popular People magazine) told their 1.6 million young readers the February issue would feature two thirteen-year old girls hoping to become the next 'cute girl' singing celebrities.
The girls' mother has reared them to admire Adolf Hitler and, under her parental guidance, they sing in praise of Nazis, ethnic cleansing and the KKK.
After a protest last week, Time Warner initially indicated it would adhere to today's 'fair and balanced' news standard by making sure the article mentioned the girls' mother is a white supremacist. (Presumably, the editorial group behind the piece at Teen People had not intended to let their teenage readers -- or their parents -- in on this.)
Time Warner, though, had second thoughts and later announced they would cancel the article.
According to a Time Warner official, an investigation revealed that an employee at Teen People violated a procedural rule by promising the girls' mother the article would shield readers from 'certain words'. (I am reminded of Marlowe's decision in The Heart of Darkness not to mention 'certain practices' favored by the protagonist Kurtz to Kurtz's widowed 'intended'. Practices such as human sacrifice.)
What does this incident tell us about what the people who work for Time Warner stand for -- that is, how they mix concerns for value (profits, market share, winning) with concerns for values (social, political, religious, family and so forth)?
Thousands of people work in Time Warner's vast array of businesses. Each must rely on the character and values of their collegues every single day if they are to return home and feel good about telling their children, family and friends, "here's what we stand for at Time Warner." Last week's events gave Time Warner employees the chance to tell their kids about their company's shared values regarding racism, Nazism, and ethnic cleansing.
These thousands include an employee who 'made unauthorized assurances to the mother....regarding the prohibition of certain words in the story." Words such as 'hate', 'supremacist' and 'Nazi'.
It was this violation of proper procedures -- not the girls' intonations of hate -- that caused Time Warner to cancel the story - at least if we are to credit the explanation given.
In his book, Democracy's Discontent, Michael Sandel laments the withering effects on politics of a drift toward proceduralism. If people do not make substantive choices about their common good -- about what they stand for substantively -- Sandel argues they lose interest in politics and 'self-government' becomes vacuous.
In On Value and Values, I argue that, in our 21st century world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families, organizations have become our 'towns' - our opportunity to define and pursue a common good with people with whom we share fates every day of our lives. And, echoing Sandel, I believe people who work together in organizations must blend both substance and process in defining their common good -- what they stand for and why.
This incident suggests proceduralism trumps substance at Time Warner (and the 'town' within Time Warner called Teen People) when it comes to racism. We all know that there is at least one dominant substantive aspect to the common good of folks at Time Warner: the pursuit of profits and shareholder value. Indeed, a highly probable interpretation of this event suggests that the executives at Time Warner pulled the story in order to avoid negative publicity that might adversely affect share price and profits.
In this alternative possibility, Time Warner used their real common good -- pursuit of profits and shareholder value -- as the standard by which to reject a story about two thirteen year old Nazis. They did not use any substantive posture about racism and ethnic cleansing. For those issues, evidently, the only standard is one of pure proceduralism.
Was this incident at Teen People an isolated aberration?
Put differently, if editors and writers at Time Warner follow the procedural rules and do not promise subjects to avoid 'certain words', are promoters of ethnic cleansing racists off limits?
Would, for example, Time Warner allow writers and editors who followed all the procedural rules at, say, their flagship Time Magazine to write about someone who promotes ethnic cleansing of Middle Eastern nations in this manner:
"We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity."
So, what do the people who work at Time Warner stand for?
Well, they stand for the pursuit of profits and shareholder value without any minimum threshold of substantive concern regarding race hatred and ethnic cleansing. So long as a subject is 'famous' enough to sell magazines and ad space, there is no substantive subject matter off limits to the pursuit of Time Warner's common good: profits.
Which makes one wonder what would happen at Time Warner if an employee showed up at work one day to croon about Adolf Hitler and the need for Time Warner to ethnically cleanse itself of 'mud' people (the word the girls mother has taught them to use to describe non-whites)?
Here's my guess: Time Warner would take whatever steps were necessary to fire that employee. And the folks who work at Time Warner would be mighty happy about it.
The people who work at Time Warner -- the 'thick we' who share fates with one another-- define their common good in terms of pursuing profits and shareholder value. No surprise there. But, if my guess about the fate of a Hitler-loving employee is right, then the thick we at Time Warner also have a minimum substantive standard with regard to ethnic cleansing and race hatred -- at least so far as it affects their lives together inside Time Warner.
However, that same standard does not apply to what Time Warner sells to the rest of us.
Ethnic cleansing is off limits in how the people who work at Time Warner wish to 'live with one another'.
Ethnic cleansing - so long as all procedural rules are followed -- is okay in what Time Warner finds acceptable for covering how the rest of us live together -- that is, so long as the promoter of ethnic cleansing is famous enough to ensure any negative effects of protest on sales and profits are outweighed by postive effects.
Would establishing a minimum threshold about how and when to cover racism and ethnic cleansing be difficult. Very. But then throughout history, people who really share a common good have had to make difficult choices about what is in -- and what is out. They've had to take responsibility for their actions.
Kurtz of The Heart of Darkness was -- belatedly -- doing that when he summed up his life with "The horror. The horror."
Or, as Marlowe might say about Time Warner, "Certain words. Certain practices."