On January 8, the restaurant chain Red Lobster became the 20th major advertiser to stop running ads on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program. It’s not because advertising on Carlson’s show won’t get you in front of millions of viewers — Carlson has the highest ratings among cable news networks in his prime-time slot, and Fox News has been the highest rated basic cable network for over two years. Carlson has been the subject of a highly organized, and apparently effective, boycott campaign.
It’s true that he has made some controversial statements in the past year, but it’s also impossible to argue that he’s not one of the more interesting and essential pundits of the Trump era. The same week Red Lobster announced it was abandoning his show, Carlson delivered a monologue arguing that conservatives placed too much faith in their conception of the “free market” and needed to question whether the economy was rigged to benefit elites. The monologue touched off a fascinating conversation among intellectuals across the political spectrum.
Washington Post columnist Christine Emba found herself reassessing the caricature of Carlson and asking, “What happens when Tucker Carlson makes sense?” The left-wing publication Vox declared, “Tucker Carlson has sparked the most interesting debate in conservative politics.” The New York Times’ right-leaning columnist Ross Douthat declared the “Fox News host amplifies a debate the right needs to have.” Meanwhile, conservative pundits David French and Ben Shapiro offered sharp criticisms of Carlson’s monologue from the right.
There are numerous other instances of Carlson contributing positively to the public dialogue that should be weighed against a handful of controversial remarks. Further, there’s little reason to believe that anything Carlson has said is outside the bounds of acceptable discourse.
There is, however, pervasive evidence showing that left-wing activists are quite content using every tool at their disposal to silence influential voices on the right. The question is whether they’d thought through the disastrous consequences of normalizing politically motivated boycotts.
Even as thinkers and journalists were having an illuminating and productive debate over Carlson’s monologue on the role of the free market, others were busy stoking the boycott against him. “The Tucker Carlson advertiser boycott continues, and what’s wrong with that?” asked Pulitzer-winning Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik in a column last month. “Those unhappy with Carlson’s brand of exclusionary white male power should keep the boycott threat alive — and they should consider themselves to be operating in the American mainstream.”
Now if there’s a case to be made that Carlson’s charged comments about diversity, nationalism, and immigration are outside the American mainstream, the question also ought to be asked whether anyone on the opposite end of the spectrum that deploys racially loaded generalizations about “exclusionary white male power” at the drop of a hat is operating in the mainstream as well. Repeated suggestions that Carlson isn’t merely disagreeable, but that he’s racist, aren’t just unfair. They have dangerous consequences. Earlier this year, violent left-wing Antifa activists showed up outside his home, menacing his wife.
At the same time, there’s no real evidence that politically motivated boycotts, which are largely a tool of the left, are operating in the American mainstream. The skewed presentation of the debate by a left-leaning media; the fact that there are no organized boycotts on the right due in part to a principled commitment to free speech; and the vagaries of craven corporate branding strategies all suggest that support for boycotts might be an illusory phenomenon.
Sleeping Giants to the Fore
If you think a robust public debate involving many differing viewpoints is a precondition for healthy democratic debates—and let’s face it, increasing numbers of politically motivated people don’t—a cursory examination of the organization driving the Carlson boycott ought to be alarming. They go by the name Sleeping Giants. The organization is really just two people, Matt Rivitz and Nandini Jammi, who direct almost all of Sleeping Giants’ boycott activities around a Twitter account and Facebook page. The name “Sleeping Giants” might be a bit of a misnomer. Their Twitter account has only 218,000 followers and their Facebook page has just 56,000 followers, neither of which is much in relative terms. Tucker Carlson has 2.4 million Twitter followers, and Fox News has 18.6 million. (In the interest of disclosure, my wife, Mollie Hemingway, a Fox News contributor who has appeared on Carlson’s show, has 220,000 Twitter followers, which is also more than Sleeping Giants’ total.)
Nonetheless, Sleeping Giants first rose to prominence by forcing dozens of brands to stop running ads on Breitbart.com by simply having its followers tweet screen-shots of advertisements on the site at the Twitter accounts of the corporations behind them. Regarding Breitbart, in nearly all cases the ads are part of digital ad networks, such that the original advertisers have no idea where they appear, and they appear at a diverse array of sites. In other words, there was never any reason to believe that because an ad appeared on Breitbart’s site that the corporation behind it was in any way endorsing the message.
Breitbart is hardly the only place on the internet attracting controversy. Despite doing any number of provocative and harmful things, Gawker, for instance, never wanted for corporate advertising, right up until a jury effectively ended the publication by ruling it owed millions of dollars in damages for its egregious privacy violation—and releasing a video of Hulk Hogan having sex unaware of being filmed was just one of hundreds of very questionable editorial decisions the site made over years. Despite no shortage of bad actors, Breitbart is, however, the only website that’s been targeted for a very successful two-year boycott campaign.
Further, insensitive or incendiary sentiments regularly repeated by left-wing media outlets seem to escape the same kind of scrutiny for offense that have been applied to Breitbart. It’s not a stretch to see why headlines such as “There’s No Hiring Bias Against Women in Tech, They Just Suck at Interviews” might cause corporate advertisers to back away from Breitbart. But you don’t see advertisers backing off of “mainstream” outlets such as the Huffington Post or The Guardian because they’ve run flattering articles on the #ShoutYourAbortion movement, which is the kind of abortion activism that can easily be shown to be offensive and off-putting.
At the same time that voices from the right are being targeted, the kinds of left-wing sentiments that can be published on major outlets has shifted dramatically, with no corresponding pushback or attempt at self-correction. “Can you admire Louis Farrakhan and still advance the cause of women? Maybe so. Life is full of contradictions,” is a real headline that ran over a January op-ed in the Los Angeles Times. Barely an eyebrow was raised over the paper publishing excuses for a virulent anti-Semite who in just the past year has called Jews “termites” and “Satanic” and said “the Jews have control over those agencies of government.” Certainly, there was no Sleeping Giants boycott campaign, even though that L.A. Times piece is arguably more overtly bigoted than anything published at Breitbart.
Sleeping Giants has complained that Twitter still allows Farrakhan a platform, but in searching its site it has done nothing to address Democratic politicians and left-wing groups such as the Women’s March that have cozied up to the Nation of Islam leader. According to its Facebook page, Sleeping Giants has even worked with “our friends” at the Women’s March on their boycott efforts, despite the fact that Women’s March leaders such as Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory have also been vocally anti-Semitic and supportive of Farrakhan.
Rivitz told The New York Times he viewed what he is doing “as an apolitical crusade against hate speech. While he is a registered Democrat, he said he had never been politically active outside of attending ‘maybe two marches pre-election.’” He further defended the Sleeping Giants boycotts as apolitical in an interview with GQ saying, “When the focus is on bigotry and sexism and violence, those are unassailable points.” Rivitz further dismissed any idea that anything they are doing might amount to censorship in an interview with Ad Week. “A lot of people say voices on certain sides are being silenced, and ultimately, that’s a way to muddy the waters and make it about politics versus what it really is, which is xenophobia and racism,” he said.
Yes, in the abstract, bigotry, sexism, and violence are unassailably bad. In reality, determining whether something qualifies sexist, bigoted, or violent can be the subject of a heated political and cultural debate. (Even “violence” is no longer a cut-and-dried thing; if you’ve been near a college campus lately, the Orwellian idea that “speech is violence” has taken firm hold.)
These questions, contrary to Sleeping Giants’ smug certainty, are not easily settled. One of Sleeping Giants’ self-proclaimed rationales for instigating boycotts is being “anti-LGBT.” But what does that mean? Tens of millions of Americans still oppose gay marriage, meaning as a practical matter they adhere to the view Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and half the Democratic Party establishment professed until mid-2012. Are all these people so irredeemably bigoted that their views should be not allowed to be aired publicly? What about people who support religious liberty laws that would provide conscience protections for Christian florists and bakers who don’t want to be compelled to participate in same-sex weddings? Are people such as Andrew Sullivan and Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan to be boycotted for siding with “anti-LGBT” forces on this issue?
Sleeping Giants has made no attempt to define its criteria for what is and is not acceptable as a matter of public discourse. The fact that Sleeping Giants has no established criteria for justifying a boycott is also troubling, because organizations with ill-defined goals are subject to mission creep. The organizers told GQ that the reason they are pushing a boycott of NRATV is because “the NRA pushes racially-charged programming and anti-media propaganda using these streaming services.” Aside from the fact that the NRA has been making conspicuous attempts at minority outreach for a long time now, complaining about media bias—which is an easily demonstrable problem when it comes to coverage of gun issues—is a very low bar for justifying a boycott.
Sleeping Giants has also taken activism in this area a step further, having targeted Apple, Amazon, Roku and Google for allowing NRATV on their streaming platforms. Such “de-platforming” tactics suggest that Sleeping Giants isn’t merely pressuring the NRA so it will stop using rhetoric Sleeping Giants doesn’t like, which is a very tiny percentage of the content on NRATV. Instead, it wants to silence the outlet altogether.
The truth is that Sleeping Giants does have at least one definitive criteria for whether a publication or organization is boycott worthy. It’s just too lacking in self-awareness to realize it. “After the election, we just couldn’t believe that the guy who pushed Breitbart’s racism and bigotry was going to be in the White House,” Rivitz told GQ. “At the time, we were painfully unaware of everything that goes on at that site.”
To some extent, Sleeping Giants’ mission is explicitly about hamstringing a duly elected president of the United States. Now, it is perfectly fine to despise Donald Trump and campaign against him, but saying as much is a degree of basic transparency that Sleeping Giants hasn’t quite managed. If you’re are horrified by the fact 63 million Americans voted for a president you abhor and your first thought is to try and shut down a prominent media voice that supported him, then telling the New York Times you see your work as “apolitical” is either delusional or dishonest — or some combination of the two. But Sleeping Giants presenting itself as a group of concerned citizens, rather than political activists, makes its efforts more effective.
It’s remarkable that Sleeping Giants has been able to get away with such duplicity for so long, but ultimately unsurprising. The group has garnered the attention of a lot of prominent media outlets, and the resulting profiles are so softball that you’d think they were written by someone drinking a beer in the outfield bleachers. Some of the coverage even reads as if it is specifically designed to help with Sleeping Giants’ pressure campaigns. See this headline from Fast Company: “Thousands of Advertisers Shun Breitbart, But Amazon Remains.”
There are enormously harmful consequences to free speech that will arise in a culture where politically motivated boycotts are the norm. Yet, no one who’s interviewed the organization seems all that concerned about a potential backlash. GQ did ask if Sleeping Giants was concerned about giving rise to counter boycotts, but the unquestioned response was rife with hubris: “The First Amendment applies to everyone. If they want to do something like that, they can certainly try. But at least in our minds, the message wouldn’t ring true.”
One reason the two organizers of Sleeping Giants weren’t too worried about pushback against their efforts is that they were quite content to lob accusations against others anonymously. The first New York Times profile on Sleeping Giants, another puffy piece headlined “How to Destroy the Business Model of Breitbart and Fake News,” mentioned a curious fact: Sleeping Giants’ co-founders “requested anonymity because some members of the group work in the digital-media industry.”