Taylor: Public takes priority over a client

It seems to me that publishers…have an obligation to stand behind what they distribute.

My first full-time job was at a struggling radio station in downtown Vancouver. In a desperate search for audiences, our programming bounced from British music hall, to contemporary jazz, to easy listening, to country.

But one audience remained constant. Sunday mornings, we turned the transmitter over to religion. Any kind of religion. Ernest Manning’s Back to the Bible. The Christian Reformed Church’s Back to God Hour, on the air for over 70 years now.

I recall programs from the Rosicrucians and the Theosophical Society. If you have no idea what these groups are, look ‘em up.

And two versions of British Israel.

British Israelism struck me as straddling fascism and racism. It claimed that the peoples of the British Isles constituted the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel, and that the English Monarch was directly descended from King David of Jerusalem. Somehow, a belief in Anglo-Saxon superiority morphed into virulent anti-Semitism, along with contempt for all non-fair-skinned peoples.

At least, that’s what I heard, as an involuntary listener.

“Why do we put this crap on the air?” I asked the program director.

“Because they’re willing to pay for the air time,” he shrugged.

I have trouble with that philosophy. It seems to me that publishers—of newspapers, magazines, books, or broadcasting stations—have an obligation to stand behind what they distribute to a credulous public.

That doesn’t mean censorship. Recently, some pressure groups wanted Rolling Stone to censor its cover story on accused Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev; they didn’t want to hear what might have caused an apparently intelligent young man to turn to terrorism.

Rather, it means ensuring that published material has been adequately researched, logically argued, and presented with some acknowledgement of differing viewpoints. While I was editor of Wood Lake Books, we published more than 100 titles. I didn’t agree with all of them, but I recall none that I couldn’t defend.

Simply because someone was willing to pay didn’t obligate me to publish ill-founded rants.

I don’t consider corporations to be “persons”—not until I hear of an entire corporation going to jail for fraud. But I believe that the same ethical principles that apply to individuals also apply to corporate bodies.

If I, as an individual, must accept responsibility for incorrect information I convey to others, so must a publisher, a broadcaster, an advertiser. Simply passing along misleading or erroneous material is no excuse.

A group of editors once debated being hired (hypothetically, of course) to edit Mein Kampf, Hitler’s magnum opus. Should we refuse the job? Take it and sabotage the project? Or take it and make the argument as clear and persuasive as possible?

Which comes first—the client or the public?

I know the usual mantra: “If I don’t do it, someone else will.”

Perhaps so. Perhaps some other firm will publish the book, broadcast the program, promote the product. My refusal won’t prevent it from happening.

But I still believe all of us must take responsibility for what we say, for what we help others say, and for what we repeat that others have said.

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