Sometimes, offense can't be helped when principles, interests collide
What do you do when your commercial interests conflict with your core convictions, when you have to call out one of your biggest funding sources? This dilemma has been baked into the business model of newspapers practically from the beginning, at least since most of us adopted a mission that put community interest and the public good above personal interest. It has been interesting this week to watch the National Basketball Association, an agency obviously without such a high-minded mission statement, wrestle with it.
The NBA's predicament began with a tweet from the general manager of the Houston Rockets expressing support for Hong Kong demonstrators protesting against authoritarian Chinese rule. China, whose billions of potential basketball fans are a major focus of the NBA's business plan, responded with the kind of cowardly and humorless suppression that is endemic to authoritarian regimes and announced a series of economic sanctions against the Rockets and the NBA. The general manager took down his tweet. The NBA apologized at first, then under pressure from its home base in the freedom-loving United States, issued a revised statement upholding the principle of free expression by its players, coaches, owners and employees. China almost immediately doubled down and announced new, more strident sanctions.
For a while, it appears, the NBA is going to face some delicate maneuvering to mend its relationship with China's governing forces -- at least, if not the Chinese people as well. We in newspapers are familiar with the drill. Not infrequently, we find ourselves in the uncomfortable position of publishing stories we know will anger or embarrass an advertiser or of rejecting an advertiser's bid to write a certain story in a favorable way. It would be disingenuous to say we operate entirely without regard to these pressures, but we don't let them weaken our resolve to do what we think is best for our community and our readers.
We are fortunate to have certain advantages the NBA might be coveting right now. One, we operate in a country dedicated to the values of free expression. For the most part, our advertisers understand that these principles may sometimes conflict with their personal interests. They often respond well if they feel we treat them fairly, even if they resent or disagree with something we publish. And, they recognize that there is unique value in advertising with us, in spreading their message in a medium whose fundamental attraction is trust.
I have always found it a particular source of pride and astonishment to work not just in an industry so willing to confront its sources of funding when necessary but also with businesses and advertisers so willing -- not always happily, of course, and sometimes quite grudgingly -- to acknowledge and accept the difference between their mission and ours.
The situation the NBA is facing is much more serious than a simple business relationship. Supporting people who are risking their health and safety to demonstrate for freedom is not something that can be reduced to mere mercenary equations, and such cultural tensions are likely to become even more profound if the Chinese government continues on a course diverting away from democratic principles. The TV series "South Park," ran afoul of the Chinese with a recent satirical episode, and likely more and more businesses are going to find their financial interests and their core values at odds with the intolerance of the Chinese government. Very few of them have a public service mission, however, so it may be that they will find ways to tap into the vast Chinese marketplace without offending their hosts.
We, unfortunately, sometimes cannot avoid giving offense. Thank goodness we live in a culture and with fellow citizens strong enough to take it when necessary and adaptable enough to learn how to improve from it.
Jim Slusher, firstname.lastname@example.org, is deputy managing editor for opinion at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jim.slusher1 and on Twitter at @JimSlusher.