Pearl Jam, AT&T, and the Case of the Missing Anti-Bush Statements

Pjam_lFor fans lacking the wherewithal (or energy) to attend one of America’s large summer music festivals, the free webcasts of SXSW, Coachella, Bonnaroo, and more available at AT&T’s Blue Room site have been a godsend. But Pearl Jam followers who logged in to this weekend’s Lollapalooza coverage may not have gotten the band’s entire performance — and what’s missing is especially troubling from a freedom of speech standpoint. According to the PJ website:

After concluding our Sunday night show at Lollapalooza, fans informed us that portions of that performance were missing and may have been censored by AT&T during the "Blue Room" Live Lollapalooza Webcast.

When asked about the missing performance, AT&T informed Lollapalooza that portions of the show were in fact missing from the webcast, and that their content monitor had made a mistake in cutting them.

During the performance of "Daughter" the following lyrics were sung to the tune of Pink Floyd’s "Another Brick in the Wall" but were cut from the webcast:

- "George Bush, leave this world alone." (the second time it was sung); and

- "George Bush find yourself another home."

This, of course, troubles us as artists but also as citizens concerned with the issue of censorship and the increasingly consolidated control of the media.

Weird, right? My first response to this was, Uh … what year is it? 2002? But then I sort of got more constructive: Confused and a little dismayed, I put in a call to the Blue Room’s spokesperson this afternoon. After the jump, his response, and what I hope will be a lively, issues-oriented discussion. Completely un-edited, of course!

Considering that the Blue Room is something I’ve linked to a couple times during my festival blogging this summer, it was important to me to find out exactly what I’d been feeding you PopWatchers. And sure enough, the company’s spokesperson told me that the editing at Lollapalooza was not intentional, and was the decision of an "overzealous" web editor at a company AT&T subcontracted to handle the event. "We have policies for profanity and other actions," the spokesperson continued, "but this was a mistake, and we are working with the band to resolve it." They hope to have an un-edited performance online soon, and, naturally, they regret the situation.

That’s nice. But the first question here, obviously, is how to keep something like this from happening in the future. One can’t help but wonder how Joe Webcasteditorguy determined that Vedder’s remarks were somehow inappropriate — according to the spokesperson, the Blue Room’s only policy regarding editing is to remove "excessive profanity" from webcasts, based on the fact that they have no age restriction for the website. What I found interesting is the fact that all Blue Room transmissions are running on a two-minute delay, which, unlike your more standard SNL-and-news-broadcasts seven-second delay, must be an agonizingly long time for any editor to stew over a snap judgment — especially if they’re engaged in a fierce internal debate about whether allowing the liberal rock star’s anti-Bush comment through the filter might get them fired, or, worse, added to some sort of list that could lead to phone monitoring and/or the inability to get on a plane next time they want to visit grandma. And yes, that is a slight exaggeration. But throw in paranoia involving the giant corporation for whom they are working, the opinions/beliefs of shareholders, the chance that you might be providing the dreaded "succor" to the damn terrorists…. Well, one can see where Joe Webcasteditorguy was, maybe, just trying to do what’s right.

So my second question is, do you want your information — even if it’s just a rock show webcast — from a source that censors at all? Many people, including myself, would say no. Because if they’re bleeping the f-word, there’s no way to know what else you might not be hearing … and situations like this weekend’s bear that theory out. I went searching for other places where I could have watched an unedited Lollapalooza webcast, and came up empty. It appears that AT&T and their Blue Room have developed something of a monopoly in this medium.

Which brings me to the third and final question: What’s to be done in a world where we are forced to get our information from increasingly consolidated providers (like, yes, EW parent company Time Warner)? If we can’t vote with our feet — i.e. "no, I do not like the way you are bleeping out those cuss words, so I will go over here instead, until you stop doing things I don’t like" — then we become a captive audience, with no choice but to open up and accept the spoon with which we’re being fed. Even worse, given that most of the consolidated providers are giant revenue-generating corporations, how often are they including or omitting content thanks to economic concerns? And how many of those decisions — often, sadly, the shadiest kind — will we never know about?

I’m going to stop now, before I spin off into some sort of ideological k-hole, and open the floor to you, PopWatchers. Is this Blue Room snafu just a silly misunderstanding, or is it a symptom that something else is wrong? Can the Internet — once a truly free wilderness of uncensored content — survive its ongoing transformation into a medium that’s just as commerce-driven as TV, radio, and paper products? And is it more convenient to be able to get all your information from one source, even at the risk of losing competitors — or just kinda scary?

Go check out Shirley’s recent post on censorship on MTV, Gary’s latest on the trend towards phasing out local movie critics, read the entire post from the Pearl Jam site (which includes linkage to some net neutrality resources), and then post your own thoughts below. Which will be edited for profanity. Sorry.

Comments (23 total) Add your comment
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  • khrystyne

    Please don’t even get me started on how much I hate AT&T. They pretty much screwed my life over. I wouldn’t put anything past these b*stards.

  • mumblo

    To paraphrase School of Rock, rock and roll is about sticking it to the man. Apparently AT&T just doesn’t get it.

  • Maureen

    I’m a Democrat, a big supporter of civil liberties and gave up 10 years of my life working federal government wages as a staffer for Democrats in Congress, so I’ve fought the good fight. But censorship is when you end up in jail for what you say. It’s not when a corporation that has a fiduciary responsibility to its stockholders edits you. If you want to hear the uncensored Eddie Vedder, go see him live. I agree with the band’s sentiment, but I also agree with the telecom company’s right to look after its bottom line (I really don’t think Joe Webcasteditor made a “mistake.”).

  • Tony

    Thank you, thank you Whitney for not just recapping this incident but also for thoughtfully analyzing the issue! When we rely on only a select few of “consolidated” media providers, we are surely vulnerable to their censorship decisions. I think for events like concerts, providers like AT&T shouldn’t have exclusivity without exception. The artists/event promoters should also have some say in how they’re being portrayed, and maybe the re-broadcast rights can be reverted to them after a short window of exclusivity to AT&T? If I’m not mistaken, this is how sports highlights on ESPN work, with Sportscenter gaining a one/two-day window to broadcast local highlights before they revert back to the local station.

  • Ar

    Thank you for raising the issue and for the insights. I personally find it quite scary, and I agree (*sigh*) that the internet is becoming more and more similar to tv, driven by the same commercial interests. However, there is still room for plenty of freedom, I guess one has to be more proactive and look for it instead of stopping at the first link.

  • Robert

    Luckily, I was there, and was able to hear everything. I find it very interesting that they censored the comments about Bush, which got more or less universal support, and didn’t censor the anti BP/Amoco stuff (which led to 150,000+ people loudly repeating an expletive – myself included). Perhaps the Webcastereditorguy was personally offended by it, which I’m sure bothered others. But, it’s not for him to say, and I’m just glad I was able to experience the whole set, live & up close.

  • Honeybee

    This is disturbing, but I do tend to agree that if you get a giant corporation that doesn’t want to offend anyone to sponsor you, you’re going to run into issues like this. Corporate sponsorship can allow artists to reach a larger audience, which is positive, but the price to be paid is incidents like this one. But as long as an unedited version can be made available – and that no one is arrested for discussing or listening to the unedited version, we’re doing okay.

  • Casey

    I don’t care if it is a big corporate gig or not. AT%T knows who PJ is and where they stand politically. They took the chance when they decided to air the webcast. This is another step towards overall censorship and it is scary. It may not be that big of a deal to some, but that’s how these things start. Little things are taken one after another until there is nothing left. Go Eddie and the Boys, I hope they fight AT&T!!!!!

  • Trogdor

    Why can’t AT&T just slap up a disclaimer saying they aren’t responsible for the content of said webcast and not censor anything? Oh and Whittlz, loved your Deadspin preview of the Texans, well done.

  • Ed

    Maureen, I love!
    I would like to share a couple of cocktails with you and shoot the sh*t about politics.

  • G

    The big telecom companies are simply behaving like drug dealers. They are offering services like Blue Room as part of their packaging, but without guaranteed net neutrality, people who have grown accostomed to such a service will soon have to pay out the wazzoo for it. And if it’s censored, why pay for the additional service in the future anyway?

  • Anonymous

    Hey Eddie Vedder, why don’t you put on some more concerts for Ralph Nader. Yuck.

  • Joe C

    I do think that it was a deliberate censorship decision. Go Pearl Jam! One of the best bands in the world! God, I can’t wait until President Cheney, er, Bush is not in office anymore.

  • LiberalTarian

    Was this covered in the news? We know practically every one of P Hilton’s nose hairs, up close and personal, but did anyone (ABC, CBS, NBC, etc., who use the public’s airwaves in exchange for public service) report on the corporate suppression of Pearl Jam’s free speech?

  • Kelly

    This makes me a little nuts. Words have no inherent power- just what we assign to them. The more people throw up their hands about how hearing certain words will somehow magically corrupt the ears of those who hear them, the more power we are giving to words that we should be able to control. How many problems in our society occur because we are unwilling to have frank, open discussions about the things on which we disagree?

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