Autopsy: Steven Cohen and the Ad Boycott That Ended His Career

Last Updated Aug 25, 2009 9:04 PM EDT

The news that Steven Cohen has lost both his Fox Soccer Channel TV show and his Sirius XM radio show following an advertiser boycott urged by Liverpool F.C. fans does not sit comfortably with me. As a journalist (of sorts), it is always worrying when someone is literally driven off the air because a powerful segment of his audience merely disagrees with what he has said. But this is not a simple case of censorship in which Liverpool's Red masses have forced their way (even though to the observer it must look a lot like that). Rather, it is a case of a broadcaster who successfully established a market but failed to understand how strong the market he created had become.

Cohen's demise has generated enormous interest on this blog. So it's worth examining why it happened, and whose "fault" this was.

I've received a small number of emails from people suggesting that while they disagreed with Cohen's "conspiracy theory" about who was to blame for Hillsborough, they were nonetheless only opinions and that Liverpool fans who urged the boycott have struck a poisonous blow against free speech. Cohen even took calls from Liverpool fans on his final show who were against the boycott. This BNET reader stated the case cogently:
Although I personally did not agree with the comments made by Steven Cohen about the tragedy at Hillsborough, it is an absolute disgrace the way some members of the Liverpool FC fan clubs have treated the situation. Sending death threats and anti-semitic emails to Cohen and his family is unforgiveable. In an effort to prove some point, these fans have eliminated the most important show about soccer in this country and alienated Liverpool supporters from the soccer community. As a journalist, you of all people should be able to appreciate the value of free speech.
This is serious stuff. It is not to be taken lightly. And it certainly seems as if the Liverpool fans have committed a crime against the First Amendment if you read this highly misleading item by the New York Times:
... when does passion cross the line to madness, fanaticism or worse?

One can argue with the appeal of a TV chat show like "Fox Football Fone-In" on the Fox Soccer Channel, but what is hard to argue with is the right of one of the co-hosts, Steven Cohen, to state an opinion without becoming the victim of opprobrium, ugly scorn, death threats and vitriolic taunts.
But it is not at all clear that Liverpool fans did send such threats to Cohen. BNET readers know I am a Liverpool fan. I've asked around the LFC New York supporters club about these threats, and (predictably) come up with nothing. If you read Liverpool fan blogs, there aren't any anti-semitic messages on them. The supporters I know are genuinely baffled at Cohen's allegations. And, as I mentioned on Monday, Israel captain Yossi Benayoun is key to Liverpool's hopes this season -- so to be an anti-semite LFC fan is currently a contradiction in terms.

Regardless, it was not threats that pushed Cohen off the air. It was the loss of his advertiser base. Had brands such as Heineken merely shrugged at what Cohen was saying, the emails he received would have made no difference. But the advertisers sided with the fans.

This is a key issue, because it is important to understand that Cohen did not lose his jobs because of some angry emails, he lost them because his market -- advertisers -- concluded he had stepped beyond the pale.

Why would advertisers reach that conclusion? (Interestingly, they've reached the same conclusion regarding Glenn Beck's claim on Fox News Channel that President Obama is a "racist.")

The answer is that Cohen's opinion on Hillsborough -- that Liverpool fans share responsibility for 96 deaths at the stadium -- is similar to Beck's. It's wrong: Not in the sense that I merely disagree with it, but in the sense that it's at odds with reality. In many ways, Cohen lost his shows the same way any broadcaster would do if, say, they had continued to insist that Sept. 11 was a conspiracy organized by President Bush. At some point, advertisers take note of the fact that the audience they seek is being antagonized by the mistaken host -- and the money leaves.

The curious thing about the Cohen case is that he could have gotten away with it. If he had only passed his opinion once, then the Liverpool fans would have had difficulty drawing support for their cause. No one would care. But Cohen went back to the subject again and again, alternately apologizing and then repeating the remarks that he knew upset the listeners who wanted him gone. He even repeated his opinion (for which he had previously apologized and retracted) the day he signed off his radio show.

Cohen remains free to tout the fiction that 96 people were killed by their thoughtless friends 20 years ago, on blogs, in email, just like anyone else. But basing your brand on opinions that are flat wrong and deliberately antagonistic to your audience will always fail as commercial proposition for advertisers.

That's what happened here: Not censorship, but bad business strategy.

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