Red, White & Blog: You just published an important piece in SPIN magazine coming to the defense of Jann Wenner. It follows a piece you did not too long ago giving a platform for RFK Jr.’s whole anti-vaxxer position. In both those pieces you have argued that maybe we’ve gone too far in terms of the media’s cancel culture. Why did you feel it’s important to lend your voice to that now?
Bob Guccione Jr: It's incredibly important. I'm sad that there aren't more people weighing in on this issue -- that speech is not free anymore and is being dramatically inhibited, similar to the way the Nazis clamped down on speech in 1936. So it's utterly important, which is the reason I'm doing this interview with you.
Regarding RFK Jr., I didn’t really defend him. I defended his right to say it.
In terms of Jann Wenner, the reaction to that was over the top -- such overkill -- that it suppresses speech and forced him to turn around and apologize for saying it.
What he said wasn’t very smart, and in fact was poorly, awkwardly and stupidly said, but he does have the right to say it. And I think it helps society to have a discussion about those ideas. The problem is that nobody can be criticized, and that’s not free speech, which is what I wrote in my piece.
As for the Kennedy interview, it wasn't just to give him a platform for his anti-vaxxer position. It was to challenge him. But in challenging him I found that he had some valid points.
In my own world I know one person who died from the vaccine, one person who was paralyzed for six months from the vaccine, and my girlfriend and life partner was sick for six weeks from the vaccine. I was perfectly fine, and I think it has helped me greatly, and I've never gotten COVID.
I'm a great believer in vaccines and I believe that there's only a small percentage of people who are impacted, but it is unfair and untruthful to deny that a small percentage of people are impacted. And so we're better off for having that ugly, uncomfortable conversation.
RW&B: Both of those people == Jann Wenner and RFK Jr. -- had free speech and expressed it. I mean, Wenner had the opportunity to say what he wanted in a very public form, thanks to The New York Times. There were no repercussions legally. He's not being prosecuted. What happened to him -- being dropped by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame -- was a direct consequence of what he said. And in the case of RFK Jr., he absolutely has free speech. He’s literally running for president.
Neither of them had their free speech constrained. Other people have just used their right to free speech in reaction to them.
Where do you draw the line?
Guccione: First of all, I don't draw a line, because it's not up to me. But you're wrong in that it is, in fact, constrained speech. The constraint comes in the reaction.
Look at Róisín Murphy, whom I also mentioned in the SPIN article. She's terrified, paralyzed by the reaction. This is a woman who depends on people liking her to buy her music -- especially her main, core audience, which is, in fact, gay and trans. When they don't like her they don't buy her records and she goes bankrupt. She loses her house, you know.
I wanted to provoke conversation, because we're not having conversations anymore today. So when Jann Wenner says something that is patently stupid, patently wrong, that's up to him.
He may be wrong, but the reaction against him is stifling and suffocating, and that’s what’s insidious -- because it’s meant to stop people from saying what they believe.
The woke Left has gone too far, and this is from me -- a long-time, stone cold, card-carrying Liberal. When every bit of criticism can provoke the kind of reaction we saw with Róisín Murphy, or even Jann Wenner, that is actually constraining speech. It’s a societal problem.
RW&B: Don't you see the irony in your position, which is that you're saying that people's reactions to free speech shouldn’t be free?
Guccione: I actually do think it's wrong, but not as a free-speech issue. It’s wrong because it's meant to intimidate. And it's meant to destroy. And that's not right. I think someday one of these people is going to sue the people who attack them for tortious interference, because people lose contracts, they lose endorsements.
I mean, look at Jann Wenner. If he had said something truly viciously horribly racist, then he would deserve the condemnation, but all he said was that he didn’t think some artists were articulate enough on the subject he was writing about. That doesn’t even rise to the level of racism. It’s a level of criticism. And the suppression that followed immediately was wrong.
RW&B: The consequences of free speech have been around long before social media, or even modern media. In public parks in London they still have “speakers corners,” which were established in the nineteenth century so that people could be free to say whatever they want.
But the audience could also react to them, sometimes throwing tomatoes. The point is, there always have been consequences associated with free speech -- it’s just that in the past they were limited interactions. We live in a different era when social media can amplify things to a magnitude we’ve never experienced before.
Do you think that’s the game-changer here? And do you feel something should be done about that?
Guccione: That’s an interesting question. I haven’t thought through it, but I would be against any form of restriction -- even the restriction of lunatics on social-media having knee-jerk reactions to everything anybody ever said.
Just because I mentioned the word “trans” earlier, you're going to get heat for this interview, pure and simple, whether any people read the whole interview. So no, I'm against anything that restricts even their speech.
When I debated the Christian Right in the 1980s over rock lyrics and rap lyrics, I used to say to my friends: “We have to protect their right to hate us every bit as much as we want to protect our right to have music.”
So yes. everybody should have a right to say what they want.
RW&B: Well, MediaPost has comments moderation policies prohibiting hate speech and personal attacks, but a lot of media -- especially social media -- are moving in the other direction. Under Elon Musk, Twitter/X has re-platformed explicit hate speech, including Nazi groups and anti-Semitic groups attacking people for being Jewish or other things. The irony is Musk is threatening the Anti Defamation League for using its free speech to call Musk out, because he claims it has been hurting his ability to sell advertising.
Guccione: I don't know what Musk is doing with Twitter. I'm not on Twitter. I don't care about Twitter, but I get that it's an important part of the societal dialogue.
Everybody has the right to free speech, including anti-hate speech. We need that education. Unfortunately, hate speech is also out there, and the people who propagate hate speech have more energy and desire and drive to get it out there. Most of the rest of us think, “Well, that's crazy," and forget about it.
It’s the same thing with misinformation. People who want to spread misinformation are absolutely propelled to do so, whereas the rest of us are kind of not. Why would we be propelled to further disseminate the right information? And that’s just the nature of the conflict.
We have to remember that hate speech is protected speech. There are 17 forms of speech that are not protected. Hate speech is not one of them. My own view is, bring it on, because it dilutes with dissemination. It actually dilutes its importance. Its power comes from suppression.
The piece I wrote says political correctness has run amok. It has gone too far and that results in suppression of debate, suppression of questioning things.
Jann Wenner was cowed into making an apology, but he could have simply said no -- everybody misunderstood me.