The news that Netflix has pulled one of its programs at the ‘request’ of the Saudi dictatorship in order to prevent Saudi citizens from seeing it is causing concern among defenders of free speech, who say Netflix is putting profits above principle. For its part, the giant company defends its action as normal business practices; it’s just following a country’s laws. In a prepared statement, Netflix said, “We strongly support artistic freedom worldwide and only removed this episode in Saudi Arabia after we had received a valid legal request – and to comply with local law.” In other words, this was Pragmatism, nothing more.
Maybe so, but it’s also precedent-setting…and a slippery slope. How long before other dictators and populist strong men demand that Netflix remove episodes of this or that from Netflix Poland, Netflix Turkey, Netflix Hungary, Netflix Philippines, and so on? If all it takes is a local law, well, that’s hardly a challenge for a dictator.
As a (retired) reporter, I regard Netflix’s action as deplorable. It is yet another crack in freedom’s wall. Presented with the opportunity to support freedom of expression, Netflix failed to do so. I find its ‘pragmatic’ behavior upsetting.
However, as someone who has had a modest relationship with Netflix founder Reed Hastings, the company’s ‘pragmatism’ is not surprising. I’ve experienced it first-hand.
Here’s the backstory: I meet Reed around 2004, when we were working on a documentary about California public education, the film “First to Worst.” I hadn’t considered interviewing him for our history, and in fact I met him only because he came to our home in Palo Alto for a screening of the film as the guest of John Doerr, the venture capitalist who organized the screening. Reed actively participated in the subsequent conversation. I found him to be smart, articulate, personable, and willing to challenge conventional wisdom–a very impressive thinker.
Hastings had been Chair of the California State Board of Education, a position he was bounced from at the insistence of the powerful teachers union, the CTA. A freethinker, he had become convinced that public education needed the challenge of competition, which meant that he supported charter schools and efforts to hold the system accountable. The union was not happy with either of his positions.
We met again a few years later. Because the Education Writers Association was in danger of going out of business, I arranged a meeting between Reed and EWA’s executive director. At some point, she asked for a contribution. If memory serves, he said he believed in education reporting and wrote a check for $25,000 on the spot.
Now fast forward to 2009. Davis Guggenheim, who won an Academy Award for “An Inconvenient Truth,” was producing “Waiting for ‘Superman’” and wanted to use our footage of Michelle Rhee firing a principal on camera. Davis called me and asked to buy the rights to the footage. While we had never sold any footage, my non-profit company was in tough straits, and so I told Davis that, for the right price, we would sign a deal.
A week or so later, he offered a few hundred dollars, an insulting amount–which we rejected. Then, just before he screened the film at Sundance, he had one of his assistants call to issue an ultimatum: accept their offer because he was using the footage anyway.
I was furious. Our lawyer wrote letters to Paramount, and I started calling influential people, including Reed Hastings, to ask for their advice. Reed reacted, well, pragmatically. He told me that fighting back was pointless, because Guggenheim had big money and a major studio (Paramount) behind him, and we were a struggling non-profit. I remember Reed’s saying that some battles were not worth fighting. He mentioned ‘taking one for the team’ and joked about ‘rolling over and enjoying it.’ I told him that we weren’t willing to do that.
Guggenheim may have expected us to cave, but we didn’t. Instead, we leaked the story to the Washington Post, Variety, and some other outlets. Some reporters wrote it as a “David versus Goliath” story.
In the end, Guggenheim’s backers, embarrassed by the negative publicity, paid us a decent amount. “Waiting for ‘Superman‘” was a big favorite among conservatives; from my perspective, it is shallow, slickly-made propaganda that is, unfortunately, quite convincing.
(Guggenheim made Rhee a hero of his film. I’ve often wondered whether he considered changing the film when the epidemic of cheating by adults on her watch was exposed, and Rhee herself emerged as the epitomé of the flawed ‘school reform’ known as data-driven decision making.)
The kerfluffle didn’t seem to matter to Reed, if he was even aware of it. His foundation was one of the funders of my 2013 film about New Orleans public schools after Katrina, and Netflix aired the film for three years.
Today Reed Hastings is an even more passionate advocate for charter schools. He has been supporting efforts in California to expand their number and to elect pro-charter school board members in Los Angeles and elsewhere. He’s on the progressive left’s list of betes noires, of course. He’s also a brilliant–and pragmatic–businessman whose model, Netflix, continues to upend the digital world.
Whether his ‘pragmatic’ approach to self-censorship will prove harmful is anyone’s guess. We’ll learn more when the next dictator demands that Netflix stop airing some programs. Stay tuned.
(And I may be part of the problem, because we haven’t cancelled our subscription and are looking forward to bingeing on “Frankie and Grace.”)
Is Reed Hastings still a strong supporter of independent journalism and a vigorous free press? I hope so, but, based on his Saudi Arabia decision, I don’t think the Education Writers Association should bother asking for support any time soon.