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Microsoft and the 'Savage Nation'

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper asks why Microsoft was missing in action throughout the saga leading up to MSNBC's recent dismissal of talk show host Michael Savage.

MSNBC this week saved co-owner Microsoft from a huge embarrassment by firing Michael Savage after he launched into an antigay tirade on the air. Now the software maker is free to turn the page and return to business as usual.

But, while the Redmond, Wash.-based company's handlers may be breathing a sigh of relief, the resolution of the Savage affair raises as many questions as it supposedly resolves.

On the surface, this is a simple story of a bad personnel hire. The "Savage Nation" talk show host blew his stack last Saturday and referred to a caller as a "sodomite." He went on to say, "You should only get AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) and die, you pig. How's that?...You got nothing better than to put me down, you piece of garbage. You have got nothing to do today. Go eat a sausage and choke on it."

MSNBC later said Savage's comments were "extremely inappropriate" and that the decision was an easy one. If it was so easy, I wonder why the programming geniuses at MSNBC put him on the air in the first place? Savage had been variously quoted calling gays and lesbians "perverts" and Asians "little soy eaters," and saying immigrants are from "Turd World" nations on his nationally broadcast radio program.

But that's less interesting than why Microsoft, a company that carefully manages its public image, remained inexplicably passive throughout the escalating controversy over Savage's hiring last March. Because Savage's show was on MSNBC, Microsoft argued that this was an editorial issue--a question of church and state--and thus beyond its ken. (General Electric owns the other half of MSNBC, as it is the full owner of NBC.)

In a public statement a few months ago, Microsoft said it "strongly supports the editorial independence of MSNBC and respects Mr. Savage's right to express his views. However, we do not agree with Mr. Savage's statements regarding women and minorities, and his opinions do not reflect our corporate values. Microsoft is committed to fostering diversity and respectful public dialog."

That boilerplate mush remained the party line to the end.

"It's MSNBC's decision to make," a Microsoft representative told me shortly before the network dumped Savage. "It's not a matter of (whether) we support him or agree or not. We have a relationship with MSNBC where we do not provide any input into programming. There's a very clear demarcation."

But Microsoft is a media power. Doesn't it have any responsibility when it helps to support the employment of someone who regularly insults nonwhites and foreigners? I asked.

Because Savage's show was on MSNBC, Microsoft argued that this was an editorial issue--a question of church and state--and thus beyond its ken.
"We have stated that we don't agree with the views of Mr. Savage. However, we do respect his right to freedom of expression and the independence of MSNBC to put him on the air."

Up to a point, that made sense. Yet, it also avoided any deeper examination of where and how to draw the boundary between the software company and its own cable channel. There are red lines, and undoubtedly, figuring out the exact geography is a tricky exercise. But, along with ownership comes responsibility--even at its most benign. It just goes with the territory.

To its credit, Microsoft did keep its opinions to itself when Brock Meeks, a crack reporter who writes for the MSNBC Web site, regularly hung the company out to dry with his brilliantly acerbic coverage of the Microsoft antitrust trial.

Michael Savage is obviously no David Duke, but how could his employment have failed to set off alarms in Redmond?
Still, making fun of sundry Microsoft muckety-mucks getting defenestrated by antitrust lawyer David Boies is relatively tame stuff. What about the other extreme? I'd like to believe that Microsoft would have intervened if MSNBC had gone completely off its collective rocker and hired former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. Otherwise, you're left with the impression that as long as the money from the joint venture keeps rolling in, Steve Ballmer and company couldn't care less.

High-minded statements of virtue are fine, but when its cable channel moved beyond the pale, Microsoft looked the other way. Michael Savage is obviously no David Duke, but how could his employment have failed to set off alarms in Redmond?