TED's Chris Anderson Offers Up Tepid Defense For Blocking Hanauer Video

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After National Journal, Huffington Post, Crooks and Liars and others expressed outrage that TED Chair Chris Anderson refused to post a TED Talk by Nick Hanauer that questioned the idea of the wealthy as job creators, Anderson responded:

The National Journal alleged we had censored a talk because we considered the issue of inequality "too hot to handle." The story ignited a firestorm of outrage on Reddit, Huffington Post and elsewhere. We were accused of being cowards. We were in the pay of our corporate partners. We were the despicable puppets of the Republican party.

Here's what actually happened.

At TED this year, an attendee pitched a 3-minute audience talk on inequality. The talk tapped into a really important and timely issue. But it framed the issue in a way that was explicitly partisan. And it included a number of arguments that were unconvincing, even to those of us who supported his overall stance. The audience at TED who heard it live (and who are often accused of being overly enthusiastic about left-leaning ideas) gave it, on average, mediocre ratings.

At TED we post one talk a day on our home page. We're drawing from a pool of 250+ that we record at our own conferences each year and up to 10,000 recorded at the various TEDx events around the world, not to mention our other conference partners. Our policy is to post only talks that are truly special. And we try to steer clear of talks that are bound to descend into the same dismal partisan head-butting people can find every day elsewhere in the media.

We discussed internally and ultimately told the speaker we did not plan to post. He did not react well. He had hired a PR firm to promote the talk to MoveOn and others, and the PR firm warned us that unless we posted he would go to the press and accuse us of censoring him. We again declined and this time I wrote him and tried gently to explain in detail why I thought his talk was flawed.

So he forwarded portions of the private emails to a reporter and the National Journal duly bit on the story. And it was picked up by various other outlets.

And a non-story about a talk not being chosen, because we believed we had better ones, somehow got turned into a scandal about censorship. Which is like saying that if I call the New York Times and they turn down my request to publish an op-ed by me, they're censoring me.

For the record, pretty much everyone at TED, including me, worries a great deal about the issue of rising inequality. We've carried talks on it in the past, like this one from Richard Wilkinson. We'd carry more in the future if someone can find a way of framing the issue that is convincing and avoids being needlessly partisan in tone.

It's good to see Anderson address the controversy, but his explanation just doesn't seem consistent with what happened. There are just too many holes in the story. Consider ...

  • Anderson's claim that the talk was 'explicitly partisan' couldn't possibly be further from the truth. Hanauer makes one comment in the entire talk that can even remotely be connected to a political party. This is it: "This idea is an article of faith for Republicans and seldom challenged by Democrats...." That's it. That is not only not an 'explicitly partisan' statement, it's scrupulously bipartisan in its condemnation of parties. And that's the only statement Hanauer makes that is even remotely party-oriented.
  • Anderson claims that the audience gave it 'mediocre ratings.' But the end of the video shows that the crowd mostly gave Hanauer a standing ovation. And even if it he did get poor ratings from many in the audience, that should be expected, since he's explicitly criticizing both himself and the elite audience, many of whom are the supposed 'job creators' the talk discusses. Anderson didn't release any ratings, so we have to take his word for it and his other comments make that very questionable.
  • Anderson's claim that the Hanauer talk was avoided because it "descend[ed] into the same dismal partisan head-butting people can find every day elsewhere in the media," is nonsensical, since the talk does nothing even remotely related to this statement.
  • This isn't the first time that Anderson prevented a talk from being posted or publicly insulted a talk that he didn't like. A talk by Sarah Silverman, which contained offensive language and jokes, wasn't posted, despite getting a standing ovation at the conference.
  • Anderson previously stated "But I think a lot of business managers and entrepreneurs would feel insulted by that statement as given." This makes it clear that he wasn't as much concerned about the quality of Hanauer's argument as he was about how his friends would react to the talk.
  • As cited in the National Journal article: "TED officials told Hanauer initially they were eager to distribute it. 'I want to put this talk out into the world!' one of them wrote him in an e-mail in late April. But early this month they changed course, telling Hanauer that his remarks were too 'political' and too controversial for posting." The video was planned to be posted and it was Anderson who shut it down.
  • The idea that TED doesn't post controversial or political videos is also not true. "Other TED talks posted online veer sharply into controversial and political territory, including NASA scientist James Hansen comparing climate change to an asteroid barreling toward Earth, and philanthropist Melinda Gates pushing for more access to contraception in the developing world."
  • At several points in the ongoing discussion, Anderson suggests that Hanauer's talk is either based on bad logic or that its conclusions don't make sense. He doesn't offer any evidence to back up the claim, though, and a view of the talk makes it seem quite clear that the conclusions Hanauer reaches are not only pretty solid and backed by evidence, but so obvious as to border on common sense.
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