The CMA Had Every Right to Request Media to Refrain from Politics, Just Not to Demand It

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Look. You know me, and you know there’s little to no love residing in my cold, cold heart for the Country Music Association, and especially for their annual “High school pageantry, meat parade award show bullshit” that is CMA Awards … to borrow a phrase from an incensed Sturgill Simpson. And where is the epicenter of the “pageantry” and the “meat parade” at the CMAs? It’s at the pre-show red carpet ceremony and backstage hootenanny that harbors the worst of slavish, obsequious celebrity worship that country music evidences all year.

That said, annually I unabashedly exploit the CMA Awards as wholesale recruitment effort to the independent side of country music via conducting a live blog and other exercises. All sense of professional decorum is thrown out the window to rail against what is happening to our beloved genre, harvesting disenfranchised country fans from the gen pop who watch the spectacle transpire on their televisions, and take to Google or social media to ask “What in the everloving HELL has happened to country music?!?,” landing right here on the Saving Country Music’s doorstep, greeted with open arms to find like-minded folks to commiserate with, and to be exposed to healthier alternatives.

In the aftermath of the largest mass shooting in modern history at the Harvest 91 Festival, the CMA asked that reporters who were applying for media credentials to interview performers on the red carpet or in the backstage media center for the upcoming CMA Awards, to please refrain from bringing up those terrible Las Vegas memories when conducting interviews with the performers, and to refrain from political questioning in general. And if not, they may be asked to leave.

A bevy of headlines from numerous country music media sources incensed about the restrictions being put on media emerged in the aftermath, cascading into the internet fury we so regularly see in the current political climate.

Taking the headlines themselves on face value, the CMA saying, “NO Questions About Guns, Politics, Las Vegas” as Rolling Stone portrayed, or “DON’T Talk About Las Vegas, Guns, Politics” as The Nashville Scene characterized, could feel like an unfair burden placed on the media, and perhaps even fall into a 1st Amendment issue. However these headlines mischaracterize the actual language that the CMA used in their requests to keep coverage non political, and also, ironically, illustrate why such a fine print provision was prescient and arguably warranted in the first place.

Now just to establish a baseline, understand that Saving Country Music, similar to any journalistic arm or organization, is strictly opposed to any restrictions put on any media, at any time, in any venue, and for whatever reason. All of this goes without saying, even though some, if not many, will gloss over this point when they voice their vehement disapproval over the opinions to follow. Of course the CMA was wrong for saying what journalists could or could not ask on the red carpet or backstage under threat of removal from security, and this can’t be underscored enough.

But the CMA did not say that the media could not bring up the Las Vegas incident, or even politics and gun control. What the CMA requested, and I quote, was, “please refrain from FOCUSING your coverage of the CMA Awards Red Carpet and Backstage Media Center on the Las Vegas tragedy, gun rights, political affiliations or topics of the like.”

By saying “focusing,” the CMA was making sure to not discourage a passing question, or even multiple questions. What they were asking is that journalists don’t make politics or the Las Vegas massacre the focal point of their coverage. It is not a “NO” on political/Vegas topics as portrayed by much of the media. They also did not say that if you brought up Vegas, guns, or politics, you would be immediately removed as portrayed by many. What the CMA said, and another direct quote, “…your credential will be REVIEWED and POTENTIALLY revoked via security escort…” if you choose to FOCUS your coverage on Vegas or politics. 

The entirety of the fine print media request for CMA red carpet / backstage credential can be seen at the bottom of this article.

What was the reason for this provision? It’s the CMA stating the obvious, which is that this is a music event, and that music should be the focus, not the political agenda of some media member who wants to use a red carpet movement for a political tangent, or who might veer into territory that is very emotionally scarring for the artists who witnessed their own fans being murdered by a homicidal maniac only a month ago, and might be taken off guard by an inappropriate question. 

Yes, the CMA could have, and should have worded this so much better, if it was their place to make these requests at all. They simply could have said, “Please keep questions on the topic of music, and be respectful to the performers during this sensitive time.” Threatening to remove people by security seemed unnecessarily belligerent, even though it may have been a requirement inserted by legal beagles, and can also be commonplace in these circumstances (more on that in a minute).

The CMAs underlying mistake was to make these requests of the media in the first place. Anyone who receives approval to cover the CMA red carpet is very unlikely to frag an artist with an inappropriate or pointed question about politics or anything else because you can vet potential troublemakers before they even set foot on the premises. The point of a credential is to prescreen your media pool. By making these provisions (which the CMA has since walked back), they only increased the chances now that pointed questions will be asked of performers, since angry media members will likely test the limits of what they can ask now on sheer principle.

Yet the key to this whole issue, and why it became such a matter of national fervor and import last week that even CNN and Fox News were reporting on it, was by the CMA mentioning the phrases “gun rights” and “political affiliations,” they drew the ire of certain politically-charged and overtly-bias members of the country music entertainment media who’ve already been using their country music coverage to assert a political agenda—some of whom had no intention of covering the red carpet anyway and would never be approved for a credential in the first place—who then turned to social media and their various outlets to seethe about the egregious restrictions they were being asked to sign to, and doing so with misleading headlines which fanned the fervor.

This was never about throwing some innocent journalist off the red carpet if they asked a performer in passing how they were feeling a month after Las Vegas, this was a fine print provision to give CMA security the legal authority to remove someone from the red carpet or backstage area who would attempt to use the event as a moment of political activism or disruption, or to confront artists about their political beliefs, which would not be appropriate in that setting, and is a very real concern in this political climate.

Nobody is saying journalists can no longer ask country artists about politics, as has been asserted directly by scores of otherwise intelligent and rational journalists, artists, and fans. What the CMA simply did was request that media members approved for press credentials in the ceremonial setting of a red carpet event be respectful to the sensitivity of the Las Vegas massacre and keep their questions relevant to music.

The CMA Awards is the Country Music Association’s event. They produce it, they pay for it, they put immeasurable effort out to make sure it goes off without a hitch and is a worthwhile production for their constituents. They have every legal right to say which members of the media can or cannot attend in the capacity of asking artist’s questions, and they are completely in the bounds of propriety to ask people to act in a certain professional manner, and to remove them if they don’t.

Furthermore, the CMA has a right to protect their performers no different than any promoter or organizer. It is very likely these requests of the media by the CMA originated from the artists themselves who have every right to worry in the current political climate of getting dog piled or ambushed in a setting which is supposed to be about celebration and camaraderie, especially after a national tragedy that affected the community directly.

The CMAs are not a governmental institution. They don’t have to allow any media to cover the event if they so choose. Did you know that on Sturgill Simpson’s last tour, no press or photographers were given credentials at all? Far beyond requesting of the media what they can and cannot say, the media is being banned from events now as a very common practice on major tours and from a wide swath of artists.

Similar provisions, including ones threatening forced removal are given to the press at sporting events, film premiers, and other public gatherings. Did you know that to apply for media credentials at South By Southwest, you have to send in your previous press coverage of the event so they can vet it and choose if they want to give you credential again? So imagine if the CMA not only told journalists what they could and couldn’t ask, but then demanded editorial oversight of their work, while dangling the loss of credentials as repercussions for unfavorable coverage, and regularly using those provisions to restrict and deny media members from access as SXSW does. This has been going on for over a decade in Austin, with little to no outrage by the press corps.

SXSW, many major festivals, and scores of venues and event centers all across the country use verbiage similar to the words in the CMA press credentials about being removed for inappropriate behavior that all media must adhere to before they’re given approval. Look at the back of any concert ticket and it’s guaranteed to have a provision about the removal from premises to protect venue owners and promoters from legal repercussions if security must get involved in any situation, for whatever reason.

This was fine print. However due to the misleading headlines—which is what much of the media and public were reacting to instead the actual message from the CMA—it became one of those issues where everyone feels they need to be incited until the echo chamber becomes so voluminous, any effort to give perspective or context is seen as an attack, and any rebuttal is seen as a move towards unconstitutional totalitarianism. It’s torches and pitchforks time.

We’re talking about the CMA Awards. As Saving Country Music has illustrated for the last seven years running, any journalist can cue up a page on the internet and say any damn thing they want about the them, the performers, their stupid haircuts, how much their music sucks, and if they want, rail on them for their political affiliations or misguided stances on politics without fear of any retribution whatsoever.

You don’t want to have your lips cut off? Do the respectable thing and avoid the CMA red carpet dog and pony show in the first place. You really think that the CMA red carpet is a venue for anything more than to lob softballs at powdered-up celebrities? It’s arguably a compromise of journalistic ethics to even attend a CMA red carpet. That said, good on any journalist who has the willingness to crash that party and actually ask an important question. There was a time when being kicked off an awards show red carpet was a rite of passage for any journalist worth their salt.

Nonetheless, if I found myself invited into the CMAs barn for their big annual event, as a gentleman, I would follow their per-apportioned rules and requests. Is it because I’m a media patsy? No, it would be out of a base level of respect we should all have for one another as human beings, and being an invitee to anything, it should command a level of decorum that unfortunately has become too fleeting in the current political environment.

You see, this is the key to this whole fracas: It became so incredibly overblown because there was a political angle to it. Why does politics matter? Because politics is the impetus for people to lose all perspective on reality, and to overreact. Politics is like a contagion, especially now. Hence, the reason the CMA felt inclined to request that media members leave politics on the sidelines of their red carpet event in the first place.

And let’s also not undersell the importance of not triggering very traumatic memories and experiences for many of these artists that attended and performed at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas. Just as the media has the right to ask anything they want, public individuals have the right to decline an interview or to refuse to speak publicly on certain matters, especially if they’re sensitive or polarizing in nature. Seeing a potential issue, the CMA tried to head off any of these inappropriate questions before they happened.

And don’t buy into this self-righteous fervor that somehow this request by the CMA crossed a moralistic red line. Where was country music media when Nelly was accused of rape while on tour with Florida Georgia Line recently? If there was 1/10th of the effort and indignation by the country music media over this ridiculous and overblown CMA media request pointed towards Nelly, he would not have been performing on a mainstream country tour as he fought off pending rape charges and trashed his accuser in the press. He would have been shamed off the tour. But instead, there was absolute silence from country media.

Where is the outrage that not a single country music artist signed to Kirt Webster’s Webster Public Relations roster has come out and rebuked their former associate after countless charges of sexual assault and harassment have come to light? The only performer to come publicly who was signed to Webster is Kid Rock, and he’s not even a country performer. If Kid Rock is the one helping to set the moral example in your community, you know how far your scruples have fallen.

Nashville media, especially The Nashville Scene and the editor Steve Cavendish, played a vital role in the exposure of publicist Kirt Webster, and they deserve great credit for the effort to bring the truth about Webster out from of the shadows. But much of the media is flat wrong to focus on this CMA media provision as anything more than something that was attempting to avoid the ripping of scabs so near a tragedy, and unnecessary conflict in an inappropriate setting.

The simple fact is publicists, managers, promoters, venues, and other industry professionals regularly restrict country music media. Country music is the most restrictive environment in all of entertainment. That is how they’ve molded country media to be nothing more than a promotional arm for the industry and the artists, with little to no true criticism, insight, or commentary making it to publication. How do you think a site like Saving Country Music thrives with no sponsors or underwriting? It’s because there’s an incredibly wide space for people to speak out about what is happening in country that nobody else is filling, and a massive appetite for it.

Politics in 2017 is tantamount to a disease, and an element of online fashion. It is an outlet for the irrational. There is a reason why it’s often disallowed to discuss politics and religion in the workplace, and unwise to do so in personal settings or around the Thanksgiving table. The CMA Awards is country music’s workplace, and artists have a right to not be confronted, or attacked, or asked to explain their political beliefs any different than any other work environment, especially when it’s being posed as a litmus test for personal integrity by bias media members.

Look what has happened to the NFL, and other entertainment institutions that have been unable to keep themselves from becoming politicized? The CMA was wise to try and head off any potential political issues that may arise at the CMA Awards, they were just stupid in how they did it. But make no mistake, there are many in the press corps, including, if not especially the country music press corps, that due to deep-seeded political neuroses, want to see the deconstruction of country music, not as an industry, but as a cultural institution, because they see country music as a haven for racist, pro-gun, Trumpist bigotry, and want to tear it asunder by burying their own bias ideology in country music coverage. That is why these media members were so incensed by the CMA’s red carpet request. It hit right at the heart of their political agenda.

CMA Awards host Brad Paisley said after the CMA reversal, “Bravo CMA awards for doing the right thing & apologizing for this mistake. All are welcome, let’s have a great show.”

Who was unwelcome before? This seems to allude that certain media members were being restricted because of race, gender, sexual orientation, or political affiliation, when this wasn’t true at all. Saying “all are welcome” to the CMA red carpet is a farce. Journalists are still heavily vetted, and very few get the opportunity to actually ask questions of the stars.

Maren Morris said about the issue, “Country music has always been about the truth. Out of respect for the Las Vegas victims, let’s keep it that way.”

Who was asking anyone to lie? What is the “truth” that is being hidden because you don’t want celebrities caught reliving terrible nightmares by inappropriate questions at a red carpet ceremony? This is imbecilic nonsense dressed up as folksy intellectualism.

Not just country music, but every sector of American society not directly tied to politics, must resist the efforts by politically-charged individuals with little sense of boundaries who are purposely attempting to disrupt every element of society that does not adhere to their political ideal. This is also an effort that it has been proven is being very directly fueled by Russia via social media in an effort to sow disharmony throughout American society.

Politics has a place in country music only if an artist chooses to broach the subject with their music or public persona. And only then do they open themselves to whatever repercussions this may result in. This goes for Toby Keith and Charlie Daniels, and their over-the-top American balladry, or the anti-interventionist sentiments of The Dixie Chicks. But they also have the right to remain silent on political issues, and to privacy about their feelings on the mass murder that recently hit very close to home.

As country music’s biggest governing body, the CMA was right to try and address this subject before it became a big issue. It’s just too bad they did in such a manner where they likely exacerbated the problem instead of mitigating it.

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The Red Carpet / Backstage CMA Request, verbatim:

In light of recent events, and out of respect for the artists directly or indirectly involved, please refrain from focusing your coverage of the CMA Awards Red Carpet and Backstage Media Center on the Las Vegas tragedy, gun rights, political affiliations or topics of the like. It’s vital, more so this year than in year’s past due to the sensitivities at hand, that the CMA Awards be a celebration of Country Music and the artists that make this genre so great. It’s an evening to honor the outstanding achievements in Country Music of the previous year and we want everyone to feel comfortable talking to press about this exciting time. If you are reported as straying from these guidelines, your credential will be reviewed and potentially revoked via security escort. We appreciate your cooperation in advance. If you have any concerns on your coverage plans, please reach out to the CMA Communications team in advance so we can be a great partner as we celebrate “The 51st Annual CMA Awards.”