So much for the “friendly skies of United.”
The in-flight television offerings of the Chicago-based airline—specifically the setting of conservative-leaning Newsmax TV as United’s default channel available to passengers—has become the subject of a bitter and decidedly unfriendly social media debate since one of President Obama’s former top aides complained on Twitter Monday night.
“Hey there, @united,” former White House Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton tweeted. “Why on earth is newsmax tv the default channel running on all of your screens when boarding your planes?”
Burton’s protest—by no means the first from a Democratic-leaning passenger since Newsmax TV was designated United’s default channel early last fall—has prompted a Twitter war, full of sound and fury, over the notion that a presumably neutral commercial airline would foist upon its diverse customer base a media outlet known for its right-wing ideology.
Judging by the efforts of both United and DirecTV, the airline’s satellite television provider, to distance themselves from the decision to give Newsmax TV the prime channel position, nobody seems eager to take credit for what once might have seemed a bright idea.
A United Airlines spokesperson emailed The Daily Beast: “The default channel on our live television service changes based on marketing agreements established between the live television service provider, programmers and the airline…In this case, it was the live television service provider,” namely DirecTV.
A DirectTV spokesperson emailed: “Our job is to make sure our satellites deliver programming to
the airplane. We don't decide which in-flight channels get preference over another.”
Yet Newsmax editor in chief Chris Ruddy, who launched the Newsmax TV live streaming channel two years ago, and this summer arranged for the channel to be carried on cable by DirecTV and Dish, said: “They asked if we would be interested in being the [United Airlines] default channel. We said yes. Whatever their thinking was, they did it.”
Ruddy was vague on what he meant by “they,” but in this context appears to be a company called LiveTV, which configures airline television channels and other in-flight entertainment, and, like Newsmax, is based in Florida. A LiveTV spokesman said he could not provide an answer on the Newsmax TV/United decision by deadline.
Meanwhile, here’s a sampling of the airborne acrimony inspired by Bill Burton’s accusatory question, “Why on earth is Newsmax TV the default channel?…":
@grizzlymamabear: “Because it’s better than the leftist drivel of most MSM.”
Missin’ Old Glory: “Is this why a no show in Paris? Don’t like free speech.”
@1everydaywoman: “Hey you Liberal idiots, no one is forcing you to listen. So sick of whinny [sic] Libs!”
A Twitter user who goes by the handle “Barry Choom”—a cheeky reference to Obama’s high-school nickname and his youthfully indiscreet membership in a marijuana-smoking club called the “choom gang”—fired back at the president’s loyalist: “Yo @billburton newsmax tv tells the truth vs. the marxist propaganda u prefer.”
A pro-Burton tweeter, @Joesentme, asked: “Why would crappy channel (ANY crappy channel) like newsmax be United’s default? Oh, right, crap airline, crap channel.”
The airline, meanwhile, tried to placate Burton—who is hardly a Marxist, but instead a handsomely-paid Democratic strategist—officially tweeting to the operative: “In the coming months we will be removing that as our default channel."
Which, of course, prompted some right-leaning tweeters to chide the airline for allegedly succumbing to political correctness and giving in to a leftist tantrum. According to the Newsmax web site’s own report on the flap, “some United customers are not happy about the airline’s quick cave-in to P.C. browbeating. One person tweeted back: ‘Why would you remove it? Because some liberal whined?’”
In fact, a United spokesperson told The Daily Beast that Burton—who didn’t respond to a direct Twitter message from The Daily Beast—nearly missed his chance to complain; Newsmax TV was already scheduled to be rotated out as the in-flight default channel as of early February.
Newsmax’s Ruddy—reached on Tuesday—agreed with United’s interpretation of the situation, thus undermining his own news site’s suggestion that the airline was somehow intimidated by the Mighty Burton.
“We were told it was temporary,” Ruddy said, noting that Newsmax TV reaches 35 million cable customers.
“We are the leading Republican-leaning website in the country,” Ruddy added, “but our approach [on the channel] is to be a kinder, gentler Fox, and be a little more of a lifestyle, health and finance channel.”
Ruddy went on: “We like to cover politics but we’re trying to be independent…You’d be surprised at how many Democratic strategists are on all day long. That’s the difference between Newsmax and other cable channels that try to get people to think one way or another. I don’t send messages to my hosts saying I want you to push this or that.”
As for Bill Burton’s grievances, “You can’t make everybody happy, but I’d like to please tell Bill you’re welcome to come on anytime you want and give your point of view,” Ruddy said.
"We’d like to have the president come on and talk about the things he’s pushing. I personally like his community college idea”—an Obama proposal to provide community college students with federal tuition grants. “I think the Republicans should be doing things like that. If we were doing things like that, we’d be in the White House.”
Meanwhile, it’s very likely that in the future United will attempt to avoid rough PR weather by taking the controls of its in-flight channel settings.