- "Ole Phil may be a little crude but his heart is good," Willie Robertson says on Twitter
- "Duck Dynasty" star Phil Robertson was suspended by A&E
- The suspension followed Robertson's remarks about homosexuality and race
- A&E now says the show will resume "with the entire Robertson family"
Little more than a week after it suspended "Duck Dynasty" star Phil Robertson for incendiary remarks about homosexuality, the cable channel A&E said Friday that it would include him in future tapings of the reality television show, effectively lifting the suspension amid a flurry of petitions in support of Robertson.
"After discussions with the Robertson family, as well as consulting with numerous advocacy groups, A&E has decided to resume filming Duck Dynasty later this spring with the entire Robertson family," the channel said in a statement.
In an apparent gesture to the advocacy groups, A&E said that it would "also use this moment" to broadcast public service announcements "promoting unity, tolerance and acceptance among all people."
Robertson's son Willie wrote on Twitter on Friday evening, "Back to work!!! So proud of all the fans of the show and family. Ole Phil may be a little crude but his heart is good. He's the Real Deal!"
The announcement came nine days after A&E originally suspended Robertson. It was immediately perceived as a victory by some of the conservative groups that had protested the suspension. One headline on the influential Drudge Report on Friday evening was "A&E CAVES"; another read, "Gay Activists Group Delivered Stinging Defeat."
Chris Stone, founder of Faith Driven Consumer, the group that gathered 260,000 signatures on a petition at IStandWithPhil.com, said in a Friday night statement that he and individuals like him would "remain vigilant as we measure whether A&E's actions reflect true tolerance, diversity, and mutual respect -- including their equal embrace of our biblically based values and deeply held beliefs."
The comments from Stone and other advocates signaled that "Duck Dynasty" has become a weapon in the culture wars -- and will continue to be.
A&E said on December 18 that it was placing Robertson "under hiatus from filming indefinitely" due to the cast member's controversial comments to a GQ magazine interviewer.
When the interviewer asked Robertson what he thought was sinful, he replied, "Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men."
Robertson used language that his family later described as "coarse." At one point he remarked that "it seems like, to me, a vagina -- as a man -- would be more desirable than a man's anus. That's just me. I'm just thinking: There's more there! She's got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes!"
Furthermore, Robertson said that when he was growing up in Louisiana in the pre-civil rights era, "I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once."
He continued, "Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I'm with the blacks, because we're white trash. We're going across the field. ... They're singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, 'I tell you what: These doggone white people' -- not a word! Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues."
When the comments were published by GQ, gay rights groups, including GLAAD (formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), and civil rights groups, including the Human Rights Campaign, alerted A&E. The channel moved quickly to express disappointment in the comments and put Robertson on the bench. But it said the action wouldn't affect any previously taped episodes of the hugely popular reality show.
One season's worth of episodes featuring Robertson had already been taped, so the suspension would only have affected future tapings in 2014.
An assortment of conservative and religious groups immediately and loudly protested the suspension decision by A&E, which is jointly owned by The Walt Disney Company and Hearst.
Speculation ensued about whether "Duck Dynasty" would come to an end, at least on A&E. Some advocates said they hoped that a channel with overtly religious values would rescue the show.
The Robertson family stoked the speculation by issuing a statement that said, "We have had a successful working relationship with A&E but, as a family, we cannot imagine the show going forward without our patriarch at the helm. We are in discussions with A&E to see what that means for the future of 'Duck Dynasty.'"
Inside A&E, a sudden end to "Duck Dynasty" was never seriously contemplated. The show is enormously profitable for A&E and, executives there pointed out in private, for the Robertsons, too. (Any shopper strolling through Walmart, where the aisles are stocked with "Duck Dynasty" gear, would recognize that.)
But A&E executives felt they had to send a message of disapproval after seeing Robertson's comments to GQ, partly because some of the channel's own staffers were offended by the interview. The suspension announced on December 18 sent that message -- and shortly thereafter, the channel and the Robertsons' representatives started to discuss a path forward.
"We knew we had a great partnership with the family," said an A&E executive, speaking on condition of anonymity because the channel and the family had agreed not to say anything publicly aside from Friday's statements.
Talks between the two sides took place on Christmas Eve, paused on Christmas, and resumed on Thursday, leading to Friday's announcement.
While some observers accused A&E of backing down, some of the advocacy groups that were originally dismayed by Robertson's remarks on homosexuality begged to differ.
"It's not really a reversal," Fred Sainz, a representative of the Human Rights Campaign, told CNN's Brianna Keilar in a telephone interview on Friday. "We think it's actually a positive outcome, and we want to thank A&E for their attentiveness and collaboration over the course of the last few weeks."
Sainz said that his group was "heartened" by A&E's plans for the public service announcement campaign. A spokesman for A&E declined to comment on whether Robertson or other "Duck Dynasty" cast members would participate in the campaign, but the channel is said to be hopeful that at least some of the cast members will.
"We've received assurances also that the Robertson family is now open to working with African-American and (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people to address the real harm that such anti-gay and racist comments can cause," Sainz said on CNN. "That's been our 'ask' since Phil's comments ran in GQ, and while it's a positive step, it certainly cannot and should not be the last one."
GLAAD took a more adversarial stance, stating Friday night that "Phil Robertson should look African American and gay people in the eyes and hear about the hurtful impact of praising Jim Crow laws and comparing gay people to terrorists. If dialogue with Phil is not part of next steps then A+E has chosen profits over African American and gay people -- especially its employees and viewers."
For supporters of groups like GLAAD, the "Duck Dynasty" debate was primarily about whether offensive depictions of minorities -- what GLAAD called "vile and extreme stereotypes" -- were acceptable in public discourse. These people said no.
For supporters of Robertson, including a number of conservative politicians, the debate was about whether a deeply religious man had the right to speak freely about the tenets of his faith. These people said yes.
To some degree the two sides talked past each other while the Robertson suspension became national news.
Bobby Jindal, the Republican governor of Louisiana, who suggested on December 19 that A&E did not believe in the First Amendment, said Friday that he was glad the channel's executives "came to their senses and recognized that tolerance of religious views is more important than political correctness."
Jindal added, "Today is a good day for the freedoms of speech and religious liberty. The left is going to have to get accustomed to the fact that it does not have a monopoly on free speech and is not the only group who is permitted to voice its opinion in the public square. The left may control Hollywood, but they don't control the hearts and minds of a majority of Americans."