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Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos Says He 'Screwed Up,' But Stands by Chappelle Special

Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos Says He 'Screwed Up,' But Stands by Chappelle Special

Ted Sarandos and Dave Chappelle
Dominique Charriau/WireImage; Mathieu Bitton/Netflix

"Under the definition of 'does it intend to cause physical harm?' I do not believe it falls into hate speech."

Following an onslaught of criticism and facing an impending walkout by employees, Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos spoke out in an interview with Variety about the fallout since the streaming service released Dave Chappelle's latest trans- and homophobic comedy special. In The Closer, the comedian refers to himself as "team TERF" (an acronym for trans-exclusionary radical feminists), jokes about trans women's genitals, sides with DaBaby on disparaging people living with HIV, and brags about beating up a lesbian.

Following the special's release, Netflix has drawn the ire of activists, creatives, celebrities, and even its own employees (one of whom was suspended by the company for speaking out publicly) for platforming what many consider to be hate speech. Today, Netflix employees are set to stage a walkout, demanding better support for trans and non-binary staff.

Sarandos' initial response was to double down on his defense of Chappelle in a memo sent to all of Netflix's staff. "We know that a number of you have been left angry, disappointed, and hurt by our decision to put Dave Chappelle's latest special on Netflix," Sarandos wrote. "With The Closer, we understand that the concern is not about offensive-to-some content but titles which could increase real world harm (such as further marginalizing already marginalized groups, hate, violence, etc.). Last year, we heard similar concerns about 365 Days and violence against women. While some employees disagree, we have a strong belief that content on screen doesn't directly translate to real-world harm."

In the interview with Variety, Sarandos admits to having "screwed up" when it came to internal communication. "First and foremost, I should have led with a lot more humanity. Meaning, I had a group of employees who were definitely feeling pain and hurt from a decision we made. And I think that needs to be acknowledged up front before you get into the nuts and bolts of anything. I didn't do that. That was uncharacteristic for me, and it was moving fast and we were trying to answer some really specific questions that were floating. We landed with some things that were much more blanket and matter-of-fact that are not at all accurate," he admits. "Of course storytelling has real impact in the real world. I reiterate that because it's why I work here, it's why we do what we do. That impact can be hugely positive, and it can be quite negative." He added that some of his comments were taken out of context because it was written in the midst of an ongoing conversation.

When asked to clarify what he considers to be hate speech, Sarandos said he's trying to take creative freedom and artistic expression into consideration, but he draws the line on "something that would intentionally call for physically harming other people or even remove protections," and says that, "For me, intent to cause physical harm crosses the line, for sure." Under this definition, he doesn't believe that The Closer qualifies as hate speech.

As such, he has no intention of removing the special. "I don't believe there have been many calls to remove it," said Sarandos. What he said he's doing instead is continuing to "listen" to the people affected by the situation.

Perhaps not suspending employees who speak out about the real world harm being caused by the company's programming would also be a good place to start.

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