As 2019 began, Netflix suppressed an episode of comedian Hasan Minhaj's show Patriot Act for the Saudi market, which triggered screams from some Western critics. In an interview Wednesday, CEO Reed Hastings withdrew those concerns.
"We are not in the news business," he said during an event sponsored by The New York Times. "We are not trying to do" truth against power. "We're trying to entertain."
"We can achieve much more by being entertaining and influencing the conversation about how people live, rather than being a new news channel," he added.
Netflix removed the video at the request of the Saudi government, which said it violated a Saudi law prohibiting the distribution of content affecting public order, religious values or public morality.
The removal prevented some Saudis from watching the video, at least on the Netflix platform. But it remained available outside Saudi Arabia. And Saudi censorship strengthened Minhaj's profile in the United States.
"For the first time in my life, I was a bipartisan icon," joked Minhaj. "Liberal and Conservative: They both embraced me as if I were Big Pharma money."
Global media companies like Netflix face a difficult task of balancing competing demands from governments around the world. Free-speech purists want companies to do more to combat censorship in oppressive countries such as Saudi Arabia. But there is a risk that a strong defense of free speech could get a company like Netflix banned from countries like Saudi Arabia altogether, which could be an even worse result for free speech.