Free Speech and That YouTube Video

In an age when, for many, political correctness (not to mention political opportunism) trumps free speech, one should be wary of assertions that specific kinds of speech have precipitated criminal conduct.

We saw false claims like this in the case of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), when such as the New York Times’ resident shrieker, Paul Krugman, immediately tied the crime to Republican and Tea Party rhetoric.  And we have seen it again in the wake of the murders in Libya, and the riots in other Arab countries.

The immediate reaction to the killing of the American ambassador, as announced by the State Department and the White House, was that it was an Arab reaction to a cheesy video distributed by YouTube called “Innocence of Muslims.”

Reminiscent of the Giffords shooting, though, it’s now clear that the YouTube video had nothing to do with the murders in Libya, and that if it had anything to do with subsequent anti-American demonstrations elsewhere in the region it was likely because of the prominence the American government assigned to the video in the first place.

Apart from the absence of any connection between the Libyan murders and the YouTube video, there is the question of what should be the reaction of American officials and American citizens, media included, if and when something like a YouTube video does lead directly to murderous acts here or abroad?

The answer to that question may not resonate with everyone, but it’s not difficult either.  All that’s needed is some knowledge of the First Amendment and of First Amendment case law.  If the speech in question is protected, as was clearly the case with the YouTube video, the correct response would be to regret the loss of life and to demand that those responsible be brought to justice.  If, as with “Innocence of Muslims,” the offending material was of little or no value in its own right, criticism of the material might also be appropriate.

But in all events – and particularly where the crimes committed were in foreign lands without free speech – it should also be said by our public officials that ours is a country that greatly values and protects the free-speech rights of individuals, even when such speech gives legitimate offense.

The administration’s early blaming of the Libyan killings on the YouTube video was either a rush to judgment or, worse, an attempt at the kind of misdirection as would guide the ensuing commentary away from questions about the success of U.S. policy in the Mideast and/or the adequacy of our intelligence and security operations.

Perhaps the single worst aspect of this affair was the attempt by the White House to persuade Google (which owns YouTube) to take down the offending video.  The administration’s press spokesman, Jay Carney, says they asked Google only to look into whether the video complied with YouTube’s terms of service, as though that is a distinction with a difference.

It is not, of course, and Google resisted the arm twisting and kept the “Innocence of Muslims” trailer on YouTube, though the company did take it down in a few Arab countries, a call that was and is entirely its to make.

The hounding of free speech is done these days not only by the right, but also, and more dangerously, by the left and by the adoption and overuse of terms like “hate speech.”  The threat in this becomes a matter of greater concern when public officials get in on the act.


The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.

Hank Williams Jr.

Even the most basic facts are in dispute.  Was Hank Williams Jr. fired by ESPN or did he quit?  Was Williams’ comment (Obama playing golf with Boehner like Hitler playing golf with Netanyahu) a comparison of Obama to Hitler, or was it an analogy of the irony in meetings between enemies?  And if it was in fact a comparison of the men in question, rather than an analogy, how do we know that Williams wasn’t comparing Obama to Netanyahu, or Boehner to Hitler?  Or was Williams’ separation from ESPN, whether he resigned or was fired, a consequence of other things he said?

We may never know the answers to these questions, but there are some things we can know.  We can, for instance, know to the point of a moral certainty that this flap is not a First Amendment issue.  No court in the country would adjudicate this matter along the lines of First Amendment case law.

There is no doubt that ESPN was within its First Amendment rights to do what(ever) it did.  There was no governmental involvement in this matter, and though Mr. Williams certainly has his own First Amendment rights, they do not extend, under constitutional law, to his continued employment by ESPN.

All this said, nobody who believes deeply in freedom of speech, both as an individual right and as a vital and salutary aspect of citizenship in a democracy, can be happy about any of this.  It is, sad to say, just another example of the steady erosion of freedom of expression in an age of political correctness.

As written on an earlier such occasion, one wonders where the push to sanitize speech along PC lines will end.  There’s no gainsaying that some kinds of speech are ugly and hurtful.  But increasingly, political correctness seems to be working in a way that shuts off honest debate and discussion, and seeks to isolate politically those people whose views or statements are seen not just as offensive but as undermining aspects or elements of the status quo.

Most people with knowledge of the matter understand that the actions of the MSM, regarding issues like those in the Williams affair, can be explained by the media’s fear of damage to their “brands,” often in consequence of retaliation by organized single-issue and special-interest groups, who frequently mount campaigns against the offending media’s advertisers.  Looked at this way, the MSM’s acquiescence in things PC is understandable, but history may show that understandable was not good enough.

Media companies depend on more than the constitutional protection of the First Amendment for their free rein – they rely crucially on the goodwill they create with the public.  The problem with giving lip service to freedom of speech, while breaking it to the saddle of political correctness, is that over time this can erode the public’s confidence in the media as faithful stewards of free-speech rights broadly speaking.

Several years ago, The Media Institute created and launched a national celebration called Free Speech Week, which this year begins today. That we decided to name it this, rather than, say, First Amendment Week, was no accident.  We put free speech in the name of it because we wanted to celebrate and promote not just those kinds of speech that are constitutionally protected, but those that are not as well.  Episodes like the Hank Williams affair demonstrate why it’s so important that this movement grow and prosper.


The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.


The Shrill and the Marginal: The Left’s Criticism of the Media

Readers of this blog know that it’s the personal opinion of the writer that the mainstream media are hurt by the years-long perception, among Republicans and conservatives, that the media are unsympathetic to their views.  Given their large and growing numbers, and the availability of competing sources of news and commentary, this perception seems like both a journalistic and a business problem for the MSM.

This said, we’re always on the lookout for those people who view this matter differently, even where they represent only the most marginal points of view.

Thus it is that we’ve come across a piece in The Nation magazine (than which nothing’s more marginal), by Eric Alterman.  Titled “The Problem of Media Stupidity,” the thrust of the thing is that journalists, unwitting victims of a so-called “cult of balance,” are much too fair to Republicans.

As Alterman so elegantly puts it:

There is a specter haunting America today.  It is the specter of stupidity.  A few months ago, I wrote a column I called “The Problem of Republican Idiots.” Believe me, this problem has not gone away.  No less alarming is that this stupidity is apparently contagious.  The men and women who inhabit the upper reaches of the U.S. media (and pull down the multi-million dollar salaries) appear to believe that to do their jobs properly, they must make themselves behave like idiots in order to be “fair” to the Republicans and their idiot ideas.

In support of this thoughtful view, Alterman cites the progressives’ favorite wordslinger, Paul Krugman, and quotes from an interview David Gregory did with Rick Santelli – seven months ago – on “Meet the Press.”

Santelli’s comments, this one especially, figure large in Alterman’s argument: “If the country is ever attacked as it was in 9/11,” said Santelli, “we all respond with a sense of urgency.  What’s going on on the balance sheets throughout the country is the same type of attack.”

Never mind that Gregory didn’t respond to Santelli, as other guests on the show jumped in with their own observations, it’s Alterman’s opinion that for Gregory even to countenance such a comment without criticism is proof of a kind of intellectual rot among mainstream journalists.  “On America’s most respected television news program,” he wrote, “it is apparently OK to equate a problem with your fiscal balance sheets with terrorist mass murder.  Here again, we see the ‘cult of balance’ destroying the brains of our press corps.”

Given the modest dimensions of his own intellectual attributes, one suspects more people will be struck by the chutzpah of Alterman calling other people idiots than will be put off by Santelli’s remark, in which the CNBC personality was obviously equating not the acts (9/11 and the nation’s balance sheets), but the societal impact of the two, and the need for the kind of urgent action re the latter as was the case with the former.

Still, there remains the larger issue raised by Alterman’s rant: Are the MSM too evenhanded in their treatment of Republican and Democratic policies and politicians?  Do they, as Alterman suggests, show undeserved respect for Republicans?  And if we wanted to test this hypothesis, how would we go about it?

It’s a tricky thing, this business of calling people idiots.  Dostoevsky titled one of his novels The Idiot, though in that case the subject of the pejorative, Prince Myshkin, was likened favorably to Christ, something that is probably not the way Alterman sees Republicans.  Clearer still is that Alterman is no Dostoevsky.

Which is just to say that, as a practical matter, we can’t vet Alterman’s claim just by taking his word for it, any more than we could subject it to the opinions of like-minded leftists, or conservatives for that matter.  This, because whatever “evidence” any of them might conjure up, it’s going to be tainted by their own subjective view of the world, by their ideological IDs, so to speak.

One way, perhaps, of getting around this problem is by looking at whatever evidence there is, anecdotal or scientific, indicating that Republicans themselves feel privileged by the quality of their media coverage, something one would expect to find if Alterman’s claim is true.

Unfortunately for the gentleman’s thesis, Republicans seem not to have gotten the memo. Whether measured by public opinion polls, the public statements of Republican politicians or conservative commentators, or simply by letters to the editor written by Republicans or conservatives, it’s pretty clear that the overwhelming majority feel, much to the contrary, that the media are largely in the camp of Democrats and liberals.

Perhaps, though, there’s another way of looking at this matter.  Call it, depending on your own political leanings, either the “democratic way" or the "way of the marketplace.”  I refer to the percentages of people who, as measured over the years by organizations like Gallup, classify themselves as liberals, conservatives, or moderates.  If, one could argue, these statistics show a much larger number of liberals than conservatives, media coverage of Republican policies might fairly be criticized if it could be shown that such coverage was at the expense of the larger number (of readers and viewers) who are liberals.

As it happens, though, the exact opposite is the case.  As shown by a Gallup poll conducted just last month, conservatives outnumber liberals by two-to-one, and in fact outnumber self-described moderates as well. Even more telling, for purposes of assessing Alterman’s accusation, is the poll’s percentage breakdown of those people who call themselves conservative or very conservative, in contrast with those who say they are liberal or very liberal.

Here are the numbers, as broken down by Gallup’s poll of national adults: Conservative, 30%; Very Conservative, 11%; Liberal, 15%; Very Liberal, 6%.  Apart from the much larger numbers of conservatives vs. liberals, the datum that is uniquely relevant to Alterman’s claim is the tiny percentage of people who consider themselves very liberal.

Why is this important?  Because Alterman, like all of the editorial contributors to The Nation, would admit to being “very liberal,” if not further to the left.  And as shown by the Gallup poll results, very few people share his views!

Seen this way, one can confidently say that whether one believes that the media, in a democracy, should proportionately represent the will of the people, or understands the need for the media, as for-profit businesses, to cater to the majority of their viewers and readers, there is as little evidence that they need to veer further to the left as there is that they need to take instruction from Eric Alterman.


The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.

The Voices of Moderation Strike Again

Readers of this blog may remember the post in January re some of the opinions expressed immediately after the shooting in Tucson of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.  The worst were those, by people like Slate’s Jacob Weisberg and the New York Times’ Paul Krugman, who attempted – before anything was known about the shooting – to link it to right-wing political rhetoric.

Though it turned out that the shooter, Jared Loughner, was just another nutjob with no discernible political interests (it’s always so embarrassing when that happens), people like Krugman and Weisberg carry on, unchastened.

So whereas, re the Gifford shooting, Krugman said: “Even if hate is what many want to hear, that doesn’t excuse those that pander to that desire.  They should be shunned by all decent people,” he is now saying, in columns about the debt ceiling and possibility of default, things like:

A number of commentators seem shocked at how unreasonable Republicans are being.  “Has the GOP gone insane?” they ask.  Why, yes, it has.  But this isn’t something that just happened, it’s the culmination of a process that has been going on for decades.  Anyone surprised by the extremism and irresponsibility now on display either hasn’t been paying attention, or has been deliberately turning a blind eye….

The problem with American politics right now is Republican extremism, and if you’re not willing to say that, you’re helping make that problem worse. 

Meanwhile, Jacob Weisberg, whose emanations within hours of Giffords’ shooting included a piece titled “The Tea Party and the Tucson Tragedy: How anti-government, pro-gun, xenophobic populism made the Giffords shooting more likely,” is now saying, re the debt ceiling deal:

Some of the congressional Republicans who are preventing action to help the economy are simply intellectual primitives who reject modern economics on the same basis that they reject Darwin and climate science….

At the level of political culture, we have learned some other sobering lessons: that compromise is dead and that there’s no point trying to explain complicated matters to the American people.  The president has tried reasonableness and he has failed….

A Congress dominated by mindless cannibals is now feasting on a supine president. 

One sometimes wonders what certain people were like as children, but with Weisberg and Krugman we don’t have to wonder because they’re still children.  As such, they aren’t even worth talking about, especially as there are people on the right who are every bit as juvenile.  But the difference is that the right-wingers don’t occupy such lofty, and so-called “mainstream,” positions.

For all practical purposes Paul Krugman is these days the face of the New York Times, and though Jacob Weisberg is employed by a considerably less noteworthy organization, Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co., as “mainstream” as it gets.

Like those high-frequency sounds that only dogs can hear, few people will be able to detect the value in the opinions of commentators who have such contempt for them, a thing that ought to be of concern to those people at news organizations whose business plans count on mainstream Americans as current or prospective subscribers.


The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.


Tucson and the Media

Never mind for a minute the opinions of those outside the media.  People, for instance, such as Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), who sees in the Tucson massacre the need for a reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine.  Or Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), who in 2007 called on the NTIA to reexamine whether broadcast facilities are creating a climate of fear and inciting individuals to commit hate crimes, and who now says: “The shooting in Arizona reminds all of us that the coarsening of our public discourse can have tragic consequences.”  Or Rep. Bob Brady (D-Pa.), who Broadcasting & Cable reports is “working on a bill to make it a crime to use ‘language or symbols’ that could be interpreted as inciting violence against a member of Congress.”

Never mind even the astonishing comments of the ubiquitous Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, a man who, far from being just your everyday lawman, is a political philosopher and soothsayer as well.

The most disturbing thing about the coverage of this affair is the reckless and, in some quarters, even shameless commentary produced by people in the media.  Witness, for instance, Jacob Weisberg at Slate (“How anti-government, pro-gun, xenophobic populism made the Giffords shooting more likely”); or Michael Tomasky at the Guardian (“In the US, where hate rules at the ballot box, this tragedy has been coming for a long time.”)

But the man whose editorial contribution to this tragic affair represents the absolute nadir of journalistic integrity is The New York Times’ Paul Krugman.  In a blog posted just hours after the shooting, and in a Times piece titled “Climate of Hate,” Krugman relieves himself of opinions that are as poisonous as they are unfounded.  Here’s but one example (among many) of the wisdom and high-mindedness of the gentleman: “So will the Arizona massacre make our discourse less toxic? It’s really up to GOP leaders. Will they accept the reality of what’s happening to America, and take a stand against eliminationist rhetoric? Or will they try to dismiss the massacre as the mere act of a deranged individual,  and go on as before?"

To their credit, and the country’s benefit, Paul Krugman and Jacob Weisberg are not the only people employed by The New York Times and Slate. Those organizations also employ Jack Shafer and David Brooks, whose comments about this matter stand in stark and towering contrast.

Still, it’s one thing when politicians propose restrictions on freedom of speech, and something else when journalists and commentators do so.

One might be inclined to dismiss this kind of commentary if it were an anomaly, a one-off event unconnected to other threats to freedom of speech.  But it’s not.  Early in this millennium the United States has arrived at a time when there is scarcely a special interest or single-issue group in the country that does not employ speech police with direct access to the media.

It’s a time when the latest edition of Huckleberry Finn will substitute the word “slave” for the “n” word.

It’s a time when, as reported here, journalists who break ranks and say something politically incorrect – whether on the record, off the record, while having dinner, whatever – are summarily fired.

Where will it all end?  There are two ways this nation could lose its freedom of speech.  It could happen by laws or regulations promulgated by government, but at the end of the day that would also require that the federal courts go along, something that, given the strong case law in opposition, is unlikely.

But the other way it could happen would be if uninhibited speech is strangled in the crib by political correctness, not only practiced but positively enforced by the political culture as reflected by and in the media.  It is this that is happening today, and the question going forward is how much further down that road will we travel before passing the point of no return?
The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not necessarily of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.

Juan Williams and NPR

OK, so right off the bat let’s deal with what NPR’s firing of Juan Williams is, and what it is not.  It is a free speech issue, but it is not a First Amendment issue.  This is an important distinction because while many First Amendment issues involve freedom of speech, and many free speech issues involve the First Amendment, it is not the case that all free speech issues are First Amendment issues.

At bottom, the Speech Clause of the First Amendment is a proscription on what government can do to the media, not on what the media can do themselves.  As a practical matter what this means is that NPR’s management had the right to do what they did, and that, were this matter to go before a court, its resolution would not turn on First Amendment case law.

This said, the wisdom of the action taken, and what it suggests about the future of freedom of expression generally, are very much at issue here.

People of a certain age may remember the sad case of Jimmy (the Greek) Snyder, who was fired by CBS for some bizarre off-the-cuff comments he made about black athleticism while having a meal at a Washington restaurant.  Other similar cases are those of Don Imus, and more recently Helen Thomas and Rick Sanchez.

So while there are some important differences in these cases, we’re beginning to see a pattern here: When reporters and commentators say things that arguably offend minorities (and thereby disturb the politically correct equilibrium) they get fired.  And the question is whether this is the right, or even the intelligent, way to deal with such issues, especially for media companies?

It used to be believed that the best way to handle speech that is unfair or false was for more speech, not less, and by that measure a better way to have resolved many of these matters would have been for management to issue comments that mock, or directly challenge the falsities, in the offending comments.

Though the dust hasn’t even begun to settle, it’s already clear what many people, of varying political stripes, think of the way NPR has handled the Williams affair: They think it’s a disaster.  As Howard Kurtz, formerly of the Washington Post, put it in a Daily Beast piece: “His firing has backfired, handing FOX a victory and making Williams a symbol of liberal intolerance — on the very day NPR announced a grant from George Soros that it never should have accepted.”

Indeed, the Soros revelation, combined with Republican and (especially) conservative antipathy for taxpayer support of PBS and NPR, guarantee that the Williams flap is not going away any time soon.  As lamented here, there has been a coordinated and richly financed effort underway for months that has, as part of its aim, a substantial increase in government funding for public media generally, and that would oblige PBS member stations to redirect their news programs to more local coverage — the very thing that Soros’s contribution is designed to facilitate at NPR.

But that is a story that will play itself out in days to come.  Front and center now is the question of the impact of the Williams affair on NPR, in which regard it might be useful to examine a couple statements; the offending one, made by Williams, and another, made after his firing, by the president of NPR, Vivian Schiller.

Here’s Williams’s comment: “Look, Bill, I’m not a bigot.  But when I get on a plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”

And here’s Schiller’s: “Juan Williams should have kept his feelings about Muslims between himself and his psychiatrist or his publicist.”

Under pressure, Schiller later apologized for her remark, but going forward that may not mean much.  Put it this way, of these two comments which one do you think is the most mean-spirited and intemperate?  And of the acts at issue — Williams’s comments or his firing – which one do you think does more damage to NPR?

Yes, I think so too.


The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not necessarily of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.

Hate Speech and the First Amendment

“If you bring up the First Amendment, you’re a racist.”  In so many words that’s the message – or threat – to anyone who would dare question the constitutionality of a proposal that the government launch an inquiry into media content.     

The threat is leveled by the National Hispanic Media Coalition (NHMC) in a Jan. 28 petition asking the FCC to conduct an inquiry into hate speech in the media.  The petition was written for NHMC by the Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown Law and the Media Access Project.

Ironically, the names of both groups (“Public Representation,” “Media Access”) would seem to suggest support for freedom of speech.  Here, however, the ultimate intent of these groups is to eradicate certain types of speech (and speakers) in the media, and to chill the speech of anyone who would question that endeavor.   

The petitioners throw down the gauntlet to First Amendment challengers with this line: “The NHMC understands that those who would prefer hate speech to remain under the radar will claim that such an inquiry violates the First Amendment.”  

Let me say up front that I find racial slurs and other forms of bigoted, biased, hateful speech to be utterly abhorrent.  Such speech usually emanates either from small-minded, obtuse bigots, or from persons who are smart enough to know better but are consumed with hate, anger, and at bottom, fear.

However, I do challenge the constitutionality of an inquiry that could lead to the banning of speech – not because I’m a bigot (as the petitioners imply), but because I happen to be a staunch supporter of the First Amendment.   

Like it or not, the First Amendment was designed precisely to prevent government censorship, not only of popular speech but of unpopular speech – even so-called “hate speech.”  

There are some narrow exceptions, like speech that incites immediate violence.  That seems to be the slim reed on which NHMC tries to build its case.  The petitioners say that there has been an increase in hate speech in the media.  Then they say that there has been an increase in the number of violent hate crimes against Hispanics.  By that juxtaposition they try to imply that there is a causal relationship between hate speech and hate crimes.  

But the petitioners offer no evidence – only vague assertions like “hate speech over the media may be causing concrete harms.”  Even a 1993 report by NTIA, which the NHMC petition quotes liberally,  “found that ‘the available data linking the problem of hate crimes to telecommunications remains scattered and largely anecdotal,’ and that [NTIA] lacked sufficient information to make specific policy recommendations.”

So what’s going on here?  NHMC and its public-interest collaborators take great pains to point out that they are only asking for an inquiry into what’s happening out there, “merely the collection of information and data about hate speech in the media” – not for any overt censorship.  Oh, and of course they’re not calling for a reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine, they are quick to note.

But as we know, FCC notices of inquiry have a way of turning into rulemaking proceedings.  And if a rulemaking proceeding aimed at outlawing hate speech had the effect of outlawing conservative talk radio … who needs a Fairness Doctrine?

This is no time for First Amendment advocates to be cowed into silence by bogus challenges to their political correctness.  Speech isn’t always pretty, or pleasing, or even palatable.  That’s why we have a First Amendment.