Monday, January 10, 2011

Free Speech

On the day when America collectively observed a moment of silence for Representative Gabrielle Giffords and the other victims of Saturday's shootings in Tucson, a war of words broke out over the role "vitriol" played in the incident, even though there probably is no link. And the argument reflected the deep division that has roiled this country over the past few years.

Most interesting was the apparent admission by Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes, in an interview with founder Russell Simmons, that Fox News takes sides in its journalism. "I told all of our guys, shut up, tone it down, make your argument intellectually," Ailes is quoted as saying to Simmons, "You don’t have to do it with bombast. I hope the other side does that." So much for "Fair and Balanced."

But Ailes' words in defense of Fox News were most forceful, "He (the assailant) was a flag burner. He just was not attached to the Tea Party. It’s just a bulls--t way to use the death of a little girl to get Fox News in an argument." In fact, Ailes pointed a finger at the left, "Listen, I have a picture of Sarah Palin hanging from the end of a rope. They made a doll up like her and hung her." Of course, if true, the picture is disgusting. But Palin has many enemies, left and right.

Broadcasting this weekend from the other side of New York City's Sixth Avenue, literally, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann was truly chastened by the shootings. "Violence, or the threat of violence, has no place in our Democracy," he said emotionally, "and I apologize for and repudiate any act or any thing in my past that may have even inadvertently encouraged violence. Because for whatever else each of us may be, we all are Americans."

But leave it to conservative host Rush Limbaugh, the leading Angry American, to rage at media coverage of the Tucson shootings as "childish" on his radio program today. And he jumped to the defense of Fox News and former Governor Sarah Palin, "There is no evidence that (the assailant) listened to talk radio. There is no evidence he listened to Fox News. There is no evidence that he saw Sarah Palin's Facebook page. No evidence he saw her lame website with the crosshairs." But Limbaugh could not resist making an outrageous political attack, "Sad tragedies, where people die, are seen first as political opportunities by these people." He added, "The Republicans had nothing to do with the bombing at Oklahoma City, but it was seen as a political opportunity for Bill Clinton. This is now the same template."

Joe Scarborough, Miki Brzezinski and their supporting cast spent the better part of three hours this morning discussing the tone on America's political media outlets. The take away from the program was that everyone should be more civil in their debates. The discussion seemed to reflect the sentiment in most newspapers across the country.

Just a few days ago, Representative Giffords read the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution on the floor of the House of Representatives. It reads in part, "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of people to peaceably assemble." Of course, this opens the door to those who will speak irresponsibly. Sadly there are plenty of commentators, and even politicians, who dispense with common sense decency in order to further an agenda, call attention to themselves or garner high ratings.

America has more than 300 million citizens, so there are bound to be a few who are on the edge; who are looking for a reason to strike. While we do not know if the young Tucson assailant listened to the "vitriol" of the right or the left, it would be hard to miss the personal attacks and intemperate words spewing from all media platforms. It is time for everyone to "tone it down."

This is a teaching moment. It is a time for parents and history teachers throughout the country to assure America's children that free speech is a precious right that should not be abused. That, while there are political differences in our country, civil debate of the issues will make the country stronger. And every qualified citizen has the right to cast a vote to elect a government that reflects the will of a majority of its people.

Do this in respect for Representative Gabrielle Giffords and the other victims of this great tragedy.

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