Don Imus and free speech

In response to something I wrote about the Don Imus saga Friday, Matt, a journalism graduate school friend of mine, replied and made his case quite succinctly. Another friend, Karl, weighed in, as did I. With our back-and-forth in mind, I'd like to add some detail to my point-of-view. If I may make so bold, Matt's entire argument can be summarized in his own words: "By calling for (and ultimately causing) the firing of Don Imus, it sets a bad precedent for free speech." I disagree, and, though I am as firm a defender of free speech as he, I would like to take this argument in a different direction, speaking to both the issues of our freedoms and the role of the people-powered movement in the debate.
Before I do that, however, I'd like to address another of Matt's central assertions, the importance of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson in determining Imus's eventual fate. Matt wrote, "What happened here was a vast minority of people took full use of the media resources around them (in this case, Rev. Al and Jesse Jackson) and created a situation where there was a perceived national outcry against this particular discussion. Advertisers and corporate executives were pressured into firing Imus lest they be subject to continued protesting outside of their offices. In the face of this pressure, advertisers dropped out and corporate was forced to fire Imus." Quite simply, no.

Sharpton wasn't responsible for Imus's firing. Nor was Jackson. Nor was I. Don Imus was responsible for what happened to Don Imus. He said something both woefully stupid and incredibly bigoted, millions of people took note of the man's sad track record of similar statements, and they responded. What Imus-defenders may perceive as the start of the story - the response - only occurred because Imus so polluted the airwaves. The fault is clear: It begins and ends with Imus. Now, back to my point, about what I think is the collision between the old way of doing things and the new way of doing things. This intersection is especially apparent in the uproar surrounding Imus's statements.

Imus - and his many, many peers still gainfully employed (Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh, for instance) - represent what I'll call "active assholery". In the past, active assholery was met only with what I'll call "passive participation" or, worse yet, nothing at all. In other words, people like Beck would enjoy free rein to pollute the airwaves with all manner of hate speech, while the rest of us had to sit there and take it. If you don't like my choice of phrase, why not use Matt's chosen frame, the free market model? There, our choice was easy: Listen, or don't. Take it, or ... take it. Even the most aggressive tools at our disposal were anything but.

I'm not interested in capitalism winning out. I'm interested in democracy winning out. Expect the market to take care of people like Imus? If that's the case, the market has been doing a terrible, terrible job. In my model, on the other hand, active assholery meets active participation. When confronted with the Imuses and Becks of the world, we no longer have to take it. We can, and should, do something about it. And I fail to see why their rights to speak out trump ours. Referring to the Imus matter, Matt wrote, "The way it was done, in my opinion, subverts that Constitution and opens up a whole different discussion about what free speech truly is." Not so. What would have subverted the Constitution would have been to embrace the old model, to do nothing. By taking back our rights, we actively embraced all that's good about that brilliant document.

Thinking about it through this frame, I see nothing at all wrong with contacting journalists, their employers or their corporate partners and voicing our concerns. How is that different from contacting our elected officials? Sure, the outcome may not be the same, but the intent often is: Seeking responsiveness and the awareness of a particular point-of-view. By likening what happened to Imus to what he believes could happen to me, Matt does a tremendous disservice to his argument. Why? Because, at the core, we're not talking about punishing speech with which people don't happen to agree. We're talking about fighting back against what has been a steady stream of hate speech. Matt's counterexample to the Imus firing - a coordinated right-wing response to my writings - falls flat because my criticisms of those whom the right-wingers admire never, ever wade into the use of flatly bigoted language.

These are the sort of traps we face on a near-daily basis: Contact an advertiser about a prominent media personality using bigoted language and we're taking part in a partisan witch hunt, but make legitimate criticisms of the Bush administration and face ouster simply because we said something with which conservatives disagree. See the problem? As a progressive, I've become used to being confronted regularly with these sort of false equivalencies. And when we're not being held subject to such scrutiny, we're being barraged with muddying arguments like those now being made about rappers' use of the word "ho". This is why, I'm sure, someone will accuse me of being a hypocrite for writing something like this in the past. You told people to change the channel. We're telling you to change the channel. What's the difference? But what I wrote about then - content with which one disagrees - bears no similarity to what I'm writing about now, truly bigoted content.

Who, in the long run, will be more hurt by what Imus said - Imus, or the Rutgers women's basketball team? Certainly not Imus, who, after some time in civil society's penalty box, will surely be back, perhaps on satellite radio (and perhaps, due to the attention now being paid him, at an even higher pay grade). When that happens, there's nothing in Imus's history that tells us his contrition won't be short-lived. The team, meanwhile, will, no matter what heights the women reach in their lives, always face the stigma of being called "nappy-headed hos". This goes far beyond hurt feelings and, in doing so, beyond a simple First Amendment argument. Imus hasn't lost his freedom of speech, He's lost his job. His employers terminated him not because his actions posed a First Amendment crisis; they did so because his continued employment posed a bottom-line crisis. So, in that way, what happened was a victory for the market. And democracy.

Tags: bill o'reilly, Don Imus, First Amendment, free speech, Glenn Beck, people-powered politics, Rush Limbaugh, U.S. Constitution (all tags)

Comments

3 Comments

Good Lord!

Matt's entire argument can be summarized in his own words: "By calling for (and ultimately causing) the firing of Don Imus, it sets a bad precedent for free speech."
This is so incredibly wrong-headed, I hardly know where to begin.

Okay, that's a lie.  I know exactly where to begin:

(1) You want a bad precedent for free speech?  Try the fact that there are virtually no progressive voices on talk radio in the first place, so they can't possibly be fired.

That's a bad precedent for free speech.

(2) Don Imus has been doing shit like this since Noah climbed out of the Ark.  He should have been canned twenty years ago.

(3) Matt, you ignorant slut...

by Paul Rosenberg 2007-04-15 02:42PM | 0 recs
Re: Don Imus and free speech
A few wrong ideas about free speech and Imus:

"Since it isn't the government censoring Imus, it isn't a free speech issue." -- Wrong

Since it isn't the government it isn't a first amendment issue, but free speech doesn't end with the first amendment, it begins there. Censorship by mob rule is as dangerous to free speech as censorship by government.

"It's okay to drive hateful speech out of the marketplace." -- Wrong

It is the speech we most disagree with that we must most protect. Popular speech doesn't require protection. Supporting the King in 1775 didn't require protection. Supporting racism in the south in the 1950's didn't need protection. Yes, that means we will sometime have to protect the speech of those whose opinions we despise, but that means our speech is protected when we say something others despise.

It's a bigger issue than Imus.

by rich kolker 2007-04-16 05:52AM | 0 recs
Re: Don Imus and free speech

Does free speech mean that no matter how offensive, wrong-headed, and hurtful your speech becomes you get to keep your 3-hour television show?

Don't get me wrong, I see your point. But I see many good reasons Imus was fired and think "mob rule" is the least of them.

by Curt Matlock 2007-04-16 07:12AM | 0 recs

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