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Liberals open minds, brains fall out over Juan Willams’ firing.

I shouldn’t be surprised over the lefty reaction to Juan Williams’ firing.  Ok, I’m not surprised.  Some people seem to think this is a free speech issue.  It’s not.  Allow me to insert my humble opinion as a former dedicated NPR listener.

Juan Williams parked himself on NPR during the Bush years.  That’s when I really started to notice him on NPR.  It was about that time that Congress appointed some Republican operative to the head of the corporation for public broadcasting and severely cut the budgets of CPB programming.  Eventually, NPR was pretty much on its own, getting underwriting from companies that specialize in ‘Wealth Management”.  The tenor of the reporting changed and Juan Williams was one of the leaders of that change.

In order to not offend the Republicans who might be listening in, the reports became more “on the one hand, on the other hand”.  Both sides were presented equally as if there was nothing at all wrong with any batshit crazy thing a movement conservative might say.  Mara Liasson and Steve Inskeep joined in.  Some of the interviews of Democrats became downright hostile.  I can remember one that Inskeep did with Rahm Emannuel that was inexplicably aggressive and nasty and I don’t even like Rahm.  In other words, NPR became just like every other media outlet: afraid to tell the truth without couching it in terms that conservatives wouldn’t find offensive.

Over time, instead of getting a quality news program that I had listened to for over 20 years, NPR became dependent on its donors – those wealth management people.  The reporting definitely suffered.  I used to write NPR diaries at DailyKos documenting the sad demise of NPR.  Juan, Mara and Steve lead the way, along with a generous dollop of Cokie “Tokyo Rose” Roberts.  The Village had gotten a grip on Morning Edition and All things Considered and it began to specialize in High Broderism.

Fast forward to 2010.  Now we are in the midst of a fall fund raiser and maybe the corporate donations aren’t as abundant as they used to be.  And maybe listeners aren’t ponying up either.  Then Juan Williams agrees with O’Reilly that muslims going all jihad is the greatest threat to this country.  Are you going to donate to NPR after you hear that?  Because O’Reilly is clearly looney toons and if Juan is agreeing with him, that means that Williams might also bring that perspective to NPR.  Listeners can come to two possible explanations for Wiliiams’ statements: 1.) he shares some of conservative O’Reilly’s bigoted beliefs about muslims or 2.) he has no problem pandering to the viewers’ base emotional responses for money.  If I am a listener of NPR, I pride myself that I am also NOT a listener of Bill O’Reilly, no matter how soft and squishy the reporting has become.  I start to make calls to the NPR member station and threaten to withhold my contribution.  (Actually, I’ve done this in the past over Mara and Steve).

The head of NPR, Vivian Whatshername, has had enough.  Juan is hurting the NPR brand name and threatening the credibility of the station. Is he a secret conservative shill who lets his sympathies for Fox viewers cloud his reporting on NPR?  If he isn’t fired, would any listener contributors believe anything Williams has to say after this point?   He was warned several times before about this.  He crossed the line.  He has to go.

Here’s my take on this: no matter how far NPR has fallen from its zenith in the nineties, it still has a reputation to maintain as a genuine news organization.  Journalism is what it does.  Once that mission is threatened by the possibility that some of your staff are not above demogoguery and pandering, the whole enterprise is threatened.  Money and budgets disappear as do the rest of your staff.  Juan undermines NPR’s news credibility.

Now, some of you may argue, unsuccessfully IMHO, that NPR violated Williams’ free speech when it terminated his contract.  That’s nonsense.  Williams can say anything he damn well pleases.  He landed on his feet and will get 2 million bucks for selling his soul hook, line and sinker to Fox.  He will now become just another emasculated “liberal” on Fox.  What NPR did was protect itself from accusations of extremist conservative bias.

Yep, there’s still a lot of cleaning up to do on aisle nine at NPR.  Their journalistic standards have fallen significantly since they decided to throw away excellence in reporting in order to make the conservatives comfy.  But that’s not the mission of a news organization.  They are supposed to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”.  It wasn’t NPR’s liberal reporters that gave them the reputation of being liberal in its heyday.  It was that NPR was so effective at reporting the truth with high standards and integrity.  And as we all know from Stephen Colbert, “the truth as a strong liberal bias”.  That is why Republicans tried so hard to bring CPB down during the Bush era.  When you hear the truth, extremist conservatism ala Fox starts to sound really stupid.  So, I applaud NPR for taking this step.  They did the right thing in order to start on the long road to recovery.

If Juan were working for any other outfit other than a news organization, I’d probably agree with the people who felt he was being singled out for sharing unpopular views.  This is not the case here.  The guy just has no integrity when it came to journalism and it was going to reflect badly on NPR.  He had to go.

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Noise is not Free Speech

We’re on a collision course with technology. Free speech is being killed in order to save it.

Something is always boiling up that involves free speech. Cartoons are drawn of the “wrong” person, somebody is jailed for speaking out and gets the Nobel prize, there are plans to build a mosque in the “wrong” place. And some people picket funerals to gloat.

protesters holding signs
(photo by Burstein!, CC licensed)

All of these things are a step too far for some people. Others insist that we can’t draw any lines without sliding down a slippery slope of more and more lines until there’s no free speech left.

The dilemma doesn’t actually seem intractable to me. Try a thought experiment. You’re in a huge room with 10,000 other people. Nobody can say anything. There’s total silence except for the occasional suppressed cough. Is there any freedom of speech?

Now you’re in the same room, but anyone can speak and anyone can say anything. Everybody’s talking — shouting, really, to make themselves heard. You can’t even hear yourself speak. Is there any freedom of speech?

We’re not in the first situation anymore. When the great thinkers of the 1700s were articulating the essential freedoms, few people had the means to disseminate their ideas to begin with, so there weren’t many voices. Nor was there the technology to din at people 24/7/365. So noise was not a large concern. They worried about silencing.

Silencing was and is a crime against inalienable rights and has to be prevented.

But noise can kill a message just as dead as silence. Either way, you can’t hear it. Either way, we lose the freedom of speech. Either way, the loss is just as lethal to a free society.

Insisting that everyone, everywhere, for any purpose, has an equal right to speak hasn’t preserved freedom of speech. It’s killing it. When everybody can shout as loud as they can about whatever they want, you either can’t hear anything or the biggest voices will dominate. It’s right back to the king having the only voice. The fact that it’s not literally a monarch these days doesn’t make it all right.

Yes, I know. If speech is limited we have to — horrors! — draw some limits. Well, … we already do, and that hasn’t killed free speech. That promotes it. Unless the signal to noise ratio favors signal, there is no signal. That’s not exactly hard to figure out.

So, let’s start with the easy cases, the ones where limits have long been applied and clearly don’t lead to disaster. Free speech doesn’t confer a right to perjury, to wrong answers on exams, to yelling “fire” for nothing in crowded theaters, or to incitement to riot. Truth in advertising laws say it’s unacceptable to lie in order to extract money. None of these limits has led to thought control. It is possible to apply limits on speech without losing freedom. As a matter of fact, we’d lose freedom if they were not applied.

If some limits work, then limits work, and people can stop pitching a fit every time there’s talk of limits. The rational response is, “What are the best limits for preserving freedom of speech?”

Half the answer is contained in the question. Anything that remains murky after our best efforts to find the limits gets the benefit of the doubt and is covered by freedom of speech. That part’s not hard to figure out either.

The hard part is updating the limits for a technological age in which everybody can shout their point of view. If everybody gets veto power, nothing can be said. If there’s no way to draw the line, nothing can be heard. There has to be a better way.

There’s a common denominator to the limits that work. If everyone claimed the right to the forbidden kinds of speech, chaos would ensue. If everybody lied, incited to riot, and yelled fire in crowded theaters, life would become impossible. Those kinds of speech require double standards. Only some people can use them and only some of them time. Everybody else has to keep the system working. Double standards have no place in a democratic society, so that kind of speech not only can be but must be forbidden. It’s noise. Bad noise. (Discussed at greater length in Free Speech vs. Noise.)

So, how does that help us resolve any of the disputes? Let me give it a whirl.

  • Publishing cartoons of Mohammed in a Danish newspaper explicitly to make the point that Muslims cannot dictate what is published in secular papers. This one belongs in the “Well, duh!” category. Religious people don’t have to read secular papers. This is not an in-your-face exercise. If one side can veto the other’s reading material, then in a world without double standards, secular people could object to anyone reading about God in a holy book. Everything rapidly descends into absurdity when that kind of veto power is allowed.
  • Building a cultural center containing a mosque near Ground Zero. If there is to be freedom of religion, there have to be places of worship. Some areas are certainly not appropriate. For instance, in a secular government that separates church and state, it would be wrong to worship in or next to government buildings. (I’m sure protests about the Congressional Chaplain will break out shortly.) But to start limiting worship with no basis in justifiable principles ultimately means the end of freedom of religion. And, again, if one side can suppress another’s beliefs, it can go in the other direction too. That way lies madness. There’s plenty of proof all over the world.
  • Pro-democracy activist in China should not be jailed for speaking out. Okay. Seriously Duh! (And that goes double for his wife!)
  • And then there’s the Phelpses and their crusade against queers. Do they have a right to speak out? Of course. Do they have a right to be sure they know what God thinks? Just as much as anyone else does. Is somebody else’s funeral their only avenue to expression? No. No, no, no, no, no. They can make websites, write books, sing songs in their churches, fulminate there, parade, start radio shows. Their freedom of expression is not limited.

    What’s limited is their right to use it in a way that deprives someone else of their own rights. Political speech is very heavily protected, but you can’t use it within 200 feet of a polling station on election day. Because that would interfere with people’s right to vote. It would be a relatively minor annoyance, but it’s still illegal. If interfering with voting is enough to place a limit on free speech, how much more so interfering with the even more basic human right to bury one’s dead in peace.

When everywhere else is a venue for free expression, it’s idiotic to insist that crashing a stranger’s funeral is the only thing that will do. Of course, the Phelpses are idiotic, so that’s no surprise. The rest of us shouldn’t be as confused as they are about where the limits lie.

Crossposted to Acid Test and Corrente

America isn’t easy: balancing competing moral claims in advanced citizenship societies

down-the-drain-300x231

America isn’t easy

Building and sustaining a diverse community is not easy.

What should we celebrate?

Celebrate: to perform (a sacrament or ceremony) publicly and with appropriate rites; to honor by solemn ceremonies and refraining from ordinary business; to hold up or play for public notice.

What should we tolerate?

Tolerate: to endure or resist the action of without grave or lasting injury; to suffer to be or to be done without prohibition, hindrance, or contradiction.

What should we not tolerate?

Freedom of Speech: speech as a celebratory, tolerable, or non-tolerable moral action

The right to free speech celebrates the toleration of alternative views and the expression of those views.

“Monsieur l’abbé, I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write” – Voltaire (potential misattribution)

Continue reading

Money Changes Everything- Brainstorming Session I

Hi guys, today is going to be a light posting day for me. The BFF’s birthday is coming up and I will be in Manhattan all day doing Broadway with him and “Brook”, the adolescent creature person. But in the meantime, I have a little proposition for you.

If youre like me, you watched the unravelling of the Big Orange Satan with great dismay. TPM jumped the rational shark recently. And Keith Olbermann turned into his own worst enemy. It’s my theory that money is at the root of these evils. All three of these operations are driven by advertising dollars. (Well, not DailyKos anymore, apparently)

Now, I’m not saying that money is bad or that we shouldn’t desire wealth especially if we’ve worked hard to earn it. No, what I’m saying is that when there is an incentive to make money, the behaviors and activities that generate money will tend to influence one’s preferences and tastes. I think that is what we are seeing here. For sure it is what drives MSNBC. Jack Welch was a formidable salesman and created the Rank and Yank performance review. In The Smartest Guys in the Room about the Enron scandal, you’ll see what happens to the corporate culture where this kind of attitude thrives. The business environment is nasty, brutish and short if you don’t rake in the bucks and super rewarding if you do. It’s an all or nothing thing. I always suspected that Keith Olbermann’s liberal passion was ephemeral. The minute ad revenue sags, he’s on his way out and when Obamamania hit, Welch must have seen a twofer- get rid of Hillary the Monster and pump up the bucks with Keith going nuts for Barry.

As long as there is money in the system, my friends, our free speech and ability to get our message out will be subject to market forces. Those who own the biggest microphones will be able to shout dissenters down and put our voices on mute.

When I first started this blog, I said I was looking for collaborators and one reader asked me in a private email what exactly I had in mind? I’m not sure yet. Let’s face it, if you want to create a safe place for political voices to go on the internet and you want it to be big enough to make an impact (and believe me, I’m not at all into quitting my full time job to do this for a living), money is a necessity. But money is a trap that keeps us tethered to our audience too tightly.

So, what is the best business model for Progressive Blogosphere 2.0? I think the closest model to what I think we might want to go with is a National Public Radio or Public Broadcasting System model. There would be one umbrella organization where a variety of political blogs could co-exist and the system would be funded by pledged contributions. I realize that even NPR and PBS has been tainted in recent years but it took longer for the rot to reach them and it ddn’t happen until their boards of directors were infiltrated by ideological Republicans. So, if we had such an umbrella organization, how would we set up our board of directors? And as for money, well, I do this blogging thing for free but I could imagine wanting to get a little filthy lucre when the private school tuition bills start to roll in. But how would one structure renumeration in order to minimize market forces so that even potentially unpopular voices have a chance to be heard?

That is the task I put before you today. Answer the following questions:

  1. Is there a need for an umbrella group for Progressive Blogosphere 2.0?
  2. How should it be structured?
  3. How do we compensate bloggers for their work without succombing to the stifling forces of the free market?

Have at it.  I am off to brave the madness of the NJ Transit- NYC subway system.