21 October 2010

Speaking of speech

So again we have a journalistic figure fired this year for saying something controversial.

1) For saying something Anti-Zionist/Anti-Semitic, we pushed an aging and generally useless reporter out of her job. I suppose she was due anyway, so no big deal to use an excuse. Most people cheered because secretly, most people I think despise old people. Or something to this effect.
2) For saying something putatively supportive of a figure involved with Hezbollah, in a tweet, CNN fired a reporter. This was probably poor judgment to tweet the statement rather than do a piece on it and link it on twitter, or some such. But her actual view was quite a bit more complex than "she's supporting a terrorist!", the view espoused by the right. The left doesn't really leap to her defence because "she's supporting a terrorist" is still an effective code phrase that shuts down rational thought and discussion in this country.
3) For saying something anti-Semitic, CNN fired a talking head (airhead more like). This seemed deserved from the point of view that it was unprofessional, and his "apology" seemed to coat the problem as someone else's (as some sort of nefarious Jewish media conspiracy to which Jon Stewart et al are involved) rather than his own terrible performances. This dismissal is greeted humorously by the left (Stewart et al), and ignored on the right.
4) For saying something anti-Islamic, NPR fired a talking head (who was appearing regularly on Faux News). Finally here, we see a series of right-wing defences of free speech. Curious. In a related story, Faux did not fire a talking head for saying something more direct, but not quite as sloppy and bad. (Williams' statement effectively implies all Muslims are suspicious and potentially terrorists and that they should hide their identity in ways that we do not ask say, Christians or Jews to conceal their religious identities, Kilmeade's statement is simply the tired right-wing platitude that "all terrorists are Muslims". Except for McVeigh and Tamil Tigers and the IRA and the KKK and so on. The second can be dismissed as mere ignorance, though it emerges from a form of bigotry. The first is blatant bigotry and intolerance.)

Look. The appropriate response to this is to permit people to say things. Sometimes we will disagree with those things. Importantly, sometimes those things will be below some standard of conduct or thought required by a professional employer, like a news organisation. Those employers may fire people for expressing their views in a casual way rather than as demonstrating effective journalistic ethics and behavior. So long as that standard is transparent and obvious, fairly applied to sloppy and inappropriate remarks of any prejudice (and not simply opening those favored views of intolerance harbored by the right or the left), then I have no problem with any media agency firing or refusing to hire people on whatever grounds they want. Reason being that some media agency out there will tend to hire people who are quality reporters (or whatever it is that they think people are now valuable for, ie, Erickson at CNN?). Those who are not will be deservedly dismissed for incompetence. Those who are will survive the missteps of making an occasionally sloppy and unpleasant comment. Someone will give them the space to express their own biases and/or bigotries, in whatever form those take.

Most crucially, the state should do nothing. Williams won't be arrested anymore than Kilmeade or Sanchez or anyone else should be (Gingrich for example during the summer of Park51/Cordoba) for expressing these views. People losing a media platform to say abhorrent or offensive things is vastly different than people being thrown in jail for saying those things. It is this latter standard that we should take care not to seek to place in effect. Despite this, I'm skeptical that firing commentators for saying offensive things is an appropriate standard either. Firing them for saying sloppy and stupid or uninformed things, perhaps, because those can be a poor reflection of the standards of an organisation that a reporter/commentator is unprepared and thus unqualified to speak on a subject (though there are many who this would apply to who are still at work, a good reason not to watch the news other than to mock it). Firing people for expressing their views, however bigoted or insensitive they may be, doesn't seem like a good standard that would be easily and fairly applied to all offenders.

These are not elected officials responsible for fairly administering the law of the land and as such are not responsible to all of us to do so impartially, where losing a job over such remarks would seem appropriate. Pretending that objective biases exist in journalism is an interesting world, but it's not the one that consumers of journalism recognize. As they clearly gravitate toward subjective biases and filters instead.

Update: TNC's thoughts are pretty good too.

"Every one of us has, at one time or another, thought something truly abominable. But we've generally learned not to speak those thoughts, not simply out of politeness, but because we know that most of those thoughts are demonstrably wrong. We are, in other words, not just concerned with hurting people feelings, we're concerned with sounding like idiots. Among people who talk for a living, one would hope that the sense would be better developed--not less."

In other words, the problem is that people who don't have the filter for "X is probably wrong or stupid, so don't say, or write, X" are setting the bar pretty low. The extension of this is that most people engage others only through their weakest, and often completely error-ridden, arguments. There might out there be some argument that makes a point that somehow Islam itself is unique from other religious groups thus justifying Mr Williams irrational fear of all Muslim looking individuals. I think there's a mild case that its present history is distinct from other major religions at the moment (though there are plenty of Christian-ists that would seem willing to disprove this notion), but even its most violent and extreme ideology (that of Al Qaeda) is not unique to all of human history. Both in religious and political movements have we seen tactics and beliefs like these before from all across humanity's spectrum of political and religious beliefs. Instead, the common arguments are things like "All terrorists are Muslims" or "Muslims are strange or un-American by presuming a Muslim identity". When these points are very easily refuted and tossed away and it becomes a waste of time to the actual discussion to have to dispense with such pleasantries as introducing people to the country and government of Indonesia or that of Nigeria, or the experiences and habits of American Muslims, and so on after a while.

It is much easier to simply fire the people who continue to give voice to these arguments in what are presumed to be intelligent discussions. Because it's incompetent and annoying behavior. Not because it's offensive.
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