Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Free Speech is Good, Right?

No, that is not me making a comment about Brian Rohrbough's comments. That is what the embedded YouTube player does all by itself. Isn't it ironic ...

The new CBS Evening News feature Free Speech can I suppose be seen as an honest attempt to bring an aspect of community to what is an ivory tower enterprise -- nobody is calling it guest video blogging yet. I am not going to hold my breath -- but I think it is one of those things that will be difficult to declare a success, and there are two reasons they probably shouldn't even try.

One is the admittedly losing argument that network TV news programs have precious little time anyway and anything not devoted to news is wrong. It may be wrong but there is nothing wrong with success, per se, and the new CBS Evening News is successful, with an audience that the networks aspire to have, even though its total numbers have declined since Katie Couric took over. If, to continue to be a viable delivery mechanism that draws attention to at least some "important" news, one must draw in a new kind of audience that has different expectations from their parents, who is anyone to bemoan the way of the world? But I do anyway.

Empowering the Powerful

My other gripe was that the segments, until the last couple of days, seem to be granted only to people who already had a platform: Rush Limbaugh, Rudy Guiliani, Natan Scharansky, a conservative Israeli politician and former Soviet prisoner of conscience who gently scolded Americans for likening the United States to regimes who rationalize the use of torture. We are nothing like the USSR because we can publicly protest that our government mistreats prisoners of war and because have a free press, he reminds.

It could be that the Floyd Turbos of the world just aren't telegenic enough and that we viewers place far too high a premium on this quality whether we realize it or not, and that CBS does. It could be that it is difficult to choose among the clammering fray and risk -- by making rope-line decisions about who gets to exercise CBS-branded Free Speech -- the wrath of blogging spreadsheet statisticians poised to expose bias. The matter of balance has already been taken up by the CBS News blog "Public Eye," which responded to criticism that there were no Democrats or progressives among the earliest Free Speech invitees. It can only get worse.

But the "regular person" issue was addressed a bit the other day when the father of a Columbine victim was given the nod within the early news cycle of the Amish school shooting.

Despite my misgivings about this whole thing, CBS didn't shy from letting Brian Rohrbough weigh in and assert as a cause of school violence some things that just hadn't occured to me. Like teaching evolution.
"This country is in a moral free fall. For over two generations, the public school system has taught in a moral vacuum, expelling God from the school and from the government, replacing him with evolution, where the strong kill the weak, without moral consequences and life has no inherent value. We teach there are no absolutes, no right or wrong. And I assure you the murder of innocent children is always wrong, including by abortion. Abortion has diminished the value of children."
Phew! Say what you will, but I don't hear stuff like that very often, and I pay close attention to conservatives like Pat Buchanan and George Willjust so I can hear arguments my brain can't make itself. So where else are people like me going to hear these dots connected the Rohrbough way?

The decision to go with Rorbough -- his piece pre-empted another which was scheduled for that evening -- has generated quite a bit of criticism, some within CBS, Howard Kutz reports in the Washington Post. Katie Couric, in her blog, alludes to the considerable mail they have received and how many times the word "Shame" has been used (and makes what I think is an inappropriate attempt at humor -- it isn't necessary in every post, after all: "We took a few packages that were ticking and threw them in the creek…)" That would be the creek yonder at the fork in the road on West 57th St., I guess.

A Slippery Slope

Couric goes on to say that support of Rorbough is picking up. This is part of the slippery slope, CBS. It doesn't matter how many people agree or disagree. Entertaining these numbers just gets you into the "fair and balanced" game, which has nothing to do with free speech.

I'm still not sure Free Speech is a good idea, partly because since it cannot and ought not be democratically vetted it will generate more heat about process than content, and will be dropped at exactly the wrong moment, when it is deemed to have gone too far.

But it also doesn't seem to be exactly a public interest imperative to take a minute or so from the mere 22 available for what I still think should be a solid summary of the day's top stories and longer pieces about important things that don't provide breaking news angles.

But if CBS intends to bar no holds, at least it will be intriguing television from time to time.

The Rorbaugh clip as hosted by CBS is here, and RealPlayer is required.

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