I have always been among those who believed that the greatest freedom of speech was the greatest safety, because if a man is a fool, the best thing to do is to encourage him to advertise the fact by speaking. It cannot be so easily discovered if you allow him to remain silent and look wise, but if you let him speak, the secret is out and the world knows that he is a fool. So it is by the exposure of folly that it is defeated; not by the seclusion of folly, and in this free air of free speech men get into that sort of communication with one another which constitutes the basis of all common achievement.
- President Woodrow Wilson, May 10, 1919, in an address at the Institute of France, and cited in the 1949 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Terminiello v. City of Chicago (scroll down)
When a Bahamian court ruled earlier in the week that Larry Birkhead was the biological father of Anna Nicole Smith's daughter, I braced for the onslaught. I pictured CNN changing its name to DBNN (Dead Blondes News Network) and going 24-hours-a-day with its coverage, bringing in child psychologists, DNA experts and psychics.
I had visions of Larry King, looking, as always, like a walking corpse and sounding like your poor Great Uncle Charlie who thinks he is still fighting the Germans in World War II, grilling a guest about the future of the child in a single-parent home before realizing that he is sitting across from Jon Heder who, now looking panicked, just wants to show his "Blades of Glory" clip and get out of there.
It seemed like a no-brainer for Anderson Cooper's employers to take the Anna Nicole ball and run with it. I mean, how many more stories can we extract from this dead woman? "This just in, authorities in the Bahamas are reporting that a bird has defecated on Anna Nicole's grave. No word yet on how the family will respond to this tragedy." But fate stepped in, in the person of a past-his-prime shock jock deciding to make fun of a college basketball team. So, CNN is now All Imus, All the Time.
I guess it is a step up, kind of. The underlying issues of the Imus story are racism and sexism, which are important, unlike wannabe celebrities having sex with each other. However, I find the coverage and reactions to the Imus story hypocritical and distasteful.
Before I go any further, let me note some important things: Don Imus is an idiot. He always was an idiot. What he said about the Rutgers basketball players was not the least bit funny, and was offensive to anyone who understands the barriers facing women and African-Americans in American society. I don't feel the least bit sorry for the backlash he is being hit with. I don't feel the least bit sorry that he has lost his television broadcaster (MSNBC), and that he is in danger of losing his radio station (WFAN) and radio syndicator (CBS). He is an untalented, self-important, lowest-common-denominator-genuflecting blowhard.
Having said all that, when I look beyond my personal feelings for Imus and what he did, I find that on a larger issue, what MSNBC did in firing Imus was worse than what Imus did on the air (and, of course, the same will go for WFAN and CBS if they send the past-it geezer out to pasture).
What people are not talking about in the media is that this latest outburst by Imus was not in any way out of character. He may have used specific terms that put him over a line, but the underlying current of hate and disrespect has been part of his on-air persona for more than 30 years. For MSNBC to act shocked and offended now would be a like a pimp firing his star prostitute after she was arrested by the police for solicitation. "She was doing what? Oh, hell no. I will not be associated with anyone doing that!"
Imus's broadcasters have made a ton of money for years blasting his garbage into the cultural ether. But, now that he's made an error in judgement in how he expressed the garbage, suddenly they are surprised and offended. Too late, I think. In court, an admission of past sins might help lessen your sentence, but it won't get you off for the crimes.
The real money for Imus's show is in the radio part of it. For radio stars, the television simulcast is the cherry on the sundae. MSNBC's general audience, in most cases, can fit comfortably inside a Honda Accord. That is, I suspect, why CBS and WFAN have not booted Imus yet. They are no doubt waiting the situation out, buying time to see if some other celebrity does something stupid enough to push the Imus story off the front pages and free them up to continue raking in the money his show brings in. The two-week suspension isn't a punishment, it's a stall.
But, again, Imus's broadcasters have known what he is all along. If WFAN wants to announce to the world that it was wrong to profit from crap like Imus, and so it has decided to let him go, replace him with a major sports figure (WFAN is a sports station but for Imus's show) and give up the piles of syndication money he brings in, then I am all ears. I will be the first to say the station is acting responsibly. But, I think we all know that the odds of WFAN canning Imus of its own accord is about the same as Imus being asked to introduce Beyonce at her next concert. WFAN will only can Imus if the public pressure on its sponsors gets to the level that it can no longer make money on him.
There is another aspect of Imus-gate that disturbs me. The First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech only applies to the government. That is, the Constitutional right is protection from a governmental entity infringing on citizens' rights to say what they want. Since MSNBC, WFAN and CBS are not governmental entities, they are not bound by the rule. The networks are free to decide, legally speaking, whether or not they want someone saying certain things on their airwaves.
While the amendment may not apply in a private setting, the ideas behind it are just as powerful. The concept, as set out by President Woodrow Wilson above, is that the way to battle bad speech is not through stopping the speech, but by combating it with more speech and forcing it into the light of day. So, if a white supremacist wants to give a speech about why Caucasians are better than other races, we should let him, because he will just make a fool out of himself, and he will be unable to refute the mountains of counter-speech as to why he is wrong.
I think that is a good plan for society. And for that reason, I also think Imus should be allowed to say what he wants. Think about it: Who has sounded more intelligent and rational on this issue, Imus or the Rutgers players? That battle is about as one-sided as a Harlem Globetrotters-Washington Generals game. It is better to let idiots like Imus spew their crap out loud, so that they can be made to look foolish and inconsequential. Making Imus a martyr serves no good interest.
So, I say, "Free Imus," not because I like him, but because he is the very fool Wilson was talking about. I think we are all ready for the next big story on CNN. Britney Spears has been quiet since she left rehab. Maybe she is due to be the next obsession of ABISNN, the Anything But Important Stuff News Network.