Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Rationing free speech

February 14, 2005 | 7:14 p.m. ET

Rationing free speech (Keith Olbermann)

SECAUCUS - I never knew that freedom of speech came with an on/off switch.

Ward Churchill says some detestable things about 9/11 victims, so the Governor of Colorado wants to squeeze him out of the University there. Marine Corps Lieutenant General James Mattis tells an audience in San Diego “it’s fun to shoot some people,” particularly in Afghanistan, and his superior officers ask him to please not say stuff like that again. Eason Jordan makes a remarkable gaffe, implying that the U.S. military is hunting journalists. He backs off within moments of the remark, apologizes, and still gets forced to resign from CNN. Brit Hume and other political commentators twist Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s words to make it look like he would’ve supported President Bush’s partial privatization of Social Security, and nobody corrects their journalistic blunders, let alone resigns.

Remarkable, all of it — perhaps the Jordan story most of all. While some bloggers are parading his head around on a pike as another example of victory over the MSM, they — and the MSM — seem to have entirely forgotten, and excluded from their coverage, the fact that Eason Jordan had sealed his own doom as long ago as April, 2003. It is one thing to acknowledge that your news organization may have buried stories that would’ve illuminated the atrocities of Saddam Hussein, in order to preserve your access (and perhaps the lives of your staff) in Baghdad — it is another to have voluntarily written those facts up as an Op-Ed for The New York Times.

That was about the time Jordan stopped actually running CNN’s international coverage, and began being basically a spokesman for it. Between the misguided idea to boast in The Times about what he called “The News We Kept To Ourselves,” and the stomach-churning, much-publicized news that he’d left his wife and family to take up with Daniel Pearl’s widow, Jordan had become a resignation waiting to happen. The irony of the right-wing bloggers’ delight over Jordan’s resignation from what they perceive as the left-wing CNN, is that by publicizing his faux pas in Davos, they did CNN executives’ dirty work for them. They enabled CNN to squeeze him out.

The Fox News folks, of course, specifically Brit Hume, squeezed the whole FDR thing. ‘Media Matters For America’ has done much of the legwork on breaking this down, and both on his radio show and at his website, Al Franken has done much of the publicizing. Hume, and others like those bastions of public conduct John Fund and Bill Bennett, have taken a bunch of 70-year old quotes out of context to make it look like Franklin Delano Roosevelt is endorsing President Bush’s plan to partially privatize Social Security.

Here’s the full relevant segment from Roosevelt’s message to Congress on Social Security and other similar programs from 1935: “In the important field of security for our old people, it seems necessary to adopt three principles: First, non-contributory old-age pensions for those who are now too old to build up their own insurance. It is, of course, clear that for perhaps thirty years to come funds will have to be provided by the States and the Federal Government to meet these pensions. Second, compulsory contributory annuities which in time will establish a self-supporting system for those now young and for future generations. Third, voluntary contributory annuities by which individual initiative can increase the annual amounts received in old age. It is proposed that the Federal Government assume one-half of the cost of the old-age pension plan, which ought ultimately to be supplanted by self-supporting annuity plans.”

The syntax is a little ancient but the message is pretty straightforward. For 1935, people who would only take money out of Social Security and not put any in, should have their contributions covered half by the federal government and half by the states. Later on, those contributions should be replaced by the “self-supporting annuity plans” — which Roosevelt has already defined (“Second…”) as the actual Social Security system. Buried in the formality of his third point, FDR is talking about things we would later know as IRA’s and Keoghs and 401k’s.

But look at how Hume mixed and matched the original Roosevelt quotes on February 4th (and we’re quoting this verbatim from Fox’s website) “…it turns out that FDR himself planned to include private investment accounts in the Social Security program when he proposed it. In a written statement to Congress in 1935, Roosevelt said that any Social Security plans should include, ‘Voluntary contributory annuities, by which individual initiative can increase the annual amounts received in old age,’ adding that government funding, ‘ought to ultimately be supplanted by self-supporting annuity plans.’”

Roosevelt said no such thing. The “voluntary contributory annuities” are the IRA’s and Keoghs and 401k’s. What “ought to ultimately be supplanted” was the special government contributions to Social Security on behalf of people born in the 1870’s and earlier, and the “self-supporting annuity plans” constitute Social Security itself.

It’s premeditated, historical fraud, but you will not see Hume nor Fox News backpedal from it (as Jordan did for his misdemeanor), nor apologize for it (as Jordan did), nor save their masters from its shame (as Jordan did — of course there is no shame at Fox).

The Ward Churchill case, of course, is the most complex of them all (until the saga of “Jeff Gannon” resurfaces some time this week, when it could turn into the political scandal of the year — more in a subsequent blog).

Free speech in this country seems to have been created almost specifically to protect people like Churchill. He’s a tenured professor at a public university. He made outrageous statements about what is the symbolically still-burning pyre of The World Trade Center. When a baseball general manager (Jim Bowden, of the Cincinnati Reds), made two tasteless jokes about 9/11 in 2002, I wrote and broadcast repeatedly that he should be fired.

But universities and colleges — particularly public ones — are designed to collide popular, mainstream ideas, with contentious, contrarian ones (and unlike ballclubs, they are not private institutions, from which anybody can be fired for just about anything that embarrasses or harms said institution — also known as the ‘boomerang’ caveat to free speech). Hell, I had a professor at Cornell whose version of American history started with his explanation that the constitution was the elite’s successful attempt to co-opt the rights of the citizens. Students stood up in the lecture hall and swore at him. Now that was a marketplace of ideas.

It’s galling to know that Churchill’s oversimplified, insensitive vision of the horrors of September 11th are being underwritten by tax dollars. But it would be more galling to know that there is a line somewhere past which a professor at a public university can’t go. Where would that line be drawn? Our hypothetical professor could say that people at the Pentagon had always thought of themselves as a military target, even if the “military” consisted of a bunch of terrorists, but he couldn’t say that in the minds of the terrorists, the U.S. might have provoked them by its actions in the Middle East? The first wouldn’t get you fired, but the second would?


You gotta live with this guy (just as you gotta live with Lieutenant General Mattis, also known as “The Way Too Happy Warrior”) and hope that students stand up and scream at him in class, or boycott him, or respond in the way you’re supposed to respond to free speech - with more free speech, not less.