Don Imus and the triumph of economic McCarthyism

SAN FRANCISCO—"The First Amendment gives us the right to express our point of view but it doesn't give us the right to use public-owned airwaves to communicate it," said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League.

"The First Amendment protects every American's right to freedom of speech," Phil Sheridan, sports writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, chimed in. "It doesn't protect racists' high-paying media jobs."

Talk radio host Don Imus' April 4 reference to female members of the Rutgers University basketball team as "nappy-headed hos" prompted calls for his ousting by an ad hoc alliance of politically correct liberals and opportunistic conservatives (Imus, a political liberal, had been on the right's hit list).

As Josh Silver, writing for the center-left "Huffington Post," summarized the let-them-rant-in-the-streets argument: "For those who feel that the firing of Imus has been an affront to First Amendment free speech protections, consider this: Imus still is still a free person. He can start a blog."

You can say anything you want—just not where someone might hear it.

"Mel Gibson can still say whatever he wants," a reader wrote to The New York Times. "So can Don Imus, Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter. That personal consequences may follow free speech (like losing your job or learning not to say vicious things) doesn't violate the Constitution."

In other words, your boss should be able to fire you if you say something he deems "vicious"—criticizing the president, say.

Did Imus have a legal right to his spot on drive-time radio in New York? Obviously not. But that's not the point. The question is: Do the 1.4 million people who tuned him in every morning have a right—a moral, ethical right as radio consumers—to listen to him? Yes. They did and they do. As for Imus, if 30 years of producing high quality, highly rated radio shows doesn't give him the right to be on the air, what does?

Racist or no, Don Imus' mix of over-the-top rhetoric, comedy sketches and intelligent, long-form interviews of politicos can't and won't be replaced. Personally and financially, he'll be fine—he's richer than God and half as old—but the lives of his 1.4 million listeners will be a little poorer.

Libertarians spread the meme, accepted equally by liberals and conservatives, that censorship is—by definition—an action that can only be undertaken by government officials. But the U.S. government rarely censors. Does it logically follow that the First Amendment is safe and sound in our tolerant, open and freewheeling marketplace of ideas?

As anyone who consumes media is aware, the free market is a far from effective means of assuring widespread access to a wide diversity of expression. Left and right voices outside the narrow center-right "mainstream" range are unwelcome in America's increasingly consolidated, bland and corporate-owned newspapers, radio and television outlets. Economic censorship—silencing a person for his opinions or performances by firing or refusing to hire him—is the weapon of choice for the New McCarthyites.

After CBS radio executives gave in to the mob calling for Imus' head, Media Matters for America—founded by '90s rightie henchman-turned-liberal-watchdog David Brock—issued a press release calling for more blood. "It's time for news organizations, journalists, and other media figures to re-examine the tone of their broadcasts or risk facing the same public outcry that forced NBC's hand," Brock's group said. "There are many hosts on talk radio and the cable networks who would be well-advised to use this incident as an opportunity to examine their own behavior and change."

Close your eyes, and you can almost see Bush Administration spokesman Ari Fleischer threatening that after 9/11, "Americans...need to watch what they say, watch what they do." The TV program "Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher," the target of the White House's bullying, was dropped by ABC shortly thereafter. (Maher later landed a new show. Unlike "P.I.," it airs only on the premium cable channel HBO—denying him access to most of his former viewers.)

After right-wing pundit Ann Coulter called John Edwards a "faggot" in a speech, Media Matters partnered with the gay-rights group Human Rights Campaign to promote a cut-and-paste e-mail campaign urging newspaper editors to drop her syndicated column. The ill-conceived and possibly illegal scheme encouraged people to pretend that they were local readers of the relevant publications. Nine papers agreed to censor Coulter.

Now liberal pundits like The New York Times' Bob Herbert are using the Imus takedown as a staging ground for a PMRC-style attack on popular music (and their right-wing counterparts). "The people who fought back against the racism and misogyny of the 'Imus in the Morning' program need to keep the momentum going," says Herbert. "Keep the pressure on the companies that sponsor this [rap music] garbage...Imus, Snoop Dogg, Michael Savage—it doesn't matter where the bigotry is coming from. What's important is to find the integrity and the strength to see it for what it is—a loathsome, soul-destroying disease—and then to respond accordingly."

Behold the Gospel of the Economic Censors! The First Amendment remains in full force for them—at full pay—but scaled back for those they don't like. Snoop Dogg and his fellow gangsta rappers should be free to peddle their smut on CD-Rs on Harlem sidewalks, they say—but not to have it distributed and sold in stores. You know, where most people buy music.

Economic censorship perverts the axiom that the answer to bad free speech is more free speech into something simultaneously frightening and idiotic. The answer to bad free speech, say Messrs. Brock and Herbert, is to deny its speakers a public forum.

The blacklist epitomized the McCarthy era of the late 1940s and 1950s. Actors, directors, screenwriters and other Hollywood professionals were refused employment by the major studios due to their alleged left-wing sympathies, real or imagined. There was government pressure, but never government censorship. It was purely economic.

When they tried to work outside the studio system, Hollywood blacklistees were mercilessly harassed. Paul Jarrico, a writer and producer recalls an incident while filming independently in 1950: "The FBI swung into action, and movie industries swung into action. We found ourselves barred from laboratories, barred from sound studios, barred from any of the normal facilities available to film makers. Our star, who had come up from Mexico to star in the film—LeSoro Regueltos—was arrested and deported before we were finished shooting her role."

Writing in the Ayn Rand-oriented Capitalism magazine in 2003, Michael Berliner made the same twisted argument today's so-called progressives are making about Imus and rap music. "[The Hollywood blacklist victims] were denied employment by executives who were exercising the right to hire whom they wished—a fundamental right in a free society. The right to freedom of speech prohibits the government from interfering with the expression of ideas, and that means that an employer cannot be forced to propagate ideas he's opposed to."

Hypocrites all, the censors refuse to subject themselves to the same freedom-hating standards they would impose on their enemies. They believe that they have the right both to their rancid, fascist opinions and their highly paid jobs in the media.

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