Thursday, February 19, 2009

Post 89a: On the Dead Chimp and Freedom of the Media

Much has been made in the last 24 hours concerning a cartoon depicting the shooting of a chimp, and relating it to the stimulus bill recently enacted by Congress. We recalled a similar furor which erupted following the comments of a radio talk show host not long ago. We thought that we would re-visit our thoughts at that time, since they are equally applicable here. The original post was Post No. 22, "Do We Have Something to Fear Other Than Fear Itself?"

© 2008, The Institute for Applied Common Sense

Radio and television talk show host Don Imus drew attention to himself again last week. Upon hearing his latest controversial statement, one’s response might have been that Imus could not have avoided criticism under any circumstances.

(Disregard, for the time being, whether we truly know him intimately enough to enable us to judge the motives underlying the statement.)

In the future, he might avoid making any statements, which include any race-related words, since various negative assumptions will be made regarding his motives, even if his intent is to make a positive statement.

More disconcerting was the statement by the NFL player whose frequent run-ins with the law were at the center of Imus’ unfortunate expression. Arguably, Imus’ comment could have been viewed as a statement condemning the frequent stopping of African-Americans by law enforcement officials, or justifying it.

However, “Pacman” Jones fairly quickly concluded that Imus “obviously has a problem with African-Americans.”

One can only assume that Jones has some direct link to Imus’ brain and heart, to permit him to make such an unequivocal assessment. Along a similar vein, an argument might be made that Jones “obviously has a problem with the law,” or that he “obviously has a problem disassociating himself from the criminal element.”

George Carlin, considered by some to be an iconic comedian, died last week. It is generally agreed that he expressed the views of the counter-culture element of our society. However, what stood out most significantly was the frequent reference, by those who remembered him, to the “fearless” nature of his comedy.

What did Carlin potentially have to fear? What did he say that posed so significant a potential danger that we needed to be leery of him? Was there a concern that what he said, or might say, could damage or harm a certain segment of our society?

So here we are considering whether it is good for members of society to avoid making certain comments, or discussing certain subjects, in a public setting. (Ignore for now that the statements could be true, and honestly uttered.)

Just to carry our discussion a little further, images are also a form of expression. Some of you may recall the controversy surrounding the pairing of O.J. Simpson and Elizabeth Montgomery, over twenty years ago, in a television murder mystery movie, and the backlash that befell the sponsors. But that was long ago, right?

Recently, while I was listening to, but not watching television, a commercial aired for Cascade, the dishwasher detergent. The voice-over contained an African-American accent.

At first, I couldn’t figure out why that struck me odd. Then, for some unexplained reason, I turned around to see if an African-American face or image would also appear in the commercial.

Let me ask you. When was the last time that you can recall seeing an African-American woman in a commercial associated with cleaning anything – whether it be laundry detergent, floor wax, window cleaner, or garbage bags?

How many years have sponsors avoided projecting certain images to play it safe? The corollary reality is that many of us avoid making certain statements to play it safe, out of concern for offending others.

In light of the risks associated with making certain statements, we obviously have to carefully evaluate the consequences, or perhaps some might say, the “potential punishment,” associated with making statements, though honest they may be.

Furthermore, if we are not entirely clear as to the line between acceptable and unacceptable speech/expression, most of us will steer far wide of the danger zone.

During the course of the development and evolution of this blog, we’ve been surprised at a number of things, particularly in the expression of speech arena. A number of regular readers have suggested that the content makes many uncomfortable.

Many have indicated that although they would like to respond honestly to some of the posts, they feel reluctant to do so. There is a concern that, even using a pseudonym, once their true thoughts are revealed to the public, they might suffer negative consequences.

There is a scene in one of the classic Hollywood movies where the local, irresponsible, rich kid, who is attending medical school, is confronted by a childhood friend. She questions his flippant attitude, and lack of sense of responsibility, considering the talent which she considers him to have.

She notes that he could do so much of a positive nature for so many. She then goes on to say, “Most of us have no choice but to live useless lives.”

This leads one to wonder, “What is a person if not his or her expression?” Is freedom of expression the essence of freedom?

What we should appreciate is that when any talk show host, religious leader, celebrity, politician, or other public figure, manages to generate a following or an audience, they run the risk of saying something controversial. However, that ought to be a good thing, because it causes us to periodically stop and think.

Imagine a world where everything said in the media is uttered within certain prescribed boundaries, where no one is offended, surprised, intrigued, inspired, or in some manner affected.

Imagine where we would be as a society if every utterance was something that we already knew, or accepted, or with which the “expression police” were comfortable.

There is an argument to be made that in this competitive, free market environment that is America, the speech expressed by its citizens ought to be evaluated by the same competitive, free market forces.

A speaker should fail or succeed based on the quality of his content, and whether the citizens are willing to “buy” his or her expression.

We ultimately discard and ignore products of little or no value. Are we afraid to let the market place decide the fate of those making offensive comments, in the same way that we let the market place decide the fate of poor products?

We might discourage someone from expressing a new idea or concept, in the same way that we might discourage someone from developing a new product or service, if we discourage expression on the front end.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle frequently accuse the other of failing to acknowledge the intelligence of the American people. If we are intelligent enough to assess and evaluate other issues and their value, why do we not possess enough intelligence to assess and evaluate (and thus accept or repudiate) personal expression, in whatever form it manifests itself?

There is something else that comes to mind. When we hear the rantings and ravings of callers as they express themselves on talk radio shows, we gain some insight into, and provide a forum for, a segment of our society that otherwise might go unnoticed and unheard.

Some would suggest that we might be a better society if they went unnoticed and unheard. However, isn’t it better for us to know with whom we are really dealing, and have a better appreciation of the issues and concerns of every segment of our society? Or is that something which certain forces do not want?

We are once again reminded of the words of the Laughingman:

“The worst conceivable way to silence one with whom we disagree is to stop him from talking. By doing so, you create a martyr to his similarly warped followers, and take him off the radar screen of the rest of the public. Had we, as a society, a bit thicker skins, we would broadcast these lunacies far and wide, with an appropriate apology to the more sensitive among us, demonstrate a little common sense for our fellow man, and let the fringe element drown in the laughter and public ridicule generated by their own thinking or lack thereof. Along with the right to free speech comes the right to make a public fool of oneself; and like the naked, fools have little or no influence on society.”

That is, of course, unless you are Lady Godiva or Angelina Jolie.

© 2008, The Institute for Applied Common Sense


  1. I agree wholeheartedly with Laughingman. I worry about the talk of reviving the "Fairness Doctrine". I think Free Speech is only truly free if all points of view, regardless of who or how they offend, are permissible. We are fully capable of not listening, changing the channel, or speaking out with counter arguments if they offend.

    Avoiding offense is just a form of self-censorship.

  2. Hate to break it to you but George Carlin died on June 22, 2008. Once upon a time I found him funny. That time was a long while ago. His portrayal of the nasty, foul mouth cynic who never had a nice word to say about anybody but himself did not amuse me. He was ( to me ) about as appetizing as milk 2 weeks after the expiration date on the carton.

    I don't believe in censorship unless the person or publication is advocating violence. Having said that I do believe that we have a right to protect children from obscenity & pornography and obscenity & pornography are pretty darn subjective. You know it when you hear it and see it. A kiss on-screen is pornography in India. Showing the sole of your shoe or even your foot is offensive in Cambodia. And in the good old US of A when you compare the President of the United States of America who is also a black man to a chimpanzee that needs to be shot because you don't like his policies then you will be found to be offensive. Should you be prosecuted? Not necessarily but you also can suffer the ridicule of the rest of Americans who find you to be a yutz.

  3. June beat us to the point Douglas, regarding the applicability of the principle to "children" or those under the state's age of majority or legal consent. In the case of cable stations, arguably the parents could lock them out. But this was a publication, the New York Post, which arguably young people could read. Also where should the cut-off be? Age 10, 13, 16, or the formal legal line of the state?

  4. June: So you draw the line at violence and messages which may be "unacceptable" to children, including pornography. What other restrictions, even though you do not personally advocate their imposition, would you find "acceptable censorship" in American society?

  5. Log, apples and oranges (again). I did not speak about pornography or sexual content or language. I spoke of freedom of political speech which, after all, was the original intent of the First Amendment. It was only expanded to non-political speech in the recently past century. To address directly the cartoon, while it may be deemed offensive to some (offense is in the eye of the beholder, after all), it was still political speech. Some background needs to be considered when evaluating it, though. The chimp in the cartoon was a reference to the one shot in Stamford, Conn. That context was tossed in with a poorly referenced old saw about a "thousand monkeys typing on a thousand typewriters producing all the works of Shakespeare" (or words to that effect) as an inference to Congress.

    What happened was a kneejerk reaction to picture. Or, more accurately, to a symbol within a picture. Yes, the cartoon was in poor taste but, as you state in the piece above, we cannot know what is in the mind of the cartoonist. We do not know his actual intent.

    I recall a flareup in 2006 (I think) about a film that depicted the assassination of an actual president, one George W. Bush. Anyone complaining about it was accused of wanting to impose censorship. These same people are the ones now taking the opposing side.

    Forgive me for yawning.

    I now refer you to the following link:

    Bumper sticker

  6. We apologize Douglas. We failed to note your very specific limitation of your comment to political speech, and political speech only. That's our fault.

    Now that you've brought up the original intent argument, two questions: Should the First Amendment be viewed in, and thus limited to, the context in which it was written, when there was no television, radio, or internet? Does it only apply to the written communication? The spoken communication? Should it be a "living doctrine" which changes with the technological times? How about the changing mores of society?

    We very much agree with you that there is quite a bit of hypocrisy with respect to such utterances. Those on the receiving end who are offended, always seem to complain and want restrictions, and yet when they shell it out, they don't.

  7. I think the First Amendment should apply to all forms of media. I think it was intended to protect political speech and I think that should remain.

    The changing mores of society are separate from that. As June implies, pornography is in the eye (and ear, I suppose) of the beholder. "You know it when you see it" just says it is a subjective definition. Personally, I believe it is a personal matter that should not be restricted by the state. On the other hand, as a father and grandfather, I worry about the influence and impact of such on the children of our society. I just don't think it falls under the First Amendment. It becomes too much of an absolute. It also allows a precedent, if it is restricted for whatever reason, that could be applied to political speech. That, to me, is the greatest danger in using the First Amendment to protect all expression rather than just political. I do, however, understand how it evolved in the courts. It was one of my first exposures to the distortion of common sense under the law.

    As for your last comment. I couldn't agree more and it is not restricted to either end of the political spectrum. The Right and the Left both engage in this form of hypocrisy.

  8. ON the statement below. Pine Sol did it

    Let me ask you. When was the last time that you can recall seeing an African-American woman in a commercial associated with cleaning anything – whether it be laundry detergent, floor wax, window cleaner, or garbage bags?

  9. "I recall a flareup in 2006 (I think) about a film that depicted the assassination of an actual president, one George W. Bush. Anyone complaining about it was accused of wanting to impose censorship. These same people are the ones now taking the opposing side.

    Forgive me for yawning."

    Oh Douglas I'm not sure that I can forgive you for yawning if by yawning you mean to show boredom about whether or not it is meant ( in fun ) to depict the assassination of anyone at all. I don't know which film you are referring to but I assure you that I would have been every bit as disgusted with a film as with the NY Post cartoon. In neither instance was the author/artist really promoting violence but it strikes me as beneath contempt to hide behind liberty in order to pander to the lowest element. There may be hypocrites who thought it was fine to use GWB in that way but not BHO. I am not one of them.

  10. June, my yawn was about the "outrage" currently in place over the cartoon. It is hard for me to understand how you can determine the intent behind a movie you admittedly do not recall. Let me refresh your memory with a link...

    Death of a President

    I find it interesting what we recall and do not recall. Remember "Wag the Dog"? Or "Primary Colors"?

    It did raise a little fuss from the Right. The controversy was mostly about depicting the assassination of a sitting president. Nothing implied or requiring reading between the lines. Pretty much flat out. The film maker protested his intent was innocent, to express the horror of assassination. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt but a fictional president should have worked as well, I'd think, and there have been more than a few covering that premise.

  11. This is getting interesting. Should the artist who drew the cartoon for the New York Post be fired, or suspended, or pay a fine, or perhaps issue an apology? Should any media personality be fired for making offensive statements in any setting? Why did Don Imus receive so much flack for his isolated comments and yet syndicated radio talk show host Michael Savage and others are very provocative on a regular basis? Why are they treated differently.

    The trial of the Iraqi reporter who threw the shoe at President Bush started this week. Was the throwing of the shoe protected speech, if that had occurred in the US? He is being held on criminal charges. If this had taken place in the US, should criminal charges have been filed?

  12. Thanks much oritiorii for informing us of the Pine-Sol commercial. All of us should keep an eye open for additional instances to determine their prevalence.

  13. Douglas-I was relying on your use of the two instances as being examples where some people were requesting censorship. The movies name had not even been mentioned. Now that it has been mentioned and I discovered it had a box office of a whopping 167 thousand dollars and a sad 37% rating on Rotten Tomatoes it is no surprise that I did not get the reference. It appears the film was not promoting violence nor was it particularly even so much as insulting to the sitting President. Its' greatest flaw was pro ported to be a failure to entertain or inform. As someone deeply committed to publishing I am always aware of the first commandment of writing. Thou shalt not bore thy readers.

    "Anyone complaining about it was accused of wanting to impose censorship. These same people are the ones now taking the opposing side."
    Now I am more puzzled. Who are the people who condemned the film but not the cartoon?

    logistician- Here is why Imus and Savage are treated differently.

    Newspapers and media outlets such as television and radio depend on sponsorship, advertisers and audience. Don Imus and Michael Savage get paychecks because of the numbers they are able to draw. If by either being boring OR by offending too many people they cause their employers financial loss then they have only themselves to blame for getting the boot. Don Imus is considered more "mainstream" for lack of a better word and therefore is more likely to get hurt from appearances of bigotry real or imagined. Michael Savage's audience is made up of people with right of center leanings and center to left people who feel the need to experience outrage and therefore is less likely to cost his boss any revenue.
    The throwing of the shoes was clearly an insult not a threat of injury or death. I would not hold it to be protected speech as it was a physical act but neither would I dignify him by filing criminal charges. OTOH I wouldn't have minded a shoe exchange IE Bush throwing the shoes back at him or maybe throwing a pie instead as Bush seemed to be fairly agile and probably has better aim than Dick.

  14. June: We can appreciate the distinction you made with respect to how their respective sponsors would view comments made by Imus as opposed to Savage. There is a different expectation. With Imus, although considered by some to be a shock jock, one does not expect particularly offensive comments; with Savage, you know that they will come in a rapid fire manner.

    However, that's just the sponsors. What about the outrage by the public, or the people who he criticizes, or civil rights leaders, or other media outlets? Additionally, Imus was on MSNBC, a cable outlet, access to which by children can be restricted by parents, whereas Savage can be heard on any FM radio station. Aren't we concerned about kids hearing Savage's message?

    Finally, your shoe / hunting accident comparison was pretty funny.

  15. June, I suggest you google the film's name and read about the controversy at the time. Rather than simply dismiss it, that is, on the basis of the fact that it failed to produce a profit. Read about its praises prior to its debut, read about the award it received at a film festival.

    There are a fair number of people on the Right who were outraged by the film but who have dismissed the cartoon. Conversely, there are many on the Left who praised the film but condemn the cartoon.

    I notice that Log's favorite radio demagogue is Michael Savage. He should try listening to Randi Rhodes to get a view of the more vitriolic Left on radio. Oddly, it was a diatribe against Hillary that got her suspended.

    G. Gordon Liddy was roundly criticized some years ago for suggesting on his radio show that people aim at the head of anyone breaking into their house since police and federal agents tend to wear body armor. He might have had a couple hundred thousand listeners when that occurred. It boosted his ratings, no doubt. I see him hawking gold as investment these days.

    The shoe thrower committed a physical assault. I doubt he would have been charged with that in the US. Most likely any charges would have been dropped, he'd have made the rounds of the TV talk shows and maybe gotten a book deal.

    By the way, I just read where the NY Post has issued a conditional apology over the cartoon. I note in the article that many protesting wish to shut the paper down entirely. Free speech doesn't seem to be on the protesters' minds.

  16. Follow-up...

    .... about the cartoon, the Post, and the "apology".

  17. We didn't realize that someone had designated Michael Savage as the Logistician's "favorite radio demagogue." Well pass this on to the Logistician to determine whether he is in agreement with that designation.

  18. It's just that he is mentioned fairly often when speaking of ranting or radical radio talk show hosts. Most use Limbaugh for that, Savage being a lesser known Right Wing Radio host.

  19. We feel that there is more to be flushed out on this subject matter. No one has addressed the potential firing or suspension of the individuals responsible for the cartoon. Should that course of conduct be considered? If so, why? If not, why? What distinguishes the cartoon from the comments of Don Imus about the womens' national basketball champions and Pacman Jones? What are the risks associated with firing or suspension?

  20. Later today on C-Span2 Book TV, at 7 m EST, and other designated times, there will be a book discussion regarding, "The Man Who Owns the News: Inside the Secret World of Rupert Murdock.

  21. Gore Vidal is currently on a C-Span Book TV book presentation program discovering history and historical fiction. He is critical of the US press and claims that anyone can buy them. He also mentions that there originally was a suggestion that a Constitutional Convention be held in our country every 30 years. While Vidal feels that is perhaps a little too frequent, he acknowledges the need to periodically revisit the document.


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