Friday, April 13, 2007

On Imus, Intolerance, Iraq and I

Writers and serious readers should be interested in all the political aspects of free speech because they affect us so vitally.

Two stories on the front page of the LA Times Calendar section seemed calculated to consider this most precious of rights--however inadvertently their juxtaposition may have been. One story was on Imus's firing, the other on PBS's inclination to edit (censor!) the words of our US Soldiers in the documentary "Operation Homecoming." Let's take them one at a time.

I believe in free speech. I hate intolerance. I have been writing about both for the better part of my writing career. So, though I hate to see anything done that tends to strangle an individual's right to say what he or she thinks, I couldn't help but root for the corporate giants who finally seemed to get it right by firing Imus. It seems that if people--and, yes, that includes corporate types with a bottom line to consider--don't stand up to invective then how can we expect the person-in-the-street to act when a leader starts name-calling (and, yes, killing) gypsies, homosexuals, the insane and people with genetic and religious histories different from their own?

On the other hand, if we gag the right of individuals to say what they think because they fear recrimination, how can we maintain our free speech, the thing that sets America above so many other nations?

An example of how that was exemplified in the second story headlined "Soldiers seen, but not heard, on PBS." Here we have a station founded to give our nation alternative programming. Thus we have them offering a series called "America at a Crossroads." Hooray for them.

But then we learn that they have censored the very troops they interviewed for this segment because they are "fearful of triggering scrutiny from the Federal Communications Commission." They bleep profanities and smudge graphic images. As in all good literature, the writer may find profanity may essential for an audience to fully understand the character, feel the full range of emotion.

And violence? We get so much that panders to humankind's tendency to enjoy retching during any B-rated movie, but when we get an opportunity to see it where it can help understanding how vile it is in real-life situations like the war in Iraq--the situations we get to vote for or against-- we are told "No, no, no!" As if we are babies, unable to be trusted to make our own decisions.

This has come about because the fines are so stiff that a noncommercial entity like PBS couldn't afford them. So the very public domain that could be trusted to tell it like it is, must withhold and the ones making the big bucks get to calculate say, a $15,000 fine against the huge fees they get for commercials and run whatever they darned (get that darned?) well want as long as the profit margin is great enough.

Is there something wrong with this picture? How do we balance this nation's need for free speech--our individual need for free speech--against an equally important need to stand up against intolerance. I'll tell you how. Personal integrity. Personal interest in trying our best not to use our free speech rights to malign others on the basis of anything other than their deeds.

Does that mean Imus should have been fired? I don't think so. Does that mean we should all quit listening? Absolutely. And that goes for many other crabby radio hosts who have no analytical skills and no ethics. Let's all find something better to do with our time than let a blow-hard incite our least appealing, most undesirable human instincts.
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Carolyn Howard-Johnson, author THIS IS THE PLACE; HARKENING: A COLLECTION OF STORIES REMEMBERED; TRACINGS, a chapbook of poetry; and two how-to books, THE FRUGAL BOOK PROMOTER: HOW TO DO WHAT YOUR PUBLISHER WON'T; and THE FRUGAL EDITOR: PUT YOUR BEST BOOK FORWARD TO AVOID HUMILIATION AND ENSURE SUCCESS.

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