November 18, 2009

Back when Bill O'Reilly was semi-defending Lou Dobbs for promoting the "birther" conspiracy theories, he invited on Richard Cohen of the Southern Poverty Law Center -- which had called for Dobbs' firing -- to defend their campaign. And he made a bet with Cohen, kinda sorta:

O'Reilly: CNN is never going to fire him, you know that ...

Cohen: I'm not quite as cynical as you are, Bill. I think that if enough people speak out, CNN will listen and be more responsible in the future.

O'Reilly: You wanna bet? ... I've got ten grand for Habitat for Humanity on the table if you wanna bet me.

Cohen: How about ten grand for the Southern Poverty Law Center?

O'Reilly: But I’m not going to take your money. There’s no real bet there — he’s not going to get fired.

Of course, Dobbs was indeed fired. So last night on The O'Reilly Factor, he announced:

O'Reilly: I will pay that debt. I will donate $10,000 to Habitat for Humanity -- I don't know whether the Southern Poverty Law Center was responsible, but I'm gonna do it anyway.

But he still just didn't want to come to terms with the reality that Dobbs' firing was not about First Amendment free-speech rights, but about the responsibilities that come with those rights -- that is, it was about the role that Big Media play in a functioning democracy, and the civic necessities that lie therein.

Cohen: Bill, I don't think it was just us. It was a lot of people -- our supporters, our allies --

O'Reilly: But tell me what you did, because you were obviously involved. What did you do?

Cohen: Well, Bill, what we tried to do was point out the kind of lies and racist conspiracy theories that Dobbs propagated night after night on his show.

O'Reilly: How did you do that, though? Talk to people over there? Did you do a letter-writing campaign? Did you go to their house? What did you do?

Cohen: Well, the first thing that we did was we tried to talk to Dobbs, talk to his staff. And do that quietly, to try to get our point across. When that failed, we wrote to CNN and asked them to correct some of the crazy things that he said. Finally, this summer, we asked CNN to remove him from the air when he started giving credence to those crazy bogus theories, as you called them, about Obama's citizenship. So I think it was a combination of those things.

O'Reilly: But what I'm interested to know -- Look, anybody can ask, they ask Fox to remove me from the air every hour on the hour, OK? So anybody can ask. Aw, we don't like O'Reilly, we don't like Dobbs, get 'em off the air. But did you have a feeling CNN was actually listening to you? Or that they were gonna pull him off the air? You've gotta give me a little inside baseball here, Mr. Cohen.

Cohen: We had no secret pipeline to CNN, Bill. And you know, the truth of the matter is, you played an important role in the campaign. I appreciate your having me on in July, and I appreciate your acknowledging on the air to your viewers that the things that Dobbs was saying about the birthers were bogus and absurd --

O'Reilly: Well, some of them were bogus, but here's where we differ. And everybody should know it, Mr. Cohen. I don't want Lou Dobbs off the air. I think he's a voice that should be heard. You want him off the air. See look -- I feel that you, and your organization, while you do do some good, are fascist in your approach to people with whom you disagree. Because Lou Dobbs shouldn't have been pulled off their for his opinion -- challenged, yes. I disagree, I say it! Pulled off the air? No! You shouldn't even want that. You should want, in a democracy, people to have freedom of speech and put stuff out there. If you disagree, or you think that he's inaccurate, get -- that's why I give you airtime! You're welcome to come on, and say look, this is what we do, that's what we do here!

Of course, no one is infringing on Lou Dobbs' free-speech rights, because having a network-TV show is not a right guaranteed by the First Amendment. No one is preventing Dobbs from enjoying the same speech rights enjoyed by everyone else in the country. What they are insisting upon, instead, is that the people in charge of dispensing mass information to the public uphold the responsibilities inherent in holding a powerful position in setting the direction of our democratic discourse.

O'Reilly is trying to pretend that all speech is equal speech, but it manifestly is not: The people who occupy the seats of our national news anchors reach millions of people -- unlike, say, the ordinary citizens who are regularly demonized by the likes of Lou Dobbs.

Moreover, it's one thing to hold a contrary opinion -- and no one attacked Dobbs for that. It's quite another to irresponsibly demagogue and demonize an entire bloc of the American population with provably false information and paranoid conspiracy theories derived in large part from hate groups whose entire purpose is to poison the well of our national discourse.

Dobbs wasn't in trouble with the public merely for attacking Latino immigrants or peddling conspiracy theories -- the public sought his removal because he had become a major conduit for right-wing extremism in the mainstream of our discourse.

The free press, and free speech, are indeed vital to the functioning of our democracy, precisely because they are the only means by which the citizens of a democratic society can obtain the information they need to function effectively.

What this means, however, is that the people in the press who dispense that information have an incredible responsibility not just to their readers, but to democratic society, to report accurately, truthfully, and responsibly.

And when they fail in those responsibilities, the public has not just the right but the obligation to demand accountability. Purveying false information is in itself fundamentally irresponsible; so is reporting with the intent to demonize people and target them for elimination; and the combination of the two is particularly toxic, because it almost inevitably has violent consequences.

It's especially worth noting that Dobbs was always dogged in dodging any responsibility for his spurious "reportage". When he had on Cohen and the SPLC's Mark Potok to talk over his phony leprosy story, he adamantly denied any wrongdoing at all, and spent the entire segment badgering and dodging his interlocutors.

We can guess why Bill O'Reilly is both touchy about this subject and why he's so adamant in refusing to acknowledge what the Dobbs affair is all about: It's because O'Reilly himself has indulged in recklessly irresponsible rhetoric in the case of Dr. George Tiller. And perhaps because his own compadre at Fox, Glenn Beck, is making a daily spectacle of himself fearmongering with wild conspiracy theories that make Dobbs look almost responsible and sedate in comparison.

The public is demanding accountability from those who hold the reins of media power: That's what the Dobbs affair is all about. And like it or not -- and they most certainly will not -- Bill O'Reilly and his Fox cohorts are going to be held to a similar standard.

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