Please explain to me why David Letterman, a comedian, is coming under intense scrutiny and fire for making a joke—granted, a bad one.
Want specific examples? Okay, fine. Back in September of last year Jay Leno‘s monologue on the tonight show included this joke:
“Governor Palin announced over the weekend that her 17-year-old unmarried daughter is five months pregnant. And you thought John Edwards was in trouble before! Now he has really done it.”
So, where was the outcry then? Leno’s joke has all the same elements. Underage girl being impregnated by a much older man (middle-aged in this case). Not a peep came out of Fox News, Governor Sarah Palin, the Republican party, etc. The only difference I see is that the big target of the joke was a Democrat. Hmm….
Meanwhile anyone who criticizes Bill O’Reilly or any of the other pundits that are spewing all sorts of volume-raising rhetoric towards their viewers are off-limits. We’re told that’s all freedom of speech. Bill and crew are free to call anyone the anti-Christ, reference Adolf Hitler, call them murderers, executioners, suggest someone should be killed, etc. We’re told that anyone who acts in response to any of these comments does so without having any culpability placed back on the speaker.
Governor Palin wants us to believe, and supporters have agreed, that Letterman’s comments are damaging and open the door to making it okay for grown men to carry out acts of pedophilia or to otherwise attack or denigrate women or girls.
So let me get this straight. A comedian telling a bad joke carries the responsibility of how his words are perceived and acted on while people who are professionals in political and social discourse are exempted when their words may, or even can be shown to, have incited heinous actions or crimes? If Letterman’s joke can spur pedophiles on to rape surely Bill O’Reilly’s calling Dr. Tiller an executioner and other slurs (42 times) can spur viewers on to equally unlawful actions. Letterman’s comment was a joke while political pundits often present their comments with heavy-handed emotion. Which is more likely to elicit an actionable response?
To get back to the Letterman issue specifically. I was quite impressed with the apology that he offered Governor Palin. He went on, quite a while, in explaining that it was a joke he shouldn’t have made and that his intent didn’t matter—that it was the perception people took away from it that mattered and he apologized genuinely about it. Governor Palin accepted his apology but not before taking some final shots at his words and their possible impact.
Again, I want to know where she was when all these other statements were made by people in her party. I also ask that anyone that considers Bill O’Reilly genuine compare Letterman’s apology to the one O’Reilly offered to CNN—an apology that started off with bragging about how rare he does so, included direct character attacks against Rick Sanchez, continued on with justifications and concluded with a plug for an upcoming segment that would essentially suggest that he was justified in everything he was supposedly apologizing for. Add to the fact that this “apology” included a flat-out lie right in the middle of it.
I’m done being conciliatory towards supporters of Bill O’Reilly or any of the other fear and hate peddlers on Fox News or conservative radio (or anywhere else for that matter). When, for example, is Sean Hannity going to apologize for telling his audience:
“There are things in life worth fighting and dying for, and one of ’em is making sure” that Pelosi “doesn’t become the speaker.”
Either we believe that Free Speech means free speech without any recrimination or we don’t. People cannot have it both ways.
There are essentially two areas that concern me with free speech. One is the moral issue and the other is about the legal implications. In thinking about this it’s the moral responsibility that concerns me most. The legal ones are fairly well defined. Slander and libel have clear definitions and there are other less clear legal limitations to entirely free speech. In other words, we don’t have total free speech in this country. There are legal limits. On the legal side, if it’s illegal to cheer on a rapist, should it not also be illegal to knowingly and willingly engage in speech that crosses the line? Remember, the right to bear arms doesn’t mean you have the right to shoot anyone you want. Why should the right to free speech mean that you have the right to verbally assault anyone you want without repercussions?
That said, it’s the moral angle that I believe needs to be considered here. When someone openly tells millions of listeners or viewers that it’s okay to go ahead and kill someone (certainly Hannity wasn’t suggesting someone die trying to vote Nancy Pelosi out of office) I believe the moral implications should come down heavily on such incidents. Those engaging in these sorts of attacks should not be supported by us. They should not be condoned. Such morally questionable actions should be met with outrage and indignation. At the least these people should feel compelled to apologize to the rest of us for their actions. In the cases mentioned above it’s my feeling that these people should be fired and the networks employing them compelled to distance themselves from them or, likewise, face their own backlash.
The longer we allow these messages of hate to continue unchecked the more damage we’ll have to undo.