A Fine Line and the Role of the Media

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, in an interview with MSNBC on March 25, 2010, spoke of the “fine line” we have in our society between allowing “free speech” and maintaining a civil society not dominated by violence.  In the days following January 4, 2011, the world saw the consequence of allowing civil society to be dominated by violent rhetoric in the extreme.  Pakistani citizens were threatened with death by violent means if they even offered condolences to the family of Salman Taseer, the just assassinated Governor of the State of Punjab, Pakistan.

Speaking for myself, I believe that we need to allow the broadest latitude to our right of free speech, as guaranteed by the 1st Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.  This does not mean, however, that when someone utters an outrage it should be without consequence.  Those consequences can be myriad, and totally justified.

Obviously, calling your spouse or parent an unflattering name can have negative consequence to your family.  “Incitement to riot” is another often-offered example of speech, which is not permissible.  Still, this is normally limited to oral or written advocacy of ideas or expression of belief that urges the commission of an act of immediate violence.

It is for this reason that Chuck Todd could say during the Giffords interview of March 25, 2010, rather matter-of-factly:  “Campaign rhetoric and war rhetoric have been interchangeable for years,” as if there is nothing wrong with it.  This is where I get off the media bus.

Today we have media outlets that can reach one billion listeners in less than a second.  When they allow an advocate for violence to say something on their “air,” they are walking that “fine line” of what is ethical to communicate to their audience.  It is a sad fact of the human condition that unbalanced individuals exist everywhere.  Isn’t it the responsibility of our media outlets of all kinds to recognize this fact, and consider the possibility that they might incite or provide ideas to such crazies by giving advocates of violence access to media audiences globally?

It seems to me that it is incumbent on media outlets to adopt an addition to their voluntary ethical code, which requires them to consciously consider whether they are giving advocates for violence a megaphone to spread their views.  Just because such people have the right to say what they want, does not mean the media must amplify their vitriol.  Political candidates and parties should be put on notice that those that advocate violence through their words and behaviors, directly or indirectly, will lose access to the media.

If this were done, then a reasonable topic for discussion in the media sphere would be whether it was ethical for a given media outlet to allow a certain report to be published.  Soon enough media outlets would be shamed away from allowing advocates of violence access to their media megaphone.

Let me close this article with the eloquent words of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, from her MSNBC interview of March 25, 2010:

“Our Democracy is really a light, a beacon around the world, because we effect change at the ballot box and not because of these outbursts of violence in certain cases …  Change is a part of our process, but it’s really important that we focus on the fact that we have a Democratic process.

“I think it’s important for all leaders, not just leaders of the Republican Party or the Democratic Party …  community leaders, figures in our community to say, ‘Look, we can’t stand for this.  … They really need to realize that the rhetoric, the firing people up …  that there are consequences to that action.”

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