Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Bill O'Reilly doesn't understand the 1st Amendment

I see that Dave Neiwert has beat me to the punch in responding to Bill O'Reilly's bizarre interpretation of the 1st Amendment last night on The Factor in regards to the SPLC calling for CNN to fire Lou Dobbs.

Bill O'Reilly seems to have a little trouble understanding how the First Amendment works.

Free-speech rights mean the government can't stop citizens from saying things it doesn't like. Every citizen has that right.

But having a radio show or a network anchor's job is not a right. It's a privilege, one that people work very hard to achieve, and only a relative handful actually get. Who gets the privilege is decided by people holding the media pursestrings.

Nonetheless, O'Reilly seemed to think last night on his Fox News show that the Southern Poverty Law Center not only was "overreacting" to Lou Dobbs' promotion of the "Birther" conspiracy theories, but that they were attacking Dobbs' First Amendment rights in demanding that CNN remove him.
Right. Bill O'Reilly seems to think that network stars have a First Amendment right to their jobs, which they do not. They have a First Amendment right to free speech and to be a part of a free press, but that does not mean that they get to keep their jobs no matter what they say or do, or that citizens who call on the management of news organizations to adhere to journalistic standards of professional behavior are infringing on Dobbs' rights.

If a station's meteorologist routinely told viewers that it was going to snow on days when it was 100 degrees outside, or that it would be sunny and bright as a hurricane approached, viewers would justifiably have a legitimate reason to demand that individual lose his/her job. And no one is going to suggest that the meteorologist's First Amendment rights are being infringed upon or that viewers should leave it "to the market" to settle the matter.

That's actually the second reason that O'Reilly gives that the SPLC shouldn't ask CNN to fire Dobbs. That "the market" will sort it out and CNN's ratings will suffer because of Dobbs promoting such stupid conspiracy theory. Let's count the problems with this line of reasoning:

1. "The market" does not sort out truth value claims. Anyone watching an episode of Glenn Beck's Fox program will be confronted by this fact.

2. Even if the ratings suffered because of Dobbs promoting conspiracy, citizens still are justified in being concerned with a major network star promoting and legitimizing a hate-based conspiracy theory about the president.

3. As the authors of The Elements of Journalism point out, journalism is "a discipline of verification" with the journalist's "first obligation [being] to the truth." When Lou Dobbs gets on the air and helps promote malicious lies that have long since been debunked he is committing journalistic fraud and derelection of duty. CNN's audience have a right to expect that CNN not betray this duty and that they be provided with a more reliable source of information. And by interacting with the network, voicing their concern and even demanding that an anchor spreading misinformation lose his/her job, citizens are serving a vital role. Indeed:

10. Citizens, too, have rights and responsibilities when it comes to the news.

Citizens must set aside prejudice and judge the work of journalists on the basis of whether it contributes to their ability to take an informed part in shaping their society. Citizens control the market for news - they must hold its practicioners to higher standards of reliability, timeliness, proportionality, and comprehensiveness.

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