Issue 89, Spring 2003

by Joan E. Bertin

Recent news from the front: Peter Arnett was fired from NBC because of statements he made in an interview on Iraqi television commenting on the strength of Iraqi resistance. Some Clear Channel stations have boycotted the Dixie Chicks because of anti-Bush comments by a member of the group. In a shopping mall outside Albany, New York, a man was arrested for wearing a t-shirt with the message “Peace on Earth.”

These days even the New York Stock Exchange doesn’t believe in the free market, if it’s trading in information and ideas instead of goods: it recently barred Al-Jazeera reporters from the trading floor.

Some say Peter Arnett exercised bad judgment in appearing on Iraqi television. It’s hard to imagine that Arnett’s remarks would have provoked the same reaction if he had complimented U.S. military strategy. The question, raised by Walter Cronkite in the New York Times, about whether Arnett had given “aid and comfort” to the enemy—a treasonous act—would be ludicrous were it not from such a respected source. One wonders what he thought about I.F. Stone, the investigative journalist who publicly challenged President Lyndon Johnson’s account of the Gulf of Tonkin incident in Vietnam.

The Dixie Chick comments prompted complaints about celebrities using their visibility for political purposes. Isn’t that exactly what the White House wants Hollywood executives to do? Obviously, it’s only OK to use celebrity status to promote a government-approved message. Ditto t-shirts.

Why this rush to self-censor? Perhaps industry and media see this as the way to preserve access to government news sources and contracts, or perhaps they fear public reaction to anything critical of government at such a moment.

Free speech is most vulnerable to erosion when it is most needed. The irony is in the collective willingness to sacrifice constitutional principles, even as we attempt to impose them on others.