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Lila Littlejohn: Responsibility key to exercise of 1st Amendment

From the desk of the editor

Posted: March 5, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: March 5, 2011 1:55 a.m.
 

To say it’s disgusting is an understatement.

Like many of you, no doubt, I was initially appalled to learn the Supreme Court this week had sided with hate-spewing demonstrators who chose the funerals of U.S. service personnel killed in the line of duty as a platform for their vitriol.

That these people believe homosexuality is a sin is their indisputable right, certainly.

That the First Amendment gives them a right to express their belief is firmly established.

That they deem it appropriate to aim such sentiments as “Thank God for dead soldiers,” “You’re going to hell” and “Thank God for 9/11” at families grieving the loss of their sons and daughters who gave everything for our national defense — this seems unthinkable.

These misguided people have distorted the Christian mantra “Love the sinner, hate the sin” into “Hate the sinner, and hate everybody else, too.”

As is the case when explosive stories such as these arrive over the wire in our newsroom, a discussion ensued.

It took a few moments for me to remind myself that as members of the U.S. news media, we’re duty-bound to defend the First Amendment in all instances — and that’s exactly what the Supreme Court did in its 8-1 vote.

This isn’t the first time the American news media’s commitment to the top item in the Bill of Rights has landed us on the same side as unsavory characters. More than once, I’ve seen such venerable institutions as the Washington Post side with the likes of the National Enquirer on issues involving the First Amendment.

That doesn’t mean the Washington Post likes it.

As much as I abhor the behavior of members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan. — what happened to “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1) or “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:5)? — they do have their right to free speech, too.

Take that away from one law-abiding group and you’re on the slippery slope.

But there is a way the mainstream media could marginalize these folks without doing anything illegal or robbing anybody of any rights.

Here’s all they would have to do: agree not to cover these demonstrators’ outrageous message.

A little secret about demonstrations: They are a creation of television news. Take away the TV cameras and you’ve taken away the demonstrators’ audience. Take away their audience and you’ve taken away most of their power. All that would be left for these folks to do is annoy, offend and incense the immediate family.

My guess is that they’d tire of that quickly and stop their disgusting show.

Whether the event is a Middle Eastern rally that’s part of a worldwide story, hate-spewing picketing in Kansas, or slow-speed meandering around Southern California freeways by the driver of a nondescript beige sedan, staged events shrink to the everyday, the mundane, the category of non-news without the aggrandizing eye of TV cameras.

As much as TV has the power to bring into our living rooms the horror and bloodshed of war (which is why the Pentagon became so media savvy after the Vietnam War), the agony of losing a child or the birth pangs of democracy, it also has the power to tune out the hate-spewers and others whose messages are unfit for public consumption.

If you’re shaking your head here and saying, “It’ll never happen,” you’re most likely right.

The media would have to come to an agreement that harassment of a grieving family and hate messages directed at family members, their dead child and the rest of the country are inappropriate fare for TV news.

Decency vs. the riveting shock value of the obscure Kansas church’s message: Which do you think would win in the ratings-driven TV news business?

If one station covered the picketing and nobody else did, the marginalization wouldn’t work. Competition rules supreme in the news business, as it does in any other for-profit business.

And in the long run, that works in favor of our knowledge base, if not our actual freedom. While competition can drive the media to report abhorrent messages, the knowledge that such perspectives are out there could be important.

Without that information, we might think the world is a much safer — or saner — place than it actually is.

And, after all, who’s to decide what’s abhorrent?

So it’s likely the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka will be reinvigorated by the Supreme Court ruling, and its members will renew their hate-spewing. And it’s even more likely that TV news will be there to cover it.

That doesn’t mean we have to expose ourselves or our families to those messages. With the explosion of media over the past 20 years or so, our choices are nearly endless.

Freedom of speech cuts both ways. Those in television news and entertainment know this rule: For every individual who calls the TV station to complain, there are 1,000 more who feel the same way but don’t bother to make the phone call.

Voice your opinion on content. The First Amendment guarantees you that right.

Lila Littlejohn is executive editor of The Signal. She can be reached at llittlejohn@the-signal.com. Her views reflect her own and not necessarily those of The Signal.

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