In pursuit of profit, press censors internally

Patrick Ward (“From Yale to U. Florida, free speech sinking,” Oct. 4) makes two claims: our nation’s commitment to freedom of speech is tenuous, and that’s a shame. He also make two errors: the nation’s commitment to freedom of speech is nonexistent, and that’s the most desirable choice.

This is not to say that the federal government is not committed to protecting free speech, but rather that most American institutions aren’t. Don Imus was not fired because of his comments. Those in the broadcasting business (the fact that it is a business cannot be over-stressed) have pointed out that Imus wasn’t fired because he said offensive things (saying offensive things was his job). Once advertisers pulled their funds from the show, Imus was no longer helping the network turn a profit. The decision was purely capitalist. Free speech ought never have been brought up.

Newspapers aren’t in the free speech business — having free press means you can choose to say anything, not that you must choose to say everything. Their job is deciding what things are (and aren’t) worth reporting. No doubt, some editorials, news stories or ideas don’t make it. The decision not to publish something is made for pragmatic reasons (higher circulation, reputation, courting new advertisers), not free speech reasons.

On other points, Ward’s analysis is correct. Did David McSwane, editor in chief of the Rocky Mountain Collegian, hope to stir up controversy and discussion over free speech? Probably. Did they succeed? Undoubtedly. Was the backlash due to the newspaper’s political message, not it’s obscenity? Yes. Is vulgarity common? Of course.

The problem is that these facts aren’t relevant to deciding if McSwane should be fired. The only question is “Did McSwane do his job?” If the newspaper’s goal was to drive away advertisers and readers, he excelled. If bad press was an inevitable result of the newspaper’s appropriate actions, it’s the cost of doing business. If backlash was both undesirable and foreseeable to anyone doing the job properly, McSwane hasn’t done what he was hired to do. If he allows the newspaper to publish an expletive after voluntarily accepting a responsibility to ensure that doesn’t happen, he’s not doing his job.

The newspaper raised the issue of free speech, but that’s a bad thing. The unfortunate tendency (seemingly increasing with IQ) is crying wolf whenever there is a possibility of negative social or professional consequences for saying something. One of an editor in chief’s responsibilities is reputation control, and his decision damaged the newspaper’s reputation. There is no free speech issue when a newspaper dismisses its editor for not doing his job. Free speech doesn’t mean newspapers must express particular views; it means if my newspaper won’t publish your views, you’re free to start your own, independent of a university oversight process you find distasteful if you choose.

Ward is correct in noting that many have discussed free speech in light of this incident, but that’s indicative of a problem. Those involved in this particular discussion of free speech don’t understand what free speech is in the first place. If they did, they would realize this isn’t a free speech issue, it’s a “doing your job” issue.

It is OK, even desirable, for a newspaper to contain incendiary views as long doing so furthers the newspaper’s goals. Expressing the relevant reactions and perspectives (including the newspaper’s own) on an issue is part of the process of the reporting process. Expressing them in a way that drives away advertising dollars and readers goes against an editor’s duty.

McSwane wasn’t fired, but the Colorado State University Board of Student Communication did conclude that his behavior was “unprofessional and unethical” and that he violated two campus rules. On October 5, The Rocky Mountain Collegian’s editorial board stated: “We have lost advertisers and readers …. To repair the damage, we’re going to do what we do best — report the news.”

It’s incredible when a newspaper feels the need to say that it is going to “report the news.” Shouldn’t that be expected? That it needs to reaffirm its mission proves that its editors weren’t doing their job before. Free speech is no justification for bad judgement in a job that requires discretion.

It’s incredible logic. The editorial in question is protected by free speech, but the editors admit that in publishing it, they weren’t doing their jobs. Like Ward, they blame society for the negative consequences, for we live “in a time when it seems our civil liberties are disappearing faster than the polar ice caps.” It’s society, not McSwane’s decision, that drove away advertisers, cost the newspaper readers and then gave cause to the creation of a rival newspaper.

This is not a free speech issue. McSwane wasn’t doing his job. That’s it.

Michael Wayne Harris is a junior in Branford College.

Comments