Roseanne, Samantha Bee, and Free Speech

An old listener of mine from WBAI-FM days, who has f0llowed to me through the decades on various stations, reminded me that I used to make impassioned pleas for the right of anyone on the air to say just about anything—and that included cursing and personal insults; Just about anything, in fact, that stopped short of (to paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes) “yelling fire in a crowded theater”—which is to say, any speech that doesn’t cause imminent bodily harm to anyone. Continue reading

An old listener of mine from WBAI-FM days, who has f0llowed to me through the decades on various stations, reminded me that I used to make impassioned pleas for the right of anyone on the air to say just about anything—and that included cursing and personal insults; Just about anything, in fact, that stopped short of (to paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes) “yelling fire in a crowded theater”—which is to say, any speech that doesn’t cause imminent bodily harm to anyone.

Back in the day, before cable, satellite and internet radio and tv, it was all “terrestrial” radio and television—and all subject to fairly strict FCC rules against “offensive” language. You could lose your broadcast license (and certainly left-wing WBAI could lose quicker than most) for any cursing on the air. As for personal attacks, libel laws covered that— still do.
Also, most of the people on the air, no matter how angry or perverse, grew up in a time (the Fifties) when cursing and personal attacks on the air were considered disrespectful and that they displayed a certain poverty of invention or intellect. Of course those attitudes seem quaint and antiquated now…

When we initially went on the air at WBAI we were cautioned that the Feds were always looking to silence Pacifica and so—even if we didn’t think cursing was so bad, and that we might feel that it helped us better express our rage at government malfeasance or certain elected officials— we had to be very careful. It wasn’t just the station and our shows and our colleague’s shows, it was the public that the station was serving that we had to think about.

And it wasn’t just what we said on the air but also what we allowed anyone else, including listeners calling in, and people who were being interviewed, to say.
There was something called a seven-second delay; a technical set-up where you were able—should someone blurt out “shit” or “fuck” or “feckless cunt” or “assassinate Johnson”—to snatch it out of the air so the listeners never heard it. I never understood how it worked and I know a lot of people at WBAI (including me) never turned it on. We just cautioned people from time-to-time and were always very careful.
Then, one Saturday morning, one of our broadcasters played the full recording of George Carlin’s “Seven words you can’t say on Television” (which, of course, he never did say on television) and the FCC, acting on a listener’s complaint, said that it was going to take our license away or censure us in some way. The case made its way to The Supreme Court which decided that we were in the wrong to broadcast the “offensive” words.
But the rule eased up a little after that case. The FCC (or was it Pacifica’s self-imposed rule?) said that such words could not be used when children were in the room (not the children on the air—the children at home or in cars) or from the hours of 7 in the morning till 10 at night. And if we anticipated that our show was going to contain “offensive” material or words, we had to issue a disclaimer advising people to evacuate the children or themselves to avoid being contaminated.
At WBAI, for what we considered were vital political and artistic reasons, we pushed the concept and practice of absolute free speech as far as we could go (and sometimes beyond).

Over time, WBAI lost most of its listeners and supporters because the Sixties and Seventies came and went, AND because it put many racist (anti-White) and anti-Semitic broadcasters on the air and drove away its base. And, perhaps most important, it shrunk in importance simply because of the rise of unregulated broadcast media, in which anything can and does—a million times a day—get uttered. (And that includes what used to distinguish Pacifica’s stations from all the other available media: avant-garde art, political radicalism and brilliant broadcasters).
The rule (and the original moral instinct) against broadcasting offensive public speech, while still observed on terrestrial radio and network TV, has become an amusing little curio in the vast, expanding—and exploding—universe of communication we now inhabit.

But even if WBAI long ago lost its influence on the public and has very few listeners to most of its shows, the concept and fundamental importance of free speech, of course, remains. Which brings me back (at last!) to the current fracas involving Rosanne Barr, Samantha Bee and what is happening to them.

Roseanne lost her show almost immediately after tweeting her racist remark. Her apology was shallow and cynical—as most public apologies by celebrities and politicians generally are. ABC tossed her overboard. Too bad for the people who liked watching her show and even more unfortunate for the many people who had good jobs because of it. Like the Narcissist-in-Chief, Roseanne obviously never considered the effect her remarks would have on anybody—she just felt compelled to make them. And in a world where you can speak to millions of people instantaneously, without pausing for thought or advice, she (as in the Nike ad) Just Did It—much the same way that an infant who hasn’t yet been potty-trained Just Does It.

As for Samantha Bee—though I share her disgust and contempt for Ivanka Trump (and her father and her husband), and I understand and sympathize with the context in which the insult was made, the remark she made about Ms. Trump was actually scripted; written in advance hours (or days) before she actually went on the air. I don’t know if anybody looked over the script or has any sway with her, but still, it was a much more considered attack—not just the diaper-less splat that we got from Rosanne.

I always did believe in extreme latitude for public free-speech. I think our entire democracy (such as remains to us) depends on it. Nothing is more important than the right of free expression, even if it is without decency or morals—as most speech seems to be these days. I would have had no public career without the first Amendment; because WBAI, where I found myself after a lot of wandering in the wilderness, took advantage of the First Amendment to air people and opinions and art that no one else was daring enough to do during the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties.

Samantha Bee apologized for what she said. I don’t know how sincere it was. Roseanne apologized and it was a pitiful joke. Samantha Bee didn’t lose her show (yet) though she did lose a couple of really large advertisers. Roseanne lost her show but may resurface in some other place that wants to take the risk.

ABC—Disney, is a business. And so is Time Warner, the parent company of TBS which airs Bee’s show. Free speech or not, anyone can be fired if the bosses decide that the employee’s behavior is threatening their bottom line.

My almost religious belief in free speech—no matter how amoral and/or vicious and hurtful it is, and no matter the political views of the speaker (Donald Trump, Roseanne Barr, Samantha Bee, Michelle Wolf, et. al) remains.
ABC, whatever the moral rectitude behind their action, is trying to protect its bottom line. It reacted before the advertisers decided they were pulling out. ABC will take a big hit financially and Roseanne, if she wants to, and can find people to work with her, will show up someplace else eventually.

Would I—if I had the power—have fired her? That’s a hard question for me to answer. Of course, I would never be in a position like that—for all sorts of reasons. I did, though, once have some real executive power at WBAI but that was not a business with shareholders. The subscribers to WBAI were shareholders of a sort but not actual owners of the station.

When I was there, if someone was stupid and thoughtless enough to do a Roseanne on the air—or off the air (in some other public platform)—there would have been a violent debate about it. The peer pressure from everybody at the station—both on and off the air—would have been tremendous; and if the transgressor was allowed to keep their show, we would have lost a significant number of listeners and supporters.
Maybe I would have decided, for the good of the station and for the very reasons we existed, that free speech had to temporarily take a back seat. Maybe I would have insisted that the broadcaster stay on the air because once you start axing people for something they said, there is no end to the carnage.

I was once sued for libel for something I said about somebody on the air. What I said was thoughtless and hurtful. The station backed me up, though—they eventually paid out a small legal settlement—for which I will be eternally grateful.
On the other hand, I never said anything to offend an entire race of people. I wonder if the station would have kept me on the air if I did. I certainly would have had tremendous pressure to quit-and if I didn’t quit, I could be damn sure my life at the station would have been miserable from then on.
The management of the station made it clear to me that they were keeping me on this one time but if I cost the station money again by misusing my show in a similar way, I’d probably  be canned.

Sometimes, in this current communication wasteland we live in, where common decency and respect for other people barely exists (on every side) I experience a sense of profound disorientation and hopelessness. It’s hard to come to moral conclusions in an amoral world, but I still you have to do it all the time.

My almost religious belief in free speech—no matter how amoral and/or vicious and hurtful it is, and no matter the political views of the speaker (Donald Trump, Roseanne Barr, Samantha Bee, Michelle Wolf, et. al) remains.
I think Roseanne should have kept her show—no matter what vile stuff she spounts. I think, absent actual libel and incitement to riot, she should be able to say anything she wants. I’d leave it up to the audience and the advertisers and the people on the show to decide for themselves what to do. And to make this as personal as possible, if she had (and she might have in the past) tweeted the worst anti-Semitic remarks, I’d still support her right to say it.
Speech can be violent but once it crosses the line into actual violence—once it causes actual physical and material harm, then you have Nazi Germany.
I think the threat of that is more real and present in America than it’s ever been in my lifetime, but so far, Trump and his rabble-rousing and Roseanne and viciousness have not caused actual mass violence to occur. The things that happened in Charllotesville were real enough but we’re still short of mass Munich-style rallies and National laws taking away people’s property and jailing them and killing them just because they are a certain race or religion.
Once you start restricting speech on a regular basis—once people are forbidden to express their opinion—again, no matter how vicious—then you are headed straight to dictatorship. If Trump and terrible crew had their way, we’d all be in jail for expressing our opinions. Let this woman tweet all she wants—let her keep her show—and we can keep our (tarnished but still existing) democracy.

 

 

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