The right to go berserk on air
The group campaigning for Rupert Murdoch to sack shrill ‘shock jock’ Glenn Beck is threatening free speech.
Since the brutal attack in Tucson, Arizona earlier this month, when Democrat congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head and 19 others were wounded, six fatally, it’s been open season on the Fox News Channel. It has been suggested that the kind of gung-ho, war metaphor-rich rhetoric favoured by some Fox News presenters could have inspired the 22-year-old shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, to set out on his killing spree on that fateful Saturday.
The brash, Rupert Murdoch-owned, right-wing station is widely seen as the source of all manner of anti-Democrat propaganda and Tea Party wackiness. To many liberals, it’s good for nothing but spreading ignorance and vitriolic sound bites. So, many are now demanding that some of Fox News’ more notorious hosts be sacked because they allegedly promote hate and violence. But refusing to tolerate certain words, views and opinions, and demanding that the airwaves reflect only one particular outlook, is utterly contrary to the goal of combating intolerance and divisiveness.
Campaigners demanding that so-called ‘shock jocks’ are taken off air have been around for a while, but the Arizona shooting has given them a moral boost. One group that is media-savvily using the attack as a new ‘hook’ is the Jewish Funds for Justice (JFSJ). It has called for Rupert Murdoch to end TV and radio host Glenn Beck’s tenure at Fox News. On Thursday, JFSJ activists delivered a petition with 10,000 signatures, along with a giant ‘pink slip’ for Beck, to Murdoch’s News Corporation headquarters in New York.
But this looks like an opportunistic publicity stunt for JFSJ’s longer-running ‘Special Fox News Campaign’, launched in November 2010 after the airing of Glenn Beck’s three-day TV series The Puppet Master, about Hungarian-born Jewish philanthropist George Soros. JFSJ accused Beck of ‘seeming to draw his material straight from the anti-Semitic forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’. The organisation has since campaigned to ‘get Beck’s poison off the air’.
As an organisation that campaigns on issues like green jobs, a higher minimum wage, healthcare reform, more affordable housing and interfaith dialogue, it is not surprising that JFSJ doesn’t see eye to eye with Glenn Beck. These are precisely the kinds of issues that the highly-strung Beck would likely see as ‘paving the way to socialism’ in America. According to Beck’s website he represents ‘the fusion between entertainment and enlightenment’. According to JFSJ’s website, he engages in ‘unchecked hate-mongering and public incitement’.
Launching its petition to get Beck sacked back in November, JFSJ compiled a list of Beck’s ‘10 worst quotes of 2010’, which were then read out at the demonstration on Thursday. Judging from these alone, it’s quite clear that Beck has a knack for jaw-dropping and insulting one-liners. They include ‘women are psychos’; ‘We have been sold a lie… that the poor in America are suffering’; and ‘putting the “common good” first is the kind of thing that “leads to death camps”’. Beck once also professed that he had started hating the 9/11 victims’ families. ‘I’m so sick of them because they’re always complaining’, he said. And he once compared himself to Israeli Nazi-hunters, pledging that: ‘To the day I die, I am going to be a progressive-hunter.’
In light of the shooting in Arizona, JFSJ president Simon Greer explained, the campaigners chose as Beck’s worst quote of last year: ‘God will wash this nation with blood if he has to.’ But he said this nearly five months before the Tucson shootings. Greer explained: ‘We are not accusing Glenn Beck or Roger Ailes [president of Fox News Channel] or Rupert Murdoch of pulling the trigger in Tucson, only one man did that. But we are accusing them of playing to the worst in all of us.’
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Beck is certainly shrill and offensive – that’s his trademark – but in demanding that a specific individual be sacked from his job and prevented from airing his views because they are diametrically opposed to its own outlook, it is JFSJ that is ‘playing to the worst in all of us’. This is an intolerant, condescending and illiberal campaign – not because it is antagonistic towards Beck (who certainly deserves criticism) but because it is antagonistic to people’s freedom to express, listen to, and make up their own minds about the whole spectrum of ideas and views that are out there.
Indeed, after Beck notoriously went berserk during a radio phone-in back in 2009, shouting ‘get off my phone!’ at a woman demanding healthcare reform, many listeners apparently started to think he might be slightly, well, unhinged. The year after, following a disastrous interview with former Democratic congressman Eric Massa, Beck lost a third of his TV audience in just a few months.
But JFSJ is essentially saying that it and its petition signatories, rather than Glenn Beck’s viewers and listeners, ought to decide whether he’s worth tuning in to. It is turning itself into an arbiter of what is and what is not acceptable to think and say and is demanding that the airwaves reflect only its supporters’ outlook and the kinds of views and opinions they deem acceptable and non-threatening. JFSJ is suggesting that those groups and individuals who have been the target of Beck’s acidic remarks – everyone from George Soros and 9/11 victims’ families to Hurricane Katrina survivors and women – need to be protected from insults, as if they can’t stand up for themselves, tolerate criticism or prove Beck has got his facts mixed up. JFSJ is suggesting that those prone to be sympathetic to Beck’s views could all be on the verge of picking up a Glock 19 to set out on a copycat rampage following the disturbed Jared Lee Loughner’s hateful attack on Gabrielle Giffords and her constituents.
All of this seems contrary to creating a ‘just, fair and compassionate America’, which is JFSJ’s self-proclaimed mission. Instead, for better or worse, the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of conscience demand that censorious lobby groups – whether liberal or right-wing – stop blocking the airwaves and let all ideas be aired and contested freely.
Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked.