How 400 rabbis are wrong about Glenn Beck
Yes, the cranky Fox talkshow host should be criticised and mocked for his anti-Semitic rants - but he shouldn’t be forced off air.
‘400 rabbis can’t be wrong’, declared the US media watchdog Media Matters in support of the multi-signed open letter urging Rupert Murdoch to sanction Fox News presenter Glenn Beck for his anti-Semitic rants. I doubt that any random collection of 400 Jews would share this view of rabbinical infallibility. In any case, these rabbis are wrong – not morally but politically – to join an apparent effort to force Beck off the air.
I’m not criticising the rabbis, or any Jewish advocacy groups, for criticising Beck. I’m not denying their right to call for his punishment or even dismissal; I’m questioning the wisdom of doing so. My unsolicited advice is: expose and challenge the anti-Semitic ravings of Beck and others, but stop short of trying to silence them. Rabbis and liberal Jews are not exactly Beck’s target audience, which means that Murdoch probably doesn’t care what they think of him or indeed any performers broadcast by Fox that appeal to anti-Semitic, biblical Zionists on the right. Liberal or Jewish demands to punish Beck probably fire up his fans, increasing their loyalty to him (and his value to Murdoch), just as liberal attacks on Sarah Palin help fuel her political ascent.
Besides, publicly calling for Beck to be punished helps him portray himself as the victim of an alleged anti-libertarian, liberal assault on speech. It changes the subject: what should be a discussion of anti-Semitism becomes a debate about free speech, and not a particularly enlightening one.
Free speech advocates tend to oppose consumer boycotts of corporate speech, and certainly Beck is a corporate instrument, if not a spokesman. But ultimately the market for these programmes that elevates some cable stars (among other celebrities) and effectively silences others is made up of consumers. Whomever the market makes, the market may break. Opposing a high-paid talker and successfully persuading his employers to take him off the air is not necessarily any more or any less censorious than supporting him and successfully deterring his employers from hiring – and giving voice – to a replacement.
I’m not minimising the problem of marketplace censorship (which has shaped my own personal freelance career). Instead, I mean to underscore it and highlight its complexities. As I’ve written previously, media executives engage daily in content-based discrimination against speech, and have every right to do so. They’re in the business of discriminating: deciding what, and what not, to publish or air. Media conglomerates base these decisions on the bottom line, promoting profitable speech (like Glenn Beck’s rants); whereas money-losing opinion journals, dependent on finance from foundations or deep-pocketed publishers, discriminate against speech on ideological grounds. But whether they’re interested in profits or politics, the editors and executives who decide what we will read, hear and see generally aim to please their audiences and advertisers. Beck will keep his job if he continues to be an asset; he’ll lose it if he becomes a liability (economically or politically). What else is new?
But while demands for corporate sanctions of hateful, dishonest or unhinged talkers don’t threaten to shackle political discourse, neither do they promise to elevate it. The left (what’s left of it) won’t increase its audience share by playing defence – trying to shame or silence talkers on the right – any more than protesters gathered outside the latest conference sponsored by energy conglomerate Koch will mitigate the political influence of Koch-sponsored political groups. Furthermore, trying to cut funding for these groups through campaign finance reforms is another counterproductive defensive play that, unlike consumer boycotts, does indeed seriously threaten free speech.
These are hardly new insights. For years, liberals have been bemoaning the absence of a media empire to rival Fox News and right-wing talk radio, which is why so many cheered the emergence of news channel MSNBC and why the often insufferably egotistical television personality Keith Olbermann was regarded by some as a saviour. For years, liberals have also been discussing the need to establish a left-leaning political infrastructure of think-tanks and advocacy groups. Even so, liberals often assume the defensive position, not just criticising right-wing ranters and ravers, but asking a corporate authority to rule them out of order, just as they oppose right-wing advocacy groups by demanding that state authorities cut off their funds.
So in demanding sanctions for Beck, the 400 rabbis are reading from a familiar script (which, I guess, is what rabbis are trained to do). But – and I say this as a non-believer – praying for Beck’s enlightenment might be a lot more effective than calling for his punishment. ‘Just ignore her; she’s only trying to aggravate you’, my mother advised my high-school principal when I declined to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Beck’s anti-Semitism shouldn’t just be ignored. It should be challenged; or, better still, mocked. But just don’t let him aggravate you.
Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer, writer and free speech activist. Her latest book is Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity, and the ACLU. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).) This article originally appeared at theatlantic.com.