Three recent media controversies – an award given to a movie that depicts the assassination of President Bush, a flap over fake photos of Tiger Woods’ wife, and the consideration NBC executives are giving to a prime-time airing of Madonna’s mock crucifixion – have highlighted an important truth that media elites ignore at their peril: Freedom of speech and of the press are rights, but they can be abused. And too much abuse can lead to a backlash that stifles the very exchange of controversial ideas so critical to the functioning of a free society.
The first controversy, involving British filmmaker Gabriel Range’s mock documentary, “Death of a President,” is a clear illustration of the sort of excess that can lead to backlash. Even in our current climate of Bush-bashing, the film’s premise is over the top: Range graphically depicts the assassination of the President during a fictional trip to Chicago on October 19, 2007. Adding to the obvious offense of portraying the death of sitting President is Range’s tactic of using actual footage of Bush and Cheney to create a documentary-style film that, in the words of Toronto International Film Festival critics, “distorts reality to reveal a larger truth.” In fact, that “truth” – that the Bush Administration aims to restrict our civil liberties as much as possible and constitutes the leading threat to freedom in the world – is a rather pedestrian partisan platitude, one that could easily and effectively be communicated without bringing terrorist fantasies to life onscreen. This film endangers the President, while surely causing deep pain to his family. The decision of the Toronto festival’s leaders to give this film a platform and plaudits – it won the “Prize of the International Critics” – was deeply irresponsible.
Equally irresponsible was the decision by the editors of the Dubliner magazine to publish a piece in their September issue that insulted the wives of the American golfers competing in the Ryder Cup. A sample quote: “Most American golfers are married to women who cannot keep their clothes on in public. Is it too much to ask that they leave them at home for the Ryder Cup?” The magazine accompanied the piece with fake pornographic photos of Tiger Woods’ wife, Swedish model Elin Nordegren. Woods was understandably incensed and is considering legal action. For its part, magazine publisher Dubliner Media Limited issued only a quasi-apology describing the piece as “satire” that should not have been taken seriously.
That excuse was almost as lame as the one offered by NBC executives last week when they were questioned about their eagerness to air 48-year-old pop provocateur Madonna’s mock crucifixion in a prime-time concert special. NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly had said last summer that he would not require Madonna to revise her controversial stage act for television – a comment that seemed to suggest the crucifixion scene would be included. Last week, an NBC spokeswoman was a bit more obtuse, saying the network could not decide what would hit the airwaves until “we’ve seen it in its entirety” – as if the global media frenzy over Madonna’s latest publicity stunt had somehow escaped their attention.
That NBC executives are even considering airing the mock crucifixion is outrageous – and rather surprising, considering the obvious affront it would be to the 85 percent of Americans who identify as Christian. The patently offensive antics of this aging pop star hardly justify NBC defense of her silliness in the name of “artistic freedom.” After all, the network does not have much of a track record when it comes to freedom of expression: NBC Nightly News refused to air in full the Danish cartoon that offended Muslims and sparked violence around the globe earlier this year. In the words of an NBC spokeswoman, “We felt that in order to convey the essence of the story, it was not necessary to show the entire cartoon.” Surely, NBC’s Christian viewers are entitled to the same deference shown to Muslims. But religious sensitivity has never been the network’s forte. As Parents Television Council President L. Brent Bozell noted in a recent column (http://www.parentstv.org/PTC/publications/lbbcolumns/2006/0921.asp), NBC fared worst in the council’s 2004 study of media treatment of religion, amassing 9.5 negative treatments of religion for every positive reference. A choice by NBC executives to publicize Madonna’s latest outrage will take the network’s religious hostility to a new low.
Irresponsible decisions like these – to endanger a President, defame the wife of a popular athlete, and parody the most sacred religious image in Christianity – deepen the cynicism that ordinary Americans feel toward the mainstream media. They coarsen our culture. And they can lead to the very censorship that the press and the art world deplore, because they convince the public that journalists and entertainers cannot police themselves and therefore must be muzzled by others. How refreshing it would be if media gatekeepers resolved to wield their power more responsibly, by devoting less energy to inciting and inflaming audiences and more effort to informing and inspiring us – for our sake, and for theirs.
Have PoliticalMavens.com delivered to your inbox in a daily digest by clicking here