“Some on the right will try to make this a free speech issue. But this isn’t about the right to say unpopular or dangerous things. It’s about the abuse of a powerful megaphone for selfish ends, with potentially disastrous consequences. The freedom to speak doesn’t exempt one for moral responsibility for what is said.”
— R.J. Eskow, writing for Salon, on Sean Hannity’s ongoing on-air lionizing of scofflaw rancher Cliven Bundy
What Eskow is talking about here is something I’ve written about many times. It’s a question I’ve asked, really: What do you do when a media outlet refuses to behave responsibly? When it peddles outright lies? When it preaches a kind of cultural armageddon? When it, directly or indirectly, stokes the fires of armed insurrection without any regard whatsoever for what could be the disastrous impact?
Four years ago, Glenn Beck regaled his Fox News viewers day after day, week after week with paranoid fever dreams about the coming collapse of America and the need for some kind of resistance to the encroaching progressive threat. He picked specific targets for his outrage, people and institutions he claimed were surreptitiously trying to destroy the country; one of them was the Tides foundation, a relatively obscure organization based in San Francisco that Beck had singled out as being part of the secret liberal cabal.
In July of 2010, a guy named Byron Williams, wearing body armor and armed heavily, got into a shootout with the California Highway Patrol, injuring two officers. Under questioning he said that he was driving to San Francisco with the goal of “starting a revolution” by killing members of the Tides foundation and the ACLU. Why? Because he watched a lot Glenn Beck and heeded the host’s warnings that his beloved country was about to be taken away from him if somebody didn’t do something. So Byron Williams did.
True, it was impossible to directly blame Beck for the actions of some of his less-than-stable followers and eventually Beck’s eliminationist doomsaying became too much even for Fox News and Ailes got rid of him. But Fox News and the conservative entertainment complex never did an once of soul-searching — and they’ve damn sure never been held accountable when they pulled the kind of crap Beck did then and Hannity is now.
What Hannity is doing by relentlessly validating Bundy and his militia buddies’ armed standoff with the federal government — providing them, night after night, with a big sloppy kiss and a phalanx of Fox News’s powerful Marshall stacks to amplify their neo-Confederate rhetoric — is helping to push this whole thing further and further toward a violent confrontation. Hannity is protected by the First Amendment, of course, but as a professional broadcaster with a national audience and lot of influence, he should be held to a higher standard than simply the basest definition of what’s acceptable speech. Just because he has the right to say something doesn’t mean he should be saying it; there’s a difference between what’s legal and what’s right.
If you have a bunch of men with assault rifles threatening to shoot duly sworn federal agents you do not encourage them in any way. You do not valorize them on national television. You do not sympathize with them. You do not paint their stand as noble and deserving of praise. To do any of these things has the potential to become the equivalent of shouting “fire” in a crowded theater — and that, I’m afraid, is not protected speech.
But Hannity isn’t going to back down because he’s thoroughly shameless. And Fox News won’t back down for the same reason. What do you do about about a news outlet that refuses to behave responsibly? I still have no idea.