Paul Jacob

It's not as easy to be an omniscient pundit as you might think.

One time when I smashed Fox know-it-all Bill O'Reilly over the head for the way he smashed other people over the head for smashing him over the head, I got really slapped around for it. Fortunately there was also the usual quota of respondents who said, "Paul, you are so right," so I was able to hobble back to the word processor in short order and tap out the next all-knowing pronunciamento.

O'Reilly had complained that public figures often get unfairly bashed on the Internet. Fair enough. But then O'Reilly made two further claims. One, that it's largely the fault of the Internet that bashings of public persons get so widely promulgated--as if public figures never got bashed before the 1990s, which would be news to Washington and Jefferson.

And, two, that "too little" is done to protect said personages from the ravages of this Wild Cyber-West. It seems there is a lot of very open, uninhibited discussion out there, and O'Reilly is riled by it.

"[T]he court system in this country does not protect anybody in the public arena," O'Reilly lamented in an interview with historian Douglas Brinkley. "You--look, with the rise of the Internet--you see the vile stuff on the Internet? You could say anything you want about anybody. And it just goes unchecked. Shouldn't there be a check and balance in this?"

Brinkley agreed. And, being a scholar, was also able to correct the misimpression that it was Al Gore who invented the Internet. No, it was Clinton. "I think so, too, and I think the Internet--you know, you mentioned the Clinton era, and, of course, that's when the Internet kind of blossomed into our lives, and, suddenly, you had a billion e-mails going around the world and--on--every day, and I think the Internet's so unregulated and that so many false things come up."

Darn that Clinton anyway.

In response to all this I asked readers the obvious question: What checks and balances does O'Reilly want?

There are already laws against libel and slander in this country, after all. Of course, there have to be strict standards for what constitutes these. Also of course, at any one moment any major public figure is going to have a thousand puppies nipping at his heels. It just comes with the territory. All he can do is ignore them--or sue and give publicity to screeds that in 999 cases out of 1000 fade quickly into the cyber-mist anyway. But O'Reilly seemed to be hinting that there must be some form of prior restraint against his critics--that people must be stopped from having their forums before they even open their mouths.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.