Do I Even Know What I'm Talking About?

Posted: Nov 02, 2003 12:00 AM

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.

Many people would like to gag O'Reilly too, so I proposed a peace treaty along the following lines: we let Bill O'Reilly talk, and he lets all the rest of us talk. While many readers signed on to this pact, others (sigh) had objections.

* Huh? Slander and libel laws! What are you talking about? They inhibit free speech!

While I agree that it is easy to abuse even legitimately deployed government power, I also think there are clear-cut cases in which an action may be properly brought against a person for deliberately spreading destructive lies about another person. You can't, for example, publicly disseminate a wholly fabricated charge of murder against a businessman, which action ends up costing him his business, and pretend that your malicious action does not violate the rights of your victim.

* Look, Jacob. O'Reilly wasn't suggesting a coercive clamp-down on free speech. Just trying to call attention to the distortions of so much in the media. It's "we the people" whom he believes should provide the checks and balances to misbegotten speech, not the government.

This is a charitable interpretation of O'Reilly's remarks that I would accept if only that were what he meant. But he mentions "the court system" as the source of the further checks and balances he wants. If he means merely more clear-cut principles of libel or slander, okay.

The Internet already has many voluntary checks and balances, so if that's what O'Reilly meant, why bash the Internet for its alleged lack of same? After all, many bloggers do nothing but check and balance. Consider the response, for example, when Maureen Dowd of The New York Times selectively quoted President Bush in such a way (by using ellipses) that she distorted Bush's plain meaning. The bloggers pounced, and a few columns later she was re-quoting the same statement with the omitted material stuffed back in (without bothering to admit her lapse, however). Check, balance, game, set, match. The checks and balances are there, and the arena in which combatants fling them at each other needs to remain unfettered. Caveat lector, as always.

* You miss the point. I think O'Reilly is saying that the Internet attracts people with lower qualifications to report and comment.

If so, so what? In the era of the American Revolution, farmers with no "qualifications" but their opinions and their stake in the matter got out their quills and scribbled screeds and counter-screeds about the issues of the day. They distributed their opinions in the form of printed broadsides and pamphlets. Today they might blog on the Internet. Why? Because they can? Sure. Of course the Internet has lowered barriers of entry to public debate--just like every advance in the technology of communication since the invention of clay tablets. I am sure that many elitist shepherds of public opinion lamented Gutenberg's printing press and all the incontinent babbling it empowered.

Well, that's my time. The above should resolve all questions re this matter.

If not...well, take your best shot. I don't mind. Really! Here at U.S. Term Limits we crank out hundreds of Common Sense radio commentaries a year. The more uppercuts and right hooks to fend off, the easier to come up with new copy. So, join the conversation. Put it this way. If you're not reading the Common Sense e-letter, you're missing a chance to deck me.