By Wendy Kaminer
“400 rabbis can’t be wrong,” Media Matters declares, praising their demand that Murdoch sanction Glenn Beck for his anti-Semitic rants. I doubt that any random collection of 400 Jews would share this view of rabbinical infallibility, and, 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 criticizing the ‘rabbis,’ or any Jewish advocacy groups, for criticizing 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 any Fox performers 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), as liberal attacks on Sarah Palin help fuel her political ascent.
Besides, publicly calling for Beck’s punishment helps him play 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 Beck is a corporate instrument, if not spokesman. But consumers constitute the market that elevates some cable stars (among other celebrities) and effectively silences others. Whomever the market makes, the market may break. Successfully opposing a high paid talker and persuading his employers to take him off the air is not necessarily any more or less censorious than successfully supporting him and deterring his employers from hiring — and giving voice — to a replacement.
I’m not minimizing the problem of marketplace censorship (which has shaped my own freelance career). Instead, I mean to underscore it and highlight its complexities. As I’ve written previously, everyday, media executives engage in content-based discrimination against speech, with every right. 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). Money losing opinion journals, dependent on foundations or deep-pocketed publishers, discriminate against speech on ideological grounds. But whether they’re interested in profits or politics, 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 defense, trying to shame or silence talkers on the right, anymore than protesters gathered outside the latest Koch sponsored conference will mitigate the political influence of Koch sponsored political groups. (Efforts to cut funding for these groups through campaign finance reforms is another counter-productive 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 MSNBC, and why the often insufferably egotistical Keith Olbermann was regarded by some as a savior. For years, liberals have been discussing the need to establish a left-leaning political infrastructure of think tanks and advocacy groups as well. Still, liberals often assume the defensive crouch, not just criticizing 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. Don’t ignore Beck’s anti-Semitism; challenge, or better yet, make fun of it — mockery is often more effective than outrage — but don’t let him aggravate you.