Tragedy struck in Queens on Sunday evening when a cable-thieving black box-related mishap resulted in my being unable to watch the penultimate episode of The Sopranos. Suffice it to say that anyone who writes in to tell me what happens before I have a chance to catch up shall be beaten with a digital two by four. In any event, I ended up watching that most basic of cable, C-SPAN, which happened to be broadcasting a discussion panel hosted by a pudgy and ebullient Leon Panetta (the man has an institute apparently, in Monterey – tough life), featuring Bill O’Reilly and James Carville, the Ragin’ Cajun, who appears to rub his skin with Tabasco on a regular basis.

The discussion was remarkable for being everything that cable news talk programs, particularly O’Reilly’s, aren’t – informative, nuanced, considered and thought-provoking. Pompous and obnoxious as always, O’Reilly was still exposed as a fairly reasonable and intelligent observer of current affairs, however objectionable some of his views – an alternate persona one does not get to see in his pulp-ready columns and books or on his top-rated Fox News program, which he primarily seems to use as a platform for his bellowing skills. So consistently shrill is the tenor of political tv talk these days that I can’t see much use for its constant screech as anything other than a tuning fork. The contrast Panetta’s panel provided was extraordinary, and so for once I listened closely to the gangly Irish-American with the fearsome neck waddle, only to have him jolt me into a postscript on Don Imus, another gawky blowhard for whom I ordinarily have little time.

Responding to a question about Imus’ fate, O’Reilly expressed no sympathy, saying something to the effect of “what’s the value of that?” “That” being Imus’ lame, racist attempt at humor in his description of the Rutgers women’s basketball team, the source of a media and activist furor that ultimately cost him his radio and television shows. O’Reilly said this was no free speech issue, offering an argument that has become, I think, something of a security blanket for right-wing commentators on this issue (and O’Reilly is a right-winger on any reasonable scale, despite his protestations to the contrary): it was not NBC or CBS who fired Imus, it was Proctor & Gamble – the advertiser that withdrew its support. Because “the market” decided – and, for those on the right, “the market” can’t be wrong – Bill was fine with seeing Imus go.

In other words, it should be up to a manufacturer of laundry detergent to decide what shock jocks can say and what you and I get to hear. O’Reilly’s well-known reputation for consistency aside, I’d venture to say that he’s full of something more solid than hot air on this one (how’s that for avoiding obscenity, my benevolent corporate overlords?).

Let’s review: Don Imus says something stupid and offensive that apparently no-one listening to him takes much note of, or finds particularly offensive; a liberal media watch dog, which pays people to sit and monitor media programs it deems offensive and contrary to its own political agenda (Imus, ironically enough, being generally in agreement with their political agenda – so a rather paltry scalp for them overall one would think) picks up on this one particular phrase and begins broadcasting its indignation to like-minded media outlets and activists, urging them to join in; self-aggrandizing, media-savvy charlatans pounce on the offending item, calling on their supporters – presumably none of whom ever listen to Don Imus or would have heard about the slur otherwise – to be offended; the mainstream media (you know, the one O’Reilly routinely condemns as liberal and such) picks up on the storm of indignation in the calm of a slow news week; millions of Americans who never listened and would never listen to Imus are called on to demand that Imus be denied the opportunity to broadcast to an audience eager to listen to him; Imus is purged, everyone gets to pat themselves on the back on how far we’ve come vis race, and the ranks of the offended, who would never have even known about Imus’ remark if not for a concerted media campaign, recede.

A political and economic boycott on a media figure’s speech is not a “natural” market force. The invisible hand is not meant to throttle off the expression of those who offend a constituency large and powerful enough to demand their silence. The boycott, or threatened boycott on Imus, was in fact a defiance of market forces – the kind of measure often imposed by environmentalists, labor unions and human rights activists against the workings of capitalism that O’Reilly would doubtless condemn as the work of anti-market fools. Indeed, I rather suspect that if Imus were less of a liberal O’Reilly would be more eager to jump to his corner.

But to return to O’Reilly’s question: what is the value of Imus’ words? Very little, I suppose – inherently that is. The value comes in his freedom to say them, not in the words themselves. For, otherwise, who decides what has value? Who decides, for the rest of us no less, what is valuable enough to deserve an audience? Bill O’Reilly? Al Sharpton? Proctor & Gamble? Don Imus was the victim of an arbitrary and capricious busy-body’s veto, an effort to designate certain speech as racially “obscene” (“I know it when I see it, just don’t ask me to define it”). What Imus said was no more offensive or racially charged than much of what he, or Howard Stern or Eric Cartman (or Al Sharpton) has said in the past and will say in the future. He was not guilty of any crime, simply of being an as-hole – a charge to which O’Reilly himself can hardly plead innocence.

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