As a former journalism professor, I'm about to commit blasphemy: Perhaps there is such a thing as too much Freedom of Speech.
I say this because it's become obvious that our free press is being successfully used against America, and because our media have stepped over any line that one might call "responsible."
I'm not talking about the working reporters of America's newspapers and magazines, not even TV blow-dries who rush from disaster to disaster while providing zero context, but rather about the producers considering books like "If I Had Done It" and the video game based on and some would say promoting the Columbine shootings. The Ann Coulters, the Al Frankens, the Rush Limbaughs, the Man/Boy Love Associations, the Resistance Records, the Michel Moores, the MoveOn.orgs and, now, the Jimmy Carters have proved that rational discussion and honest attempts at "truth" no longer have the necessary selling power in our "instant gratification" culture.
To attract an audience in the age of ever more offensive bloggers, unedited Web pages, slanted "documentaries" and absurd television, our media must keep pushing each envelope. I wonder if we're at the breaking point.
In England, it becomes an international incident when an Indian actress goes on a reality show and ends up crying because she's offended by the words of her faux housemates. In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez denies a license to the one TV station willing to stand up to him. In Morocco's "most robust press in the Arab World," two editors are jailed and fined because they publish a few anti-government jokes. And, in Turkey, after being convicted for suggesting the murder of millions might constitute genocide, a prominent editor was gunned down last week.
In America, on the other hand, not only can Navy sailors produce a Web site for anti-Iraq-policy servicemen and a hot play, "Get Your War On," attack policy, but they are reported on a section front in the nation's most influential newspaper.
Our free press covering the proposed bilateral talks between the U.S. and North Korea put pressure on the American negotiators, but North Korean negotiators get a free ride because all the media in that sad country are owned and controlled by the government.
I'm not in the White House, nor any political office, but I can understand how all American politicians, regardless of party, attempting to produce long-term policies today wish for a truly "socially responsible" system of public communication.
No American policymaker, remember, has the right enjoyed by most countries across the globe think North Korea, Russia, China and the Middle East to simply shut down speakers who spew lies, distortions, half-truths or brutally attack "other" races, or types, of people.
Consider some effects of our First Amendment:
At a time when anyone with enough bucks can buy 30 seconds of air time to attack any public person or potential policy as MoveOn.org has already started running against Senator McCain in early primary states should we wonder that all recent presidents and most front-running 2008 candidates have no long-term background in national government?
At a time when the Man/Boy Love Association and FreePorn.com are a click away, are we surprised that traditional societies reject our lifestyles?
At a time when Resistance Records can sell "hate-core" music and Louis Farrakhan can attack all things Jewish, are we shocked that we seem more and more racially polarized?
At a time when most of us have grown up to the instant gratification of sitcoms, advertising and Internet "me" pages, does it surprise us that thinking beyond the next election has disappeared from our politics?
At a time when our Web browsers cater solely to "news" about "our" ball team, "our" stocks, "our" celebrities, "our" political outlooks, is there any doubt why we have a difficult time recognizing the validity of the views of others?
At a time when most advertising and programming seek to hook the young into becoming lifelong consumers, do we wonder why much of the world hates our excessive consumption?
The basis of America's wonderful and perhaps horrible First Amendment is that "truth will prevail in a free marketplace of ideas." This means that as long as everyone has the right to say anything and everything he or she wants, the rational public can discern what is true.
But is the public "rational" when Jessica, Brangelina, Paris, Beyoncé and TomKat are household names, yet most of us can't identify our senators?
And is there a "free marketplace of ideas" when everything, even YouTube's lonelygirl 15, is trying to sell us something?
And can political, or social, "truth" ever prevail when we only listen to voices we already agree with?
As a journalist, I love our First Amendment, but for the future of my country, my planet and my children, it scares the hell out of me. S
Randy Salzman is a former journalism teacher at Virginia Union University and a transportation researcher who now lives in Charlottesville.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.