Yesterday, I went on the “O’Reilly Factor” to discuss our call for CNN to take Lou Dobbs off the air for Dobbs’ latest conspiracy-mongering. Bill O’Reilly said we shouldn’t take Dobbs too seriously. After all, Bill said, it’s all just for ratings. But in our view, the matter is an extremely serious one, because the ratings game Dobbs is playing is very dangerous.
For years, Dobbs has been trading in baseless, conspiratorial claims that originate on the radical right. Most recently, he’s given credence to the utterly discredited claim that President Obama was not born in this country and so is not eligible to be president. It’s a claim that’s been debunked many times over. CNN’s legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin called it “a joke.” But it’s a claim that continues to circulate in radical right circles. James von Brunn, the neo-Nazi accused of killing the Holocaust Memorial Museum guard, for example, promoted the claim on the Internet and berated the media for not taking it seriously.
The reason Dobbs’ ratings game is so dangerous is that there is a segment in our society that is not ready to accept the fact that we have a black man in the White House. At the extreme, people are striking out, killing others as a result. In Okaloosa, Fla., two sheriff’s deputies were murdered by a man who was upset over Obama’s election. In Pittsburgh, three police officers were murdered by a man who was convinced that Obama was going to ban guns. The Secret Service has reported a record number of threats against the new president. By knowingly trading in unsubstantiated, conspiratorial claims that undermine the president’s legitimacy, Dobbs is stirring a boiling pot. Just like he’s been stirring the pot of anti-Latino rage for years.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Dobbs bears legal responsibility for the right-wing violence that has greeted the Obama presidency. But I am saying that Dobbs bears a degree of moral responsibility for pouring fuel, in the form of baseless accusations, on a raging fire. Because Dobbs can’t help himself – and because he has a history of promoting false claims that originate on the radical right – we have called on CNN to remove him from the air. Merely telling those who are offended to turn the channel is not going to solve the problem.
None of this is about censorship or infringing on Dobbs’ First Amendment rights. The First Amendment protects us all against government censorship; it doesn’t stop news organizations from exercising editorial judgment. We’re not asking the government to arrest Dobbs or force CNN to cancel his show. Instead, we’re asking CNN, a private organization, to live up to its own standards of journalistic integrity and take Dobbs off the air. Dobbs can continue spreading propaganda on every street corner in the America. But CNN has no more of an obligation to allow him to appear on its network than it has an obligation to let me do the same. The fact that Dobbs may have a loyal audience is a poor excuse to allow him to spread misinformation, especially for a network that bills itself as “the most trusted name in news.”
On his show, O’Reilly bet me that CNN would not take Dobbs off the air. He’s banking on the apathy of the public and the imperviousness of a powerful network like CNN to public complaints. I’d like to have a more optimistic view of both the public and CNN. If enough people care, if enough people write to CNN, it can make a difference.