Winter Solstice Tributes

Free Speech for Everyone

THESE ARE NOTES OF ADMIRATION—AND GRATITUDE—FOR WHAT I HAVE LEARNED THROUGH THE YEARS FROM THE HONOREES. NO PRIZES, ALAS, ARE ATTACHED.


Jim Angle and Carl Cameron
Rupert Murdoch's Fox News Network is regularly attacked for its purported right-wing bias. But there is no bias in the work of two Fox News journalists, Jim Angle and Carl Cameron. I find all the networks largely wanting in what used to be called investigative reporting, but Angle and Cameron are the two most fair, incisive, and informed investigative reporters on the Washington scene.

Steve Bright: defeating the executioners
photo: Courtesy of SCHR
Steve Bright: defeating the executioners

Heard at 6 p.m. EST on Brit Hume's Special Report, they equal the standard that broadcast journalists Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly used to set for CBS News. Angle and Cameron get beneath the newspeak from most public officials and public figures, nailing their contradictions and twistings of the facts.

Angle and Cameron also know how to connect news of time present and time past, offering a perspective that is beyond the range of most Washington print reporters, the Voice's Jim Ridgeway being a notable exception. Anchor Brit Hume, moreover, remains as knowledgeable as he was in his days as a reporter; he is a penetrating interviewer as well.


Stephen Bright
Director of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, Steve Bright is the last hope for many people on death row and often does save their lives. A brilliantly resourceful and determined litigator, he has successfully sued to greatly improve prison conditions that would have shocked Charles Dickens. And he has continually exposed George W. Bush's chronic abuse of prisoners' constitutional rights, not only on death row.

Nobody on the staff of the Center for Human Rights is paid more than $30,000, including the director. Bright does not ask for or desire federal funds. What Congress giveth, Congress can take away—as those hollow legislators did when they abolished resource centers for indigent prisoners on death rows around the country.

From time to time, Bright, the pied piper, lectures at law schools and recruits new graduates for employment at the Center. When they move on, they take what they have learned there to work for justice in other parts of the country.


WNYC and BBC World Service
At midnight on WNYC, you can hear information about the foreign news that you can seldom find on the television networks or in newspapers, including The New York Times. The BBC's The World Today radio program carries reports and interviews from countries only glancingly covered in the American press, unless they explode. Even on high-profile stories, the BBC reporters often provide sidebars that quicken your curiosity to learn more—and that's what journalism is about.


Michael Kent Curtis
For some time, I've been been reading and clipping law journal articles by Wake Forest School of Law professor Michael Kent Curtis, who has recounted the fierce battles to keep the First Amendment alive over the last 200-plus years. He does not write in legalese. Curtis's stories are as riveting as a superior novel. He describes how people—blacks, whites, adherents to various political parties or none—have moved the courts to do what the Constitution says the judiciary is supposed to do.

In his new book, Free Speech, "The People's Darling Privilege'': Struggles for Freedom of Expression in American History (Duke University Press), Curtis tells of free speech wars from 1791, when the Bill of Rights was ratified, to 1868—and beyond.

Whether you have a GED or a Ph.D., you're likely to discover dimensions of American history that will astonish you. When I was younger, the dangers to free speech were from the Right. They still are—although in schools, from the elementary to the graduate level, the onslaughts are also from the Left. Around the country, the definition of diversity increasingly excludes diversity of ideas.

As a lawyer, before he joined the Wake Forest faculty, Curtis defended high school journalists censored for printing birth control information, a Black Panther party member busted for selling the party newspaper, a young man threatened with imprisonment for criticizing a judge in the press, women in sex discrimination cases, and an interracial couple in a housing discrimination case.

Curtis speaks from his own experiences as well as history when he writes, "Once we understand the abuses of power that prompted the free speech tradition, we can better understand the risk of abandoning it."

How many of you fully support the equal rights of Dr. Laura and Khallid Abdul Muhammad to speak?


Ken Burns
I forgive him now for distorting history in his documentary Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. He entirely omitted the fact that these foremothers of the feminist movement were vigorously, intensely pro-life. They regarded abortion as men's further exploitation of women. Burns, as he later told me, knew how they felt, but left it out. I said to Ken Burns that they would have picketed him and his documentary if they were here.

But now, in Jazz, the 19-hour Public Broadcasting Service series to be aired in January, Ken Burns has produced by far the most vital history, in any visual medium, of the people who created this life force of a music. There is one grave fault, however. He provides only 30 minutes or so for the last 25 years of jazz. Geoffrey Ward, the writer for the series, has a festive companion book, Jazz: A History of America's Music (Knopf). Seeing and reading Jazz should naturally bring you to the remarkable, wide-ranging five-CD set Ken Burns Jazz (Columbia, Legacy/Verve). But Ken Burns owes us at least another hour or two. Jazz is a living art.


Karen Cook and the Voice fact checkers
My editor at the Voice, Karen Cook, has saved me from bad syntax, blurred meanings, and just plain errors. She is invaluable. I worked with the legendary fact checkers at The New Yorker for more than a quarter of a century, but the crew at the Voice can be just as vigorous and rigorous. They have given me a great deal of trouble, and I have retaliated. The intramural battles will go on, but I fully recognize their worth. Thanks also to Tricia Romano, who deciphers my heavily scrawled manuscripts each week.

And finally, of course, I am grateful for the comments, however sulfurous, from you, the readers. Otherwise, how would I know I'm being read?

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