I get a lot of e-mails about this column. I get a lot of e-mails about Fox News Watch. An uncommonly high number of them are worth reading: intelligent, passionate, provocative.
Sometimes they make me change my mind; sometimes they force me to think more deeply than I previously had about the nuances of my position.
And sometimes they make me wish I could stick a hatpin into a voodoo doll of the sender---so foolish or irrelevant or mean-spirited are they. In the overwhelming majority of these cases, I ignore the e-mail. A few times, I have responded bluntly. I never got into trouble for it.
Bill Cotterell also responded bluntly. He did not fare nearly as well as I.
It seems that Cotterell, known as the "Capitol Curmudgeon," got a little too curmudgeonly for the taste of his editors not long ago. Cotterell is a political writer and columnist for a Florida newspaper called the Tallahassee Democrat, and recently heard from a reader about a cartoon on the paper’s website. The cartoon showed a Middle Eastern man driving a truck with a nuclear missile on it. The caption read: "What would Mohammed drive?"
The reader was upset about the cartoon. Cotterell defended it, and in one particular passage from his response to the reader, defended it in a most impolitic manner:
"OK," Cotterell wrote, "they [Arabs] can squat around the camel-dung fire and grumble about it, or they can put their bottoms in the air five times a day and pray for deliverance; that’s their business. And I don’t give a damn if Israel kills a few in collateral damage while defending itself. So be it."
Said Cotterell’s editors, expressing themselves as tritely as if they had just received their Masters degrees in Political Correctness, Cotterell’s views run "counter to many of the values we hold dearest, among them tolerance, diversity and inclusiveness."
And so Bill Cotterell, who works for a company which depends upon freedom of speech for its very existence, was suspended for a week without pay for exercising his own freedom of speech.
If Cotterell were a legislator voting on matters affecting Arab-Americans or American policy in the Middle East, I would favor some kind of action against him. If he talked like this and were, say, the Senate Majority leader, I would favor his relinquishing his leadership role.
But he is a newspaper columnist---a man who is paid for his opinions; a man whose employer delights in the contrariness of those opinions, taking pride in promoting him as the "Capitol Curmudgeon"; a man who did not make a public statement but wrote a private communication and did so, perhaps, to a reader who might have been even more incendiary in his initial e-mail than Cotterell was in his response.
What is most troubling to me about the Cotterell case is contained in three words in the previous paragraph: "a private communication." How can a newspaper take money out of the pocket of an employee for an opinion expressed in what should have been a confidential forum? How can it reward the person who violated Cotterell’s trust by publicizing the e-mail? Why has the author of the e-mail been further rewarded by the media’s keeping his name a secret?
Bill Cotterell is now back at work. His suspension is over. If there were any justice in the matter, the company for which the e-mailer works would suspend him for two weeks!
Surely some of you who read this column will disagree with it. You will e-mail me with your complaints. I hope you do so civilly. If so, I will try to respond civilly. But you should not have to, and neither should I.
Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.. ET/8 p.m. PT .