Judging Celebrity Speech

I hope the United States does not go to war with Iraq. I hope the United States does not move closer to war with Iraq than it is at this moment. I hope the United States withdraws all of its troops not only from the Middle East, but from all points on the globe.

I hope the United States disbands its troops and sells the weapons for scrap metal and donates the uniforms to quilting bees. I hope the scrap metal is used for peaceful purposes and the quilts go to homeless shelters. I hope the homeless shelters remain free from terrorist attacks as long as they exist.

Then maybe the celebrities will shut up.

It is not that they do not have a right to speak. They do.

It is not that I disagree with all they say. I do not. I find myself eager these days to listen to people on both sides of the spectrum with regard to possible military action against Iraq. I want to consider every idea worth considering about so significant a matter.

But I do not want to listen to Sean Penn tell reporters about the plight of Iraqi children. I do not want to listen to Jeanine Garofalo tell MSNBC’s Jerry Nachman about the inconsistencies of Bush administration policy. I do not want to listen to Susan Sarandon complain about people accusing her of anti-Americanism. And I do not want to read Robert Redford’s views on the new period of McCarthyism which he feels our nation may soon be entering.

Recently, at his Sundance Film Festival, Redford told a reporter from the Ottawa [Canada] Citizen the following: "The early signs are this administration could go further, shutting down information, not allowing certain truths to get out. And all you’ve got to do is look at history to see what that led to. The McCarthy era."

Four sentences. Thirty-eight words. Not so much as a gram of sense.

What does Redford mean by "go further"? There is no evidence that the Bush administration has gone anywhere yet in terms of shutting down information that belongs in the public sphere. And there are no easy comparisons to be made between the McCarthy era and the United States in the post-Sept. 11 world. All you’ve got to do is look at history to see that.

As a reason for his pessimism, Redford cites ads for his recent movie, The Last Castle. Originally, these showed an American flag flying upside down, but they were changed, Redford says, for fear that such an image would be thought unpatriotic.

However, it was the movie studio that changed the ads, not the Bush administration. Your industry, Bob. Not your government. And it did so not to censor ideas, but to soothe sensibilities in the immediate aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. All you’ve got to do is look at common sense to see that there is nothing conspiratorial about this, nothing that threatens the First Amendment.

Redford goes on to say that some of his most famous movies probably would have been censored if they were made today. For instance, The Candidate, All the President’s Men and Three Days of the Condor.

When is the last time a movie was censored by the government in this country, Bob? And what makes you think you could not make The Candidate today? Everybody doubts the sincerity of politicians. What makes you think you could not make All the President’s Men today? Everybody suspects elected officials of scandal and rampant self-interest. What makes you think you could not make Three Days of the Condor today? In fact, you did make it---a movie called  Spy Games, which was released in the Fall of 2001 and made the CIA look as corrupt and incompetent as it did in Condor.

This seems to be a column about celebrities. Ultimately, it is not. It is a column about the media who publicize them. As movie stars and comedians and singers continue to exercise their right of free speech, it is time for the American media to start exercising their judgment. If Robert Redford were not a celebrity and had written such nonsense in a letter to the editor of the Ottawa Citizen, the paper would not have published it. Nor should it have.

The Citizen, and all news organizations, print and broadcast alike, should be judging the speech instead of the speaker, the words instead of the writer. By that standard, many celebrities—although certainly not all---are just people of dim wattage whose names happen to appear in lights.

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 .

Respond to the Writer