A First Amendment primer for Alex Jones' faithful and others in need
Many months back, we began posting letters online as soon as we received them, then fit as many as we could into the regular weekly print edition. Now, with the online forum, anyone can view any ongoing discussion by either clicking the link at the top of our home page or by going directly to austinchronicle.com/forum. If you want to add comments, you just need to register, which is a relatively simple process.
Last week, I wrote that we were in the middle of an ongoing, rather quiet, redesign. This week we launch "Restaurant Roulette" in the Food section; it replaces the "Second Helpings" column. Actually the former is just the latter crammed and multiplied; in not much more space, this section will cover a lot more restaurants. "Roulette" will remind you of recent Chronicle reviews, as well as suggest dozens of other restaurants as dining-out possibilities. Overall, the ongoing redesign is a result of the editorial staff's brainstorming, but as much as anything the expansion of this section came about because of my wife, Anne S. Lewis. Too frequently, when we have decided to go out to eat and are trying to pick where, she'll ask, "What about that Caribbean place that was just reviewed in the Chronicle?" (for Caribbean you can substitute French, Italian, sushi, Mediterranean, whatever). I never remember the name of the restaurant or exactly which issue in which it was reviewed. Annie then asks a bit sarcastically I might add if I ever actually read the Chronicle. This isn't really fair; I'm a great reader, but my memory is completely shot.
As always, we welcome your comments and suggestions on this new section. Expect to see more changes soon.
While we're talking about readers' responses, I have to note that suggesting we don't have the courage, the balls, or the guts to print your response, as some letter writers do, just makes you look silly to our readers. Anyone who reads the Chronicle for even a couple of issues knows we have no hesitation about publishing attacks on us, our ideas, or the paper. Online we publish pretty much all but the overtly libelous, and we are more likely to print such letters in the print edition than we are letters offering compliments. Daring us to print your letter is beyond childish: What are you going to do if we don't? In fact, we probably shouldn't just to make it clear we aren't being conned or bullied into publishing these thoughts but we do, because we believe in a dialogue with our readers.
On a personal basis, when people send a letter or call me up accusing me of being a coward, I admit to cowardice. When they say I have no balls, I rush to agree. Whatever insult they hurl, I acknowledge its veracity. What difference can such verbal stupidity make? I stand on the history of the Chronicle; responding to such charges is to enter the world beyond the looking glass. Having spent a good bit of time there as a youth, I have no desire to return.
As I've noted before, the smug, cigar-smoking, right-wing would-be P.J. O'Rourkes who write us that they only read the paper to laugh at our crazy left-wing views or to roll hysterically at our readers' communist fantasies are welcome to their enjoyment. Forget that they use "communist" as a label for every view not daily espoused by right-wing pundits, even though almost every such value is articulated in the U.S. Constitution. The unfortunate truth is that, given the disastrous consequences of their beliefs in action the nightmare of Iraq, costing so many lives and likely to last for generations; the loss of respect for the United States abroad; and the social devastation caused by budget cuts at home we acknowledge that we never find their beliefs funny.
Continuing further down this avenue of discussion: Letter writers often refer to their First Amendment rights without seeming to have ever read what they actually are. "Amendment I: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." The First Amendment, when it comes to free speech, does not guarantee you access to media; it does not insist that your voice has to be heard; it compels no publication or broadcaster to offer you a platform. You have no First Amendment right to publish a letter in the Statesman, the Chronicle, or any other publication, and no right to an uncensored, unrestricted cable access show or your own radio program. What the First Amendment does is restrict the government from in any way abridging free speech. This does not have anything to do with a citizen's access to media but with the government's ability to regulate and restrict media. Arguably, given the Internet, we all have greater access to public speech, but, oddly, the First Amendment protects our rights as publishers rather than offering any guarantees to the citizenry.
Now there is a great deal of legislation and case law that expands and elaborates on this free-speech guarantee, but the First Amendment is only about restricting government interference in media content. Over the years, when defending anything the Chronicle has printed or any policy it has, I have tried to stay away from bringing the First Amendment into any discussion. The importance of free speech, especially when unpopular, and the power of even dangerous ideas, should be so obvious that the Bill of Rights need not be cited. Instead, it is brought up so often that the core discussion of important democratic ideals is often lost.
Moving from the abstract to the absurd: Only on the way home from the office last Wednesday, after it was way too late to change my column, I realized I really hadn't set the context for much of what I was writing about. In his August 6 "Austin@Large" column, Chronicle City Editor Mike Clark-Madison took radio- and access-TV conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to task for the way he amped up the discussion at a recent meeting of the City Council's telecom subcommittee. At one point Clark-Madison noted, "Now in case it's not clear already, I think Alex Jones is 90% poseur and 110% asshole, which makes him truly larger than life. But on the balance, I think the ACTV producers are onto something here."
During his syndicated radio show on Friday, Jones told his listeners of this assault on him, free speech, and all things that make America great, probably leaving out the second sentence, where Clark-Madison basically agreed with him. He urged the faithful to call and write. They did many without actually reading the piece; they just needed Jones to tell them what to think. So we received over 100 phone calls and not quite two dozen letters. Overall, not much of a response, and one I'd be especially ashamed of if I were Jones; in the name of free speech and independent thought, to urge people to respond blindly is sad. Some of the responses were blatantly dishonest: "I read your paper every day ..." and "I was cruising the Web and happened to come across your attack on Alex Jones ... ." A good number at least acknowledged they hadn't read the piece. Others demanded that in the name of free speech, we fire the reporter. Anyway, it made for a chaotic Friday afternoon here and slopped over a bit to Monday morning. Along the way, we posted all the letters. But still, many of our readers must have found my column last week confusing, as the Alex Jones storm had some presence here, and some in our online and in-print "Postmarks" section, but almost none in the real world. Sorry for not laying the groundwork for what I talked about a bit more coherently.
For me, the most ridiculously surreal moment occurred on Monday morning. After undergoing dental surgery, as my wife picked me up to take me home, I decided I needed to check my office voicemail. Now, I had just been knocked out, was barely conscious, and was on painkillers. Annie was taking me to the car in a wheelchair, and on both sides of my mouth I had huge wads of cotton to soak up the blood. There was a call from one of the Jones faithful asking why his letter had not been published. Even given the many we had, it was clear to him this was not an error on our part or his, but part of the conspiratorial effort to silence Jones. Sitting in a wheelchair, stoned out of my mind, my mouth stuffed with cotton, in front of the dentist and nurses, I called him back. Ranting nonstop, I must have sounded like a particularly demented, even-more-incomprehensible-than-usual Daffy Duck. My wife kept demanding that I stop talking so I wouldn't bleed more. I didn't shut up until we were in the car, well on our way home, and incoherence, my co-pilot since the rant started, completely took over the controls. If only I could remember even a couple of words of what I said.