MAKE NO MISTAKE ABOUT IT, ABC News' suspension last week of producer John Green had nothing to do with protecting the illusion of objectivity in journalism and everything to do with an on going assault on political speech by Republican thought-police whose goal is to silence all criticism. It's part of the same process of intimidation that led CBS to bury a bio miniseries about Ronald Reagan in 2003 after Republicans complained. And ABC's willingness to cave to Republican pressure is just the latest example of the bloodless cowardice and lack of conviction that passes for seriousness and objectivity in today's news business.
In case you missed it, Green, executive producer of that bastion of journalistic achievement Good Morning America Weekend, was given a one-month, unpaid suspension and was made to apologize after private emails in which he expressed opinions about political figures were made public by right wing bloggers. What were the offending opinions? During one of the last presidential debates Green wrote to a colleague "Bush makes me sick. If he uses the 'mixed messages' line one more time, I'm going to puke." And in a second e-mail he said former Clinton Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who was raised Catholic and for years denied her Jewish family heritage, had "Jew shame."
Ask yourself this: If Green had written emails saying: "Bush looks strong and presidential. He makes me proud to be an American" and "Condi Rice is a great 'race woman'" would ABC have suspended Green for compromising its editorial objectivity? Of course not. If had written "John Kerry is an idiot" would anyone have complained? Don't be ridiculous.
Green is being punished not for expressing private opinions but for the nature of the opinions he professed. That's the frightening truth. Worse, the punishment comes not because Green expressed an opinion publicly in a way that embarrassed the news department--that might have represented bad behavior and poor judgment. No, Green is being punished for expressing a private opinion to a colleague over the abc.com mail server. It only became an issue for ABC execs after right wing bullies leaked the emails to Matt Drudge 18 months after the fact. The emails in question didn't violate any ABC work rules as far as I know. Green is now being punished not for the crime of compromising objectivity but for the crime of colorfully criticizing the president in private and letting it get out. In effect, Green let the bullies know that ABC had some lunch money that could be beaten out of it, and the thugs came to collect. Folks, this is the kind of chilling effect on speech that doesn't get sufficient attention. It's easy to point to the impact that various laws and regulations might have on free speech, but the public bullying of news personnel over their private opinions is a new low in American discourse, made all the worse by the sniveling way ABC shit its pants in the face of the threat.
Remember no one, not Drudge or anyone else suggested that there was any evidence that Green's personal opinion of Bush's debate performance had any impact whatsoever on Good Morning America Weekend's coverage of the debate in question. (Only the looniest of right wing bloggers have suggested that because Green had a private opinion they've established yet more evidence that media coverage is slanted against them.) Nor does anyone expect a TV producer to be a blank slate with no private political convictions. Eighteen months later this whipped-up furor is all about the mere fact that Green had an opinion and had the astounding bad judgment to express it to a co-worker. (It may shock people to discover that in a newsroom politics is discussed frequently, in much more colorful language than was on display in Green's email, and differences of opinion are many.)
Now, it's just a wild guess, but I think it's safe to presume that the internal abc.com mail server is full of opinionated e-mails by news department staffers. ABC News apparently has no policy about staffers expressing opinions in internal e-mail, and that's as it should be--the last thing a news department should do is stifle in-house political discourse. If ABC disciplines only Green in effect it is rewarding intellectual bullies for policing the private opinions of it's employees. If ABC had the courage of its convictions about objectivity it would scan all news employee e-mails and suspend employees whose emails express opinions. Of course ABC won't do that. And shouldn't. But by not doing so ABC adds credence to the notion that Green's suspension has nothing to do with principles of journalistic integrity and everything to do with fear. And fear is a far more dangerous trait in a journalist than is personal opinion.
The guy who must really be giggling at all the disgusting cowering that ABC has displayed is Roger Ailes, former Republican political consultant, architect of Bush the Elder's Willie Horton attack on Michael Dukakis, and CEO of the most successful TV news operation, Fox. I'd love to see what kind of emails are flying around among producers and on air talent on the foxnews.com server. Can somebody please start leaking those?