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Jewish World Review April 2, 2001 / 9 Nissan, 5761

Paul Greenberg

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The uses of freedom, or: thank you, Ted Turner

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- LINE up all the columns, editorials and speeches ever made extolling freedom of the press, and they would reach from here to boredom and back.

By now, freedom of the press has been defended by everybody from Milton to the last guest speaker you heard at a journalism awards banquet.

Unfortunately, not every paean to freedom of the press ranks with Milton's (''As good almost kill a man as kill a good book: who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God's image; but he who destroys a good book kills reason itself.'')

How eloquent and elevated, how Miltonian, freedom of the press can seem in the abstract. Less appreciated is how plain everyday useful freedom is.

Free societies, in which people may be held accountable for their words and deeds, tend to be much more efficient than those regimes in which it is forbidden to criticize leaders and would-be leaders. A free market in ideas, as in the economy, tends to be self-correcting.

One of the joys of living in a free country is the regular exposure of how our celebrities think, or don't. The latest media mogul to display his ignorance is Ted Turner, the pioneer of the 24-hour news cycle.

At a meeting with CNN staffers on Ash Wednesday, Mr. Turner looked out at the crowd and noticed the folks with ash on their foreheads. At first, Mr. Turner assumed the ash was grime from the Seattle earthquake. But then, looking around at his audience, he realized that "you're just Jesus freaks.''

CNN's founder followed up that insight by asking, "Shouldn't you guys be working for Fox?'' The Fox News Channel seems much on Ted Turner's mind of late, perhaps because it's cutting into his audience. Fox does indeed offer a more conservative take on the news than CNN, but, then again, what objective observer wouldn't?

Turner & friends

Mr. Turner later apologized for his comments, though being a Jesus freak doesn't sound like such a bad thing to me. The apology might have meant something if this were the first time Ted Turner has let his prejudices show. But they seem to have got the better of him long ago.

It hasn't been too long since Mr. Turner was badmouthing the pope and Poles in general. And he once dismissed opponents of abortion as "bozos,'' which may be among the nicer things I've been called by the abortion lobby.

Mr. Turner, who is nothing if not a winner, once called Christianity "a religion for losers.'' In a way, he's right. See the Sermon on the Mount: "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.''

Yes, from Ted Turner's and the world's perspective, it's a loser's religion. But not as the world gives, giveth He. Which may be why it is said of Christians that they are in the world but not of it. And also why Success Theology (''God wants you to be rich!'') has such a phony ring to it.

Ted Turner is rich, but it takes only the briefest exposure to his Wit & Wisdom to make him seem a loser. It all depends on your perspective -- whether it is that of the world or broader, deeper, and richer in a sense beyond the material. In that realm, Ted Turner sounds poor indeed.

If he had stuck closer to his PR people, CNN's founder would never have made these comments, or at least they would never have got out. Some speechwriter would have rephrased his views more tactfully, sanded them over, given them an acceptable gloss. His thoughts would have come out as sterilized as a statement from Planned Parenthood or an explanation by the manufacturer of an abortion pill.

In a more discreet world, Ted Turner's thoughts would be euphemized and cosmeticized till they emerged as inoffensive platitudes. They'd be served up in the kind of wordsoup that affords critics no traction. The way abortion is now marketed as Reproductive Freedom, and racial quotas as Affirmative Action -- the only form of racial profiling that Nice People still applaud.

If he'd just let his PR people filter his comments, Ted Turner would stay out of trouble. And columns like this would never get written. Critics like me would actually have to work to take apart his worldview. My thanks, and respects, to the gentleman. He does not hide his ignorance or his prejudices. (The two have a way of going together.)

It is precisely because Ted Turner says such things, and because they are reported, that the rest of us can get a grip on what moves him and much of the rest of the chattering class. We shouldn't be insulted but rather indebted to Mr. Turner for his candor. He doesn't hide his intolerance -- for religion or for life. Free speech brings him to us LIVE!

This is the most plain, everyday useful thing about free speech and the freedom to report it: It lets us see the pernicious ideas floating all around us. For one bright moment, they are not muffled by the word-handlers, the spinners, the softsoapers, and the general apologists for what used to be crimes and are now part of our pop culture -- from abortion on demand to perjury when convenient.

Rather than censor the Ted Turners, or have them censor themselves, it is so much more revealing, more everyday plain useful, to have them speak for themselves -- and thereby refute themselves.

What a pity that all the other Ted Turners out there shaping our news and views aren't as candid as he is. We could see them better. They might even see themselves better, and recoil.

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