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Jewish World Review Oct. 30, 2000 / 1 Mar-Cheshvan, 5761

Nat Hentoff

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Consumer Reports

CNN discards journalistic responsibility -- ON FRIDAY, Oct. 20, CNN's "Crossfire" aired a debate on whether the federal government should require schools and libraries to use Internet filters to protect children against pornography. One of the combatants was Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler magazine. He has a considerable track record of making scandalous charges against presidential candidates without providing evidence.

As the program was drawing to a close, Flynt said of George W. Bush: "We've found out in the early 1970s he was involved in an abortion in Texas. ... If the abortion issue is true, then that puts him lower on the morality scale than Bill Clinton."

Co-host Robert Novak said: "Mr. Flynt, you said if it's true, and you have no proof of that. ... I gather you're a very strong Gore supporter."

Flynt responded: "The hell we don't have proof."

Neither Novak nor the other host, Bill Press, followed up with a demand that Flynt provide the "proof."

All that Press said -- as the debate program was ending -- was: "Larry Flynt, a man who speaks his word. But we remind you (the audience) they are Larry Flynt's words, not ours. Larry Flynt, thank you very much for joining us. ... Live television ... too bad."

The Bush abortion story was left to float in the air. Quickly, there were many references to it on the Internet, with many of the messages asking why Novak and Press had not demanded that Flynt give his "proof." Two days later, on C-Span's "Washington Journal," a caller repeated Flynt's accusation. He had no doubt that it was true. Neither the host nor Matt Cooper, deputy Washington bureau chief of Newsweek, who was being interviewed, gave the story any credence. But the charge had been spread again.

CNN's reach is worldwide. A friend of mine, a filmmaker who lives in Denmark and travels throughout Europe, told me recently that much of what Europe knows about America comes from CNN. And the George Bush abortion story is likely to have circled at least part of the globe.

But what could Bill Press and Robert Novak have done? That section of the program had run out of time. After commercials, however, there is a final segment, called "Closing Comments." When Flynt sprang his October surprise on national and international television, "Closing Comments" should have been jettisoned and Flynt should have been pressed to tell precisely what his evidence was. But even during "Closing Comments," neither host referred to the abortion charge.

I've had some experience doing live interviews with controversial public figures. I broke into journalism at radio station WMEX in Boston, where for nearly 10 years I did live interviews in the studio, on the streets, and during the ferocious political campaigns for which Massachusetts was famous (or infamous).

If you've read the novel "The Last Hurrah," or seen the movie with Spencer Tracy, you have some idea of how intense political campaigns, especially in Boston, could become. I was on the front line, having covered -- among other inflammatory campaigners -- James Michael Curley.

On WMEX, as on other stations, the schedule was rigid. All programs had to end exactly on time so that we could broadcast a station break -- the identifying call letters -- or else we'd hear from the Federal Communications Commission.

If, during an interview, even with only seconds left, someone had made the kind of charge Larry Flynt did on "Crossfire," I would have ignored the station break and taken as long as necessary to demand proof of the charge. If I hadn't, the boss would have fired me, even though I was the union's shop steward.

Later, in New York, I was host of a weekly television program on WNBC-TV that often had controversial guests. There, too, I was restricted to a set time period, but I would have broken that rule rather than let so harmful a personal attack float by.

Flynt's charge on CNN was made near to the end of a closely contested presidential election. Both Press and Novak are skilled at giving rapid-fire accusatory questions to their guests -- and to each other.

Flynt, waiting late into the program to smear George W. Bush, caught Press and Novak off guard. But they're professional masters of debate. Moreover, although Flynt has the same free-speech rights we all share, as a journalist, I'm not constitutionally bound to interview someone with his record of shotgun charges. And if I did, I wouldn't have let him off the hook. Nor, I think, would Chris Matthews on "Hardball."

JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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11/16/99: Goal of diversity needs rethinking?
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10/26/99: Disappeared Americans
10/18/99: The blue wall of silence
10/11/99: Bill Bradley's speech tax
10/04/99: 'Technicalities' that keep us free
09/27/99: Our 'Americanism'-ignorant generation
09/20/99: ACLU better clean up its act
09/13/99: A professor of infanticide at Princeton
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07/26/99: Lady Hillary and the press

© 2000, NEA