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Jewish World Review Nov. 21, 2001/ 6 Kislev 5762

Kathleen Parker

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Consumer Reports

Being responsible isn't the same as censorship --
THE free-speech police are on High Alert these days, as entertainers, journalists and others get a taste of what's being called "censorship" but which is, in most cases, a short course in free-market economics.

Of those claiming to be victims of censorship, Bill Maher, host of "Politically Incorrect," is the most famous; Ann Coulter, former columnist with National Review Online, is the most, um, blond; and Garry Trudeau, creator of the Doonesbury comic strip, is the most recent. There's just one problem. The censor is us --- the American consumer. Which is to say, it's not really censorship.

If you don't like tomato soup, you don't buy tomato soup. Tomato farmers either find other outlets for their produce or they go out of business. So it is with Bill Maher and anybody else who fails to provide what the market wants.

That said, the market is a little hypersensitive these days. Maher's "offense" may have been in bad taste, poorly timed or ignorant, but it wasn't deserving of such a Talibanesque response. You'd have thought he insulted the pope's mama, when he only expressed the opinion that the World Trade Center terrorists weren't cowards; instead, he said, the U.S. government was cowardly for launching missiles at targets thousand of miles away.

I think he's wrong, but that doesn't mean I want to destroy his firstborn or force him to sit in the midday sun without sunblock. Others are less charitable. Sears-Roebuck and Federal Express pulled their advertising from "Politically Incorrect," while some local TV stations declined to air the show.

So it goes, but it's not censorship. Advertising is strictly voluntary, last time we checked. And censorship, when it matters, is government-imposed.

I'd hate to see Maher's show fold. He's amusing, and his opinions are often provocative, which is why people who stay up too late tune in. But to say that he's being censored for his remarks is to fail to understand how the market works. No one is forcing Maher to say silly things, and no one is forcing advertisers to withdraw funding from his program. Maher is free to speak as he chooses, and America is free to change the channel.

The same will be true of Trudeau's Sunday comic strip, which basically showed George W. Bush thanking the terrorists for their attacks, which opened the way for his domestic agenda --- corporate tax cuts, missile defense, oil drilling in Alaska and subsidies for the power industry.

Some consumers won't like the strip; Trudeau may lose a few subscribers, but so it goes in the land of the free. Trudeau understands the risk of dissing the president during wartime, but he obviously decided he could use the controversy. Maybe his dinner party invitations are in a slump. Whatever the case, he willingly rolled the dice.

Some also have cried censorship when some news organizations -- that would be The Free Press -- pulled what they considered offensive cartoons and columns from their publications. Again, exercising editorial judgment isn't the same as government-imposed censorship. Nor is it necessarily censorship when people are suspended or fired, as in the case of Coulter, who was dropped as National Review Online contributing editor following a column recommending that we invade Muslim countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.

One might expect to lose some readers with that kind of commentary. Like Maher, Coulter is provocative --- especially when she appears on "Politically Incorrect" in those microscopic skirts. But was she fired for her commentary, or was she fired for calling her National Review editors wimps for declining to run her next "swarthy-male" column?

Gosh, I don't know, but if I liked my job and wanted to keep it, even though I might disagree with an editor's decision (it happens), I probably wouldn't publicly insult the guy cutting my paycheck. That's called self-censorship, also known as being a grown-up.

What is self-censorship but deciding not to say or write something because it might be inappropriate or counterproductive or -- as in recent weeks -- aiding and abetting the enemy by pointing out, for example, which three of our nuclear power plants are most vulnerable to terrorist attack and what time of day would work best.

Besides, journalists -- even the less adult ones -- self-censor every day when they decide what to write about, whom to quote and how to couch the quote, otherwise known as "out-of-context." To self-censor during wartime simply means being a responsible citizen, which comes down to asking this question: For whom is this information most helpful, the American people or the enemy?

If you have trouble answering, the market will help you figure it out.

JWR contributor Kathleen Parker can be reached by clicking here.

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