NBC’s Today played the story of Colorado teacher Jay Bennish’s comparing Bush to Hitler as a story of academic freedom. Matt Lauer played PR man to Bennish as he played the role of humble instructor of a simple Introduction To World Geography class. But in fact Bennish was teaching an Indoctrination to Communism class as seen in the anti-capitalistic quotes Today didn't show viewers. And it’s not like Today didn’t have the time to collect the quotes or even send invites to the offended students and parents as it’s been five days since the story first broke. No instead Today devoted its first half-hour to teasing its exclusive with the teacher that compared George W. Bush to Hitler. (Mark Finkelstein had our first take here.)
Lauer opened the show: "A Colorado high school teacher suspended after he compared President Bush to Adolf Hitler but is there more to the story? This morning the teacher speaks out for the very first time right here." Lauer again at 7:21am: "Still ahead here on Today the Colorado teacher who finds himself in some hot water after a student recorded him comparing President Bush to Hitler. He says he's getting a raw deal now he's here for an exclusive interview in our next half hour."
Finally at 7:30am Mark Mullen began the setup piece to the interview: ""Analyzing the President's State of the Union speech Colorado high school teacher Jay Bennish made some provocative comments to his students about how the President defended his decision to invade Iraq. Even comparing the tone of Mr. Bush's address to an Adolf Hitler speech." Note how Mullen called the comments "provocative," and not "radical," or even just plain "liberal," but later in the piece Mullen freely applies the "conservative" label:
Mullen: "16-year-old student Sean Allen was so offended he recorded part of the lecture and played it on a conservative Denver radio talk show."
Mullen did get soundbites of Allen on a radio show as well as a representative from the school district saying Bennish was being biased but also got a soundbite from Bennish’s attorney and a pro-Bennish student leaving the impression this was a story about free speech.
[Students chanting: "Let him teach, freedom of speech..."]
Mullen: "The suspension prompted a student walk-out in protest."
[Angelica Ortega, student: "I think the teacher should be able to teach outside of the books and not just the books."]
Mullen: "And ignited a debate about free speech."
[David Lane, attorney for teacher: "What his agenda is as a teacher is to provoke his students with controversial positions on just about everything and engage them in discussion."]
The following is the entire exchange between Lauer and Bennish including Bennish’s lame attempts to portray himself as a moderate:
Lauer: "And Jay Bennish is here for his first interview. Mr. Bennish good to see you, good morning."
Jay Bennish: "Good morning."
Lauer: "You should say right off the bat I know you think that his one particular excerpt of this lesson, this lecture has been played over and over again and perhaps it's been taken out of context because this was a much longer discussion, a 50 minute class. But do you understand why there's an uproar over this?"
Bennish: "Sure of course. I mean I think it's only naturally especially the way it's been presented that people are going to be upset and in this country there's a lively democracy and people are entitled to their various opinions."
Lauer: "Is it being presented incorrectly?"
Bennish: "In my opinion, yes."
Lauer: "Alright gimme, gimme your side then before I play the tape."
Bennish: "Well the first thing I'd like to do is to say thank you so much to all of the students and my family and friends who've been so supportive to me over these past couple of weeks. It really means a lot to me to see the overwhelming students, the overwhelming number of students come out and, and, to my defense. That really means a lot."
Lauer: "And yet you're sitting here as a guy who's on paid leave so obviously the school board is investigating this closely. They want to know if you violated school policy on presenting balanced viewpoints and even intimidating students. Let me play the tape and then we can talk about it on the other side."
[Bennish on tape: "'It's our duty as Americans to use the military to go out into the world and make the world like us.' Sounds a lot like the things Adolf Hitler used to say. 'We're the only ones who are right, everyone else is backwards and it's our job to conquer the world and make sure that they all live just like we want them to.' Now I'm not saying that Bush and Hitler are exactly the same. Obviously, they're not, okay? But there are some eerie similarities to the tones that they use."]
Lauer: "Again that's one portion of a much larger discussion but you don't make statements like that without looking for a reaction. The reaction you got is it what you expected?"
Bennish: "From the students? Yes. From the national media and the attention from people all over the country? Obviously not. You know my job as a, as a teacher is to challenge students to think critically about issues that are affecting our world and our society. And you know the process of cognitive dissonance is one way to activate their minds and to get them to think about these various things."
Lauer: "As, is that role to, to take on that role as a teacher, to get students to think. Should teachers in your opinion be allowed to say anything? Pure freedom of speech."
Bennish: "I certainly think there could be some constraints to what teachers would say but everything that was discussed in the class fits within the curriculum of the class. My class syllabus clearly outlines all of the material that will be covered. This is signed by parents, this is registered with the school. It's been approved by the school."
Lauer: "Had you gotten complaints from students? Had parents called saying, 'My student is not comfortable with some of the messages you're delivering in class?'"
Bennish: "No I have not and, you know, like I, like you said and I would like to reiterate that this is 20 minutes, most people are not listening to the entire tape. And this is 20 minutes out of a 50 minute class and the rest of the class provides the balance."
Lauer: "The, the, the family here, the, the student's family didn't go to the school board with this tape. They went..."
Bennish: "They never, they never contacted me and they have still never contacted me with any type of concerns."
Lauer: "They basically shopped it around to conservative media outlets and when they finally released it to one it created an uproar and on the tape you can hear Sean Allen asking you questions that seem to be egging you on a little bit. Do you feel you were set up?"
Bennish: "Well you know the lecture initially was an introduction to world geography and we were covering very, you know stereotypical terms like mental mapping and cultural landscapes. And I was receiving questions from Sean as well as from other students trying to get me to respond to the State of the Union address that was the night before and I explained to the students that in the case of the State of the Union this is applicable to a world geography class because for many people around the world this speech might impact their lives more so than the speeches that their own, own leaders give."
Lauer: "And after the portion that we've heard you did say something else and I want to, in fairness, play that portion as well."
[Bennish on tape: "I'm not in any way implying that you should agree with me. I don't even know if I'm necessarily taking a position but what I'm trying to get you to do is to think, right, that, about these issues more in depth, you know? And not just to take things from the surface. And I'm glad you asked all your questions because they're good legitimate questions and hopefully that allowed other people to begin to think about some of those things too."]
Lauer: "So after, after, comparing Bush in loosely to Hitler and questioning the legality of the war in Iraq and, and, and stating the U.S. is one of the most violent nations on earth is that enough of a disclaimer in your opinion?"
Bennish: "Well you know like I said this is a small section of one class. You know my job as a social studies teacher is to argue alternative perspectives and viewpoints so that students are aware of those point of views. They do not necessarily reflect my own views. They are simply thrown out there to encourage critical thought so that students are aware that those views do exist in the world and that they can then contemplate them and decide to make up their own mind. And I would like to reiterate also that all of my students are encouraged to take those types of things and go home, reflect on that and look at other current events and get extra credit regardless of what their viewpoints are."
Lauer: "Let me just make a point that Sean Allen's family now says they didn't want to get you fired. They don't want you to be fired. Do you think you'll be reinstated and would you welcome Sean Allen back into your class if you are?"
Bennish: "Of course I would. Like you heard me say in the tape, you know until this all happened I really thought that Sean was asking good questions and that allowed other students to hear that particular viewpoint and you know, it just adds to the whole dynamic of, of the critical thought that was taking place."
Lauer: "Jay Bennish, Jay good to have you here. Thanks very much.
Bennish: "Thank you."