Last Monday, Brian Stelter at the TV Newser blog said CBS’s “freeSpeech” commentary segments (an innovation Katie Couric began when she took over the anchor throne on September 5) had “failed” at their stated goal of opening up the airwaves to more than the media elite’s “usual suspects.” Looking at the first 34 “freeSpeech” segments, Stelter calculated that “the vast majority of the guests have national media platforms, like books, columns, magazines, and Senate podiums.”
Three days later, CBS News’s own blog, “Public Eye,” itself wondered if the segment was too insidery. “I think the answer is that it has been a mix,” Evening News Executive Producer Rome Hartman told CBS’s bloggers. “If you look at all 30 or so [segments] that have run — and I haven't counted — maybe a third have been from what you might call ‘pundits.’ The point of the segment is interesting voices from everywhere.”
Well, something is obviously going on over at the CBS Evening News. Last week the broadcast failed to run “freeSpeech” segments on Wednesday and Thursday, the first time that’s happened since the feature began. A segment featuring a protesting student from Washington, D.C.’s Gallaudet University appeared on Friday, but since then there’s been no “freeSpeech” on the CBS Evening News.
The feature’s disappearance right before the election may be bad news for conservatives, because the first 37 segments of the feature actually showed a decent respect for conservative opinion. While a little more than a third (38%) of the commentaries had no real political angle, the rest were only slightly tilted in a liberal direction — a degree of fairness that could not be expected from the CBS Evening News during Dan Rather’s reign.
Since September 5, 13 commentaries (35%) featured liberal commentators (like the far-left The Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel and liberal Illinois Senator Barack Obama) or featured liberal points of view, like Bob Schieffer’s September 13 editorializing against the Bush administration's "secret prisons" saying the U.S. has adopted "the methods of our enemies."
But 10 commentaries (27%) featured prominent conservatives like Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity, or presented conservative themes that are often omitted from CBS’s news coverage. Examples:
>> Mayor Lou Barletta of Hazelton, Pennsylvania, showed up on October 17 to talk about his city’s crackdown on illegal aliens: “There are up to 20 million illegal aliens in this country right now. They have imposed a tremendous burden on many of America’s cities....Thousands of Americans are crying out for relief from the burden of illegal immigration.”
>> Brian Rohrbough’s son was killed in the 1999 Columbine high school shooting. He appeared October 2, just after the murders of several girls at an Amish school in Pennsylvania and preached for a return to traditional values and respect for life:
“This country is in a moral free fall. For over two generations, the public school system has taught in a moral vacuum, expelling God from the school and from the government, replacing him with evolution, where the strong kill the weak without moral consequences, and life has no inherent value....The murder of innocent children is always wrong, including by abortion. Abortion has diminished the value of children.”
>> On September 26, ex-Soviet political prisoner Natan Sharanaksy appeared to reject suggestions the U.S. was on the same moral plane as the worst regimes in human history. While he scolded the use of tactics such as sleep deprivation against captured terrorists, he argued for moral clarity: “I am deeply concerned that some of those who insist that America not cede the moral high ground don’t recognize that America stands on the moral high ground. Those who would use abuses at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay to accuse America of being no different than the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany or Saddam’s regime have lost all sense of moral clarity.”
>> And of course Rush Limbaugh appeared on September 7 to offer a perspective on the War on Terror that you don’t get often from CBS: “How do we negotiate with people whose starting point is our death? Ask them to wait for 10 years before they kill us? When Good negotiates with Evil, Evil will always win. And peace follows victory, not words issued by diplomats.
“Unfortunately, some Americans are not interested in victory. And they want us to believe that their irresponsible behavior is patriotic. Well, it’s not....
“Patriotism is rallying behind the country, regardless of party affiliation, to defeat Islamo-Fascism. Patriotism is supporting our troops on the battlefield, not undermining the mission and morale.”
It’s not as if a heavy crush of hard news stories has bumped the “freeSpeech” segments — Wednesday’s Evening News featured an author who visits with individual book clubs as a way to boost interest in his books; Tuesday’s broadcast featured a look at skimpy Halloween costumes.
During nearly eight weeks of “freeSpeech” on CBS, liberals have gotten more airtime than conservatives, but it’s still one of the fairest, most balanced segments on the CBS Evening News. Could that be why it’s disappeared from the pre-election news mix?