Networks Ignore Fired Koran Burner, Defended Teacher Who Compared Bush, Hitler

September 16th, 2010 3:30 PM

Derek Fenton, the man who burned pages of the Koran while protesting the planned Ground Zero Mosque in New York City, lost his job at NJTransit because of his demonstration. The network news outlets couldn't care less. None of the networks - ABC, CBS, NBC - have mentioned Fenton's name, according to a review of show transcripts.

Maybe they spent all their free speech-debate interest back in 2006 when they hurried to defend a Colorado teacher who was suspending after he compared President Bush to Adolf Hitler.

Jay Bennish made headlines in March 2006 after one of his students released a tape of Bennish comparing Bush to Hitler and declaring that America was the world's most violent nation. Bennish was suspended - placed on paid leave - while officials reviewed his conduct. (He was eventually reinstated.)

All three networks defended him by characterizing his comments as free speech.

On ABC "Good Morning America" March 3, Bill Weir characterized the controversy as a "battle over free speech." Reporter Dan Harris said the incident "provoked a national debate about academic freedom."

The CBS "Early Show" on March 3 highlighted students protesting Bennish's suspension, during which they chanted, "Freedom of speech, let him teach." Co-host Harry Smith also downplayed Bennish's comments, suggesting he "was suspended for saying that some people compared President Bush to Adolf Hitler," even though Bennish himself had made the comparison.

On NBC's "Today" show March 7, co-host Matt Lauer interviewed Bennish and portrayed him as the victim of a conservative smear job.

"They basically shopped it around to conservative media outlets, and when they finally released it to one, it created an uproar," Lauer said of the student who released the tape. "And on the tape you can hear [student] Sean Allen asking you questions that seem to be egging you on a little bit. Do you feel you were set up?"

Even President Bush jumped into the fray, saying that "freedom for people to express themselves must be protected." 

The near-universal defense of Bennish's comment was that he was trying to provoke debate among his students. "His whole goal is to fire these kids up," his attorney David Lane, said at the time, "and you have to take some extreme positions to fire these kids up. Let them debate it."

Yet today, none of the networks have been eager to characterize Fenton's protest as "free speech" or to suggest, as some politicians and civil liberties advocates have, that Fenton was wrongly fired.

"So long as his actions, however misguided, took place on his own time, and he was not acting in his capacity as a representative of NJTransit but as an American exercising his constitutional rights, then the agency is clearly in the wrong," New Jersey State Sen. Raymond Lesniak said. 

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