October 31, 2001

October 31, 2001 | Commentary on Political Thought

Don't Publish Unpopular Views, Then Fire Authors

If, as Winston Churchill said, truth is the first casualty of war, then the second is inevitably the right to speak one's mind. Amazingly, some of those most pointedly demonstrating this fact of late are newspaper publishers.

Consider the cases of Dan Guthrie, now-former columnist for the Daily Courier in Grants Pass, Ore., and Tom Gutting, who was city editor of the Texas City Sun in Texas. Each found himself wondering where his next job would be after expressing extremely unpopular views about the horrific events of Sept. 11 and the bloody aftermath.

Their treatment by news bosses who ought to know better should worry friends of the First Amendment. Punishing Guthrie and Gutting for their political opinions today sets a dangerous precedent for punishing anybody's views tomorrow.

Guthrie was fired by Courier publisher Dennis Mack after writing an incendiary column in which he said President Bush was "hiding in a hole in Nebraska" shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. Bush "skedaddled," as did "most of his aides and cabinet members," Guthrie said.

Courier editor Dennis Roler apologized to readers and said Guthrie's views weren't "responsible or appropriate." Publisher Mack denied that he fired Guthrie because of the offending column but refused to offer an alternative explanation of the columnist's sacking.

Gutting got the axe after penning a column entitled "Bush has failed to lead U.S." wherein he claimed the country is being led "blindly" into war and that the chief executive showed "poor judgment" in his decision-making on Sept. 11. The rest of the offending column expressed views that publisher Les Daughtry, Jr. found "so absurd that they don't even merit a response."

News organizations have the right to hire, discipline and fire whomever they wish, of course, and nobody has a constitutional right to have their views aired in a newspaper paid for by somebody else.

But neither of these two situations should have become freedom of expression battles in the first place. Where were the editors who should have raised red flags before the offending columns were printed?

Instead of firing Guthrie and Gutting after publication -- thus unnecessarily creating two new First Amendment martyrs -- the publishers should have disciplined the editors who failed to say "whoa" before the presses rolled. Isn't that what publishers pay editors to do? In short, the editors should have been in at least as much hot water as the columnists.

Nobody cries "First Amendment Foul" when an editor rewrites a reporter's news story, cuts out insufficiently sourced material or kills the story outright after deciding the piece needs more work before it's published. A reporter who doesn't like how he or she is edited can always quit. Nowhere does the Constitution say reporters or columnists have the right to work for editors who obsequiously publish their news stories or opinion columns exactly as submitted.

The opinions expressed by Guthrie and Gutting certainly didn't express popular views, and their timing-as the country dealt with supreme grief and outrage-served only to make readers more angry. In short, they were stupid. But more stupid were the editors who let them appear in print.

News organizations do great damage to themselves and the First Amendment that establishes and protects their right to publish free of government censors when they discipline or fire a journalist simply for expressing unpopular, insulting or goofy political opinions.

The problem with firing a journalist today who blasts the president is it will make it that much easier tomorrow to fire a reporter who espouses pro-life views, or a columnist who expresses evangelical Christian views, or a book review editor who thinks Ronald Reagan was the greatest president of the 20th century.

A newspaper publisher is well within the law, if not common sense, in telling employees not to expect the newspaper to be their personal bullhorn for expressing views that alienate local advertisers or offend deeply held community values and thereby reduce circulation.

But don't render the Constitution a hollow relic by publishing opinions you don't like and then taking away the paycheck of the journalist who wrote the offending column. This is a slippery slope the media must avoid at all costs.

Mark Tapscott is director of the Center for Media and Public Policy at The Heritage Foundation.

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