As the Countdown to Bankruptcy Continues, the L.A. Times Takes a Valiant Stand Against Free Speech

I love to grab a weekend lunch at the fabulous Tomboy’s Burgers in Manhattan Beach, and when I’m there I always pick up one of the discarded LA Times front sections lying by the bottles of Tapitio hot sauce. “Maybe this time,” I think as I munch fries, “I’ll find that they’ve clued in, that I can re-subscribe and once again walk out to my driveway and carry back a real paper each morning.” But every single time I come away wondering when this great metropolitan newsroom became the newspaper equivalent of Jonestown. I envy the guy holding its Kool-Aid concession — he’s going to be making a mint right up until they finally shutter the place forever.

So it was no surprise that I nearly spit out my mouthful of cheeseburger when I read Tim Rutten’s opinion piece about how the Citizens United decision will destroy our nation by interpreting the First Amendment to actually mean what it says. There, on the Los Angeles Times’ editorial page, was one of the dying fishwrap’s premier columnists arguing furiously that it should be perfectly acceptable for the government to toss someone into jail for talking about a politician.

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This week’s Supreme Court decision granting corporations the right to spend unrestricted amounts of money supporting or opposing candidates in federal elections is so strained in its reasoning and so removed from the realities of American life that it would be grotesquely comedic, were its implications not so dire.

True, your eyes probably will be irresistibly drawn first to the hilarious “interview” with enviro-kook Ed Begley, Jr. It takes up most of the op-ed page. Leaving aside the obvious question – what is an interview with a green goofball like Ed Begley, Jr. doing on the editorial page at all, much less this week of all weeks? – let’s just say that the queries from Patt “You Know She’s Bummed About Coakley” Morrison are not quite hardball. They’re not quite even wiffleball.

Begley is in top nanny mode, all at once self-righteous, condescending and clueless, mixed with just a hint of liberal fascist to spice things up. He complains that most people refuse to embrace global warming with his same unshakeable fervor, sighing at these “deniers,” and urging them to “just check out the peer-reviewed science.” Shockingly, the problems with the “peer-reviewed science” revealed by Climategate go unmentioned. I guess this makes Ed a “climate change scam denier.”

He also expresses how proud he is of himself for riding the bus on occasion, mingling with lesser mortals and brightening their dank little lives. And when he takes a jet, he buys a carbon off set – somewhere, a Third World kid is foregoing a reading light so Ed can fly the friendly skies. How this hero gives and gives of himself!

But all is not well. Ed is burdened by a family that just can’t match his own righteousness:

Q. I don’t want you to rat [your 10 year old daughter] out, but does she break the rules sometimes?

A. We’ll go to the car wash or roller rink and she’ll want those little tiny plastic toys. She does leave the lights on, or the TV on, and leaves the room. We all have our weaknesses.

What to do with this toy-coveting, light-leaving-on urchin? Well, Ed, maybe you could make her read the Times for an hour every time she fails to meet your exacting standards. That’ll teach her. Or you could have the kid recite ten “Hail Gaias.”

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Begley is just silly. Rutten, however, is downright scary because he seems intent on signing onto a suicide pact. After all, embracing the ruling Rutten wanted on Citizens United means accepting the proposition that the government can control who gets to speak about what when – and ban corporations from doing so entirely. Hey, isn’t the LA Times part of a corporation? Why, so it is. So that means that the Congress could take away the statutory exemption that media corporations held anytime it felt like it. Which means Rutten is arguing that our Constitution lets the politicians tell him what he can and can’t write. Wow.

It sure is strange to see a newspaperman arguing that it’s imperative to give the government a loaded gun to place against his industry’s figurative temple – though in the case of the newspapers it would probably be a mercy killing.

Wait, didn’t just a few months ago this faithful believer in the benevolent power of the government to decide who can and cannot talk about the government ask “Just how close to the brink of executive tyranny did the United States come in the panic that swept George W. Bush’s administration after 9/11?” I wonder what’s different between the Bush years and now? Oh, yeah.

The fact is that the entire campaign finance reform scam is simply a conspiracy by incumbent politicians who want to suppress voices of opposition and media companies that want to monopolize the distribution of all information beyond a guy standing on the street corner shouting. Thankfully, our Supreme Court’s conservative majority’s sensibly held that the First Amendment’s injunction that “Congress shall make no law” abridging the freedom of speech means precisely what it says – with no footnotes, asterisks, unspoken reservations or emanating penumbras modifying, limiting or carving out exceptions to that glorious limitation on the power of our government.

But instead of celebrating a victory for untrammeled freedom of expression, Rutten mourns. “You would think that the federal prisons were overflowing with corporate martyrs to freedom of expression,” he snarks. Well, it’s true that the prisons aren’t overflowing with free speech martyrs, probably because the fact it was illegal discouraged such speech in the first place. But if those groups of people – which is all corporations are, groups of people working together – did attempt to speak freely, then I guess Rutten thinks they should be in jail.

Hence the spit-take with my cheeseburger: A senior columnist on a major American newspaper believes that people can and should be jailed for speaking about politicians when the government does not approve. Double wow.

That’s not exactly a principle that I deployed twice to defend, so back onto the pile goes the LA Times. I won’t be re-subscribing any time soon – in fact, I think they owe me a burger.

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