Larry Flynt on Journalistic Integrity

Larry Flynt recently wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post lambasting Rupert Murdoch. In this piece, Flynt paints a stark contrast between his publishing practices and Murdoch’s regarding privacy: Murdoch “did not just cross the line – he erased it,” whereas Flynt has never “created sensationalism at the expense of people living private lives.” Sensationalism is a wholly separate problem, Mr. Flynt, whether you’ve technically respected privacy or not.

Flynt lives proudly on the outer fringe of free speech. The idea that the most offensive speech/expression is the most in need of protection is a philosophically sound idea whether you like pornography and Flynt’s brand of vulgar political commentary or not. It’s a similar idea regarding the right to bear arms: take assault rifles away and our spectrum of rights get smaller. It’s this defense of free speech that Flynt has been driving home for decades and one that many First Amendment theorists agree with.

Flynt’s assertion that Murdoch has “placed all of us who enjoy freedom of the press at grave risk” is a platitude made in a theoretical vacuum. Flynt’s claim that information procured illegally erodes the public’s trust in print media is pure self-interest on the one hand and a nostalgic yearning for an outdated archetype of a respected media and a virtuous public on the other. The media died, and the public significantly lost its virtue a long time ago, largely due to the fast-moving moral anarchy created by the “anything goes!” philosophy prevalent in publications like Hustler.

I’d argue that as much as anyone, Flynt is the perfect avatar for the trend in America that “the truth is whatever you believe it to be.” When your mission in life is to break down all barriers and taboos, you run the risk of chaos, both culturally and morally. It’s odd hearing Flynt claim the following:

The government needs to get back to its roots: protecting the privacy of its citizens while encouraging the individual freedoms on which this country was founded.

In my estimation, the people responsible for establishing the roots of our freedoms would not have supported Larry Flynt. They would have believed that mass distributed photographs that allow us to take a look inside a woman’s reproductive cavity, whether she was a willing participant or not, to be both morally vile and perhaps the ultimate invasion of privacy, albeit in a different way than Flynt sees it. Flynt would have been seen as a dangerous nihilist whose only goal was to destroy the moral edifice of society upon which our freedoms are based.

Flynt seems all too willing to use the protection of law as an aegis for his mission, an approach that completely ignores the moral aspect of our freedoms that our founders held so dear. Flynt’s nostalgia appears to be for the liberalization of America that began during the middle of the last century. These must be America’s “roots.” Law and the courts are everything; organic social development and the responsibility that comes with liberty apparently count for nothing.

The legal tree that has blossomed from Flynt’s roots has in part led to the mess we are in today, which is a bloated, invasive bureaucracy that is all too willing to infringe upon our liberty in order to protect its mission. Nobody has bothered to prune the monstrosity and it is now out of control. The government was not meant to be a tree; it was meant to be a fence that provides an institutional framework for liberty and a boundary for government . . . an inanimate object tended to by citizens. I believe Flynt sees it the same way, albeit one to decide social issues on the federal level as well. This is where I jump ship.

Whereas Hugh Hefner deftly made Playboy part of Americana, Flynt brought his agenda in with all the subtlety of a punch to the face and relied on the power of the state to make moral commentary in the process. As a libertarian I see Flynt’s publications as perfectly legal regarding free choices by adults in a free society, but I generally believe in a more organic morality regarding social issues. I have little problem with “local standards” dictating the moral aspects of society: if a person doesn’t like living in the Bible Belt, that person can move to San Francisco; if San Francisco is bothersome, one can move to the Bible Belt. Diversity at its finest, right?

Allowing the courts to decide everything just creates stronger, more invasive courts. This is perhaps unavoidable, but I say let society develop on its own without constant legal reinterpretations.

Furthermore, just because we are allowed to be jerks doesn’t mean we should act that way as a general rule, just because lawyers say we can. If Rupert Murdoch is putting Flynt at risk of losing his voice in society, a premise I find absurd to begin with, what has Flynt’s influence been? If people are free to choose not to read Flynt’s publications, then why aren’t people free to ignore Rupert Murdoch’s media outlets as well? It sounds like Flynt is hiding behind the principle of choice regarding his pornography, something many people don’t agree with as protected free speech, yet Murdoch’s public offerings are somehow degrading free speech. Preposterous.

Yes, Mr. Flynt, on one level I fully appreciate that you are willing to publish what is on the fringe. I’m not against you on that regarding freedom of speech. As a Gen X American living in 2011, I am willing to accept that all of the people who participate in your pornography are willing participants, so legally it’s okay. Technically. Many Americans agree with this. Perhaps this is our failure as well. Our reliance on what lawyers tell us we can get away with has in many ways become our new morality. You’ve won in that regard, whether you meant to or not.

Benjamin Franklin once stated:

Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.

Larry Flynt is promoting a narrow form of secular, juridical virtue based fully on the First Amendment as interpreted by lawyers. He’s not the first person to sit on that cornerstone of our republic. He represents the decline of public virtue and the rise of the state as our moral compass. Lawyers, rejoice! You now represent the ecclesiastical structure that guides us.

Perhaps this is inevitable, but freedom without responsibility is like giving firearms to people with no knowledge of gun safety.

Rupert Murdoch’s not your problem, Mr. Flynt. The courts upon which you rely will deal with him if there has been any wrongdoing. Your interpretation of free speech has perhaps planted the seeds by which our rights can be destroyed by a government that has replaced religion. In breaking down all barriers the truth becomes fluid, so do you really expect Americans growing up in such a moral free-for-all to be concerned about, or even comprehend, the ethics of journalism?

If Rupert Murdoch is who you says he is, Mr. Flynt, is he really a criminal, or is he just pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable, much like you did when you were making a name for yourself?