Strong Commentary On School Violence But A Little Off Topic

Judging from the e-mails we've received, many of the comments over at the Couric & Co., blog and the comments left at CBSNews.com, yesterday's "freeSpeech" segment on the "Evening News" has raised the ire of plenty of viewers. The segment featured Brian Rohrbough, the father of one of the students killed at Columbine High School in 1999, addressing the recent school shootings in Pennsylvania and Colorado. You can watch the commentary by clicking on the image to the left or read the transcript here. Here is part of what's drawing the most criticism, from Rohrbough:
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.

We teach there are no absolutes, no right or wrong. And I assure you the murder of innocent children is always wrong, including by abortion. Abortion has diminished the value of children.
Here are some of the comments that have landed in our in-box – William R. says:
It is sad to see CBS pander to the extreme right wing. The network that brought us Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite has now become a cheap imitation of Fox (false) news.
Barbara R. was also disappointed:
We have been CBS evening news watchers for many years, but tonight was the last night I will ever watch the news on CBS.

What in the world was Couric thinking of when she had the Columbine parent on Free Speech? He blamed the lack of religious teachings in school, Darwin and abortion rights for the murderous rampages in Colorado and Pennsylvania.
Ed B. said:
Obviously this gentleman has lived through a parent's worst nightmare and today's events surely brought back terrible memories. What I found offensive however is the CBS News choice to present his highly personal views to a wide national audience with no opportunity for an alternate voice to be heard. While I may agree with some of his thoughts, others are completely absurd and would surely lead this country back to the Middle Ages. You gave this individual an uncritical platform to demonize activities such as the teaching of evolution. Can this argument also be extended to the convicted pedophiles of the Catholic clergy? I hope in the future you will be more discriminating when inviting comments from the public to be used in the Evening News.
Derrick G. sees too many conservative voices on the segment as a whole:
This is a noble effort, the segment on "freeSpeech;" it could lead to a rejuvenation of our public airwaves by creating a 21st century public commons, another platform for our citizens to converse with one another. You will add nothing but poison to the well if you continue to allow only the voices of the right-wing polemics to be aired to the nation.

If you cannot find voices that seek to unite us as a nation - voices who will re-engender that feeling of One People that we all felt on 12 September 2001 - then you should cancel this program. We have plenty of divisive voices speaking past one another.
Click through the links above if you would like to see what others are saying. On her blog, CBS anchor Katie Couric addressed the criticism:
We knew when we decided to put on this segment that a lot of people would disagree with it. We also knew some might even find it repugnant. (Some of you made that point loud and clear!)

But that is the very essence of what we're try to do with the "freeSpeech" segment. This is a platform for our viewers to hear from a wide range of people – those who may share your views, and those who don't.
And in an e-mail to PE, "Evening News" executive producer Rome Hartman explained how this particular "freeSpeech" came about:
In the hours after the tragic school shooting in Pennsylvania, we asked Brian Rohrbough, whose son was murdered in 1999 at Columbine High School, if he had any thoughts or reaction he might want to share with our viewers to the shootings at the Amish school. We imagined that his perspective, as a parent who lost a son in a school shooting, might make a very valuable 'freeSpeech' perspective for last night. He agreed, put his thoughts on paper, and drove to our Denver affiliate to deliver them on camera.

When I saw what Mr. Rohrbough meant to say, I was surprised. I'm not sure what I expected him to think or feel or say, but this wasn't it. Of course I knew that his remarks would be controversial, perhaps even offensive to some. I also knew that some people in our audience would agree with him. I also thought to myself, "This is 'freeSpeech.' We don't tell people what to say or what to think. We DO tell people that we won't run personal attacks or comments that are patently, demonstrably false." I decided to run the segment.
So, was this particular commentary out of bounds? I actually found it to be exactly the type of commentary in general that makes me want to see the segment continue and thrive. But there is a very legitimate criticism of this particular episode, an issue of relevance.

Because both recent school shootings involved an outside adult and not students, whether or not our educational system is creating a moral vacuum seemed out of place and creates confusion about just what the immediate issue is. I would certainly rather have that disconnect than have something perfectly scripted written for someone instead of their genuine thoughts. But this was an unfortunate case of mixing apples and oranges in my opinion.

The other criticism being leveled is at the segment in general. Many commenters upset with the content of the commentary feel that the conservative viewpoint is favored over others. Much of that depends on where one sits on the ideological fence of course. There have been conservative like Rush Limbaugh and Rudy Giuliani (although I could find plenty of conservatives who don't claim the former New York Mayor) featured, but there have also been some pretty liberal commentaries as well, especially on the issue of immigration. You can see all the segments here and make up your own minds. But keep some perspective, there have only been 20 of them to date and it's much too early to declare a widespread lack of balance. Give it a few more months and judge the whole body of work.

My personal take, for what it's worth, is that Mr. Rohrbough's commentary was the kind of strong opinion that makes "freeSpeech" worth running every night. Then again, I like being challenged to think, and I especially enjoy being forced to defend my own thoughts, beliefs and assumptions and I'm not threatened by someone who doesn't agree with my personal ideological checklist. And I find it fascinating that the reader who lauds Murrow (who took on Joe McCarthy) and Cronkite (who took on the Vietnam war) sees no inconsistency in complaining about "freeSpeech." But you're free to disagree with me.
  • Vaughn Ververs

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