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Maher Not Merrier About "freeSpeech" Segment

Over the weekend, the TVNewser blog, widely read by media and media-obsessed types, picked up on something HBO host Bill Maher said on his show Friday night. According to blog, Maher disclosed that he had been asked to do a "freeSpeech" segment for the "Evening News." Here's how the blog put it: "He asked if he could talk about religion but was rejected and told that he would be provided with a list of 'approved' topics." I've been unable to see the show firsthand myself, but I have seen clips where Maher claimed, "I asked if I could talk about religion, and that was a deal-breaker right from the beginning. … They said, 'We'll send over a list of acceptable topics … for our segment on free speech.'" In response to Maher's comments, CBS News sent out the following statement:
"Bill Maher was never told that he couldn't discuss religion in a 'freeSpeech' segment," said Rome Hartman, executive producer of the CBS Evening News. "In fact, 'freeSpeech' has already addressed religion and we expect others will in the future."
In fact, tonight's "freeSpeech" segment deals with that very topic, featuring a Muslim author speaking on the uproar in response to the Pope's recent comments. In an e-mail, Hartman also said that Maher was not told the topic of religion was off limits, that all prospective "freeSpeech" participants are given "suggested topics" in order to yield timely commentary and avoid repetition. Hartman added, "no effort was made to dictate content to him or anyone else, other than that we have told everyone that we won't air personal attacks, and that we're seeking an overall tone of civility and respect, even while airing very divergent views." (You can check out a complete list of the commentators and topics here).

Last week, we took a look inside the process of the segment and noted some of the editorial considerations involved and you can read that for a little more background. On the surface, it certainly appears contradictory for a segment touting free speech to have any constraints on it whatsoever. Of course, reality isn't always so simple. CBS is responsible for what goes out over its airwaves and there are obviously constraints involved. The broadcast could not air anything that violates FCC standards, for example, or anything that is factually untrue or libelous to an individual. And there are some opinions that would simply be irresponsible to air – racial, religious and otherwise.

I would draw a comparison to our own "Outside Voices" feature here at Public Eye. While we have never made anything more than grammatical or cosmetic changes to those submissions, we have exercised our editorial control in ways similar to what I understand the "Evening News" has done. Last spring, for example, most everyone we approached to participate wanted to write about the speculation that Katie Couric was coming to the network. While we had no objection to that in principle, there were just so many of those posts we could handle. After a few, we started asking for different topics to be addressed. At other times, we've suggested timely topics to others.

"Outside Voices" exists to provide a forum for all kinds of media-types to weigh in on journalistic issues at CBS News and the media as a whole. It's not a place for gossip or personal attacks and we reserve the right to exercise our editorial judgment as we see fit. The "freeSpeech" segment supposedly fits that model as well – a nightly segment to hear interesting and thought-provoking opinions you might not be exposed to elsewhere. Just as we have been criticized for our choices in "Outside Voices" from time to time, the "Evening News" has gotten an earful as well.

Some critics have wondered why the broadcast has chosen to feature people like Rush Limbaugh, who certainly has more than his fair share of opportunities to offer his opinions. Not a few complaints have been registered about the existence of the segment, arguing that the broadcast should deliver news, not opinion. Others complain it takes valuable time from "hard news" and should be used sparingly, not every night. While those are legitimate points, I personally like the idea in general. I would like to see fewer "names" featured, but overall, I think it adds a little context to the barrage of news we get throughout the course of a day. I seem to be in the minority on that point.

Update: Maher has issued the following statement, according to the New York Daily News:

"If I or my representatives got it wrong about how the 'Free Speech' segment of the 'CBS Evening News' is, sorry, our bad. I'm ready, willing and able to speak about the topic I originally suggested."

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