Bless her heart, I think Katie Couric -- in an attempt to tweak her image in Middle America -- tried to engineer herself a Sister Souljah moment the other night. There are reports that some of her staff producers and reporters freaked out. The question is whether CBS News should have allowed the father of one of the victims of the Columbine High School massacre to voice his beliefs about America's "culture of death," to use that now familiar Pope John Paul II phrase, during the new gosh-we-hope-this-is-controversial "freeSpeech" segment on the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric.
Here is the crucial segment of the script for Brian Rohrbough's short commentary, delivered in the wake of the Amish school killings:
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. Suicide has become an acceptable action and has further emboldened these criminals. And we are seeing an epidemic increase in murder-suicide attacks on our children.
Sadly, our schools are not safe. In fact, we now witness that within our schools. Our children have become a target of terrorists from within the United States.
Couric said the obvious in one of her online commentaries, after quoting strong emails from the cultural left and right:
When we approached Brian Rohrbough and asked him his thoughts about this latest school shooting, this essay was the result. We understood that people may disagree with what he said, and with what he believes. But censoring or attempting to re-shape his opinion would be antithetical to the very idea of free speech.
This is a nation built on dialogue and debate. And, most importantly, on freedom of speech. As George Washington once said, "If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter."
The key phrase -- "when we approached" -- must have jumped out at many readers on the cultural left.
There is, of course, no right to free speech on the CBS Evening News.
CBS sought out this controversy and can either be praised or jeered for doing so. Rohrbough's views were strongly stated, but millions of Americans would affirm all, most or much of what he said. Like I keep saying, the polls consistently suggest that about 20 percent of the population is made up of strong cultural conservatives, about 20 percent strong cultural liberals and in between is OprahAmerica, where people slide all over the place depending on how poll questions are worded.
So CBS gave someone on the cultural right a brief moment of air time. It is interesting that some people on the left reacted by saying that it was wrong for CBS to have done so. Not "dumb" or "bad strategy," but "wrong." "Evil," perhaps?
As Howard Kurtz reported in The Washington Post, it is also important that some of the protests came from inside the CBS newsroom. Will the same thing happen when filmmaker Michael Moore gets a 90-second spot? Or has he already done his thing?
The crucial issue, of course, is not whether Americans on the cultural right (and candid voices on the cultural left) are allowed to do commentary pieces. The key is whether their views are accurately represented in news stories about abortion, marriage, public education, speech codes, etc. That's what matters.
Commentary is easy. Journalism is hard.