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Jewish World Review April 17, 2001 / 24 Nissan, 5761

Nat Hentoff

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'60 Minutes' should be ashamed of itself -- AT its best, CBS-TV's "60 Minutes" has been instrumental in freeing people who have been unjustly imprisoned, and in exposing other government and private abuses. But when its producers and reporters are driven by self-righteous bias, "60 Minutes" abandons journalism for rampant ideology.

A particularly egregious example of this was an April 1 segment on the Boy Scouts, reported by Lesley Stahl and produced by Shari Finkelstein. The clear message to the nation was that although the Boy Scouts won a Supreme Court decision permitting it to expel assistant scoutmaster James Dale for publicly declaring himself to be homosexual, various public school systems and private organizations were nevertheless justified in cutting their ties with the Boy Scouts because of the expulsion.

The mother of a boy who has been a Cub Scout for four years told Lesley Stahl: "It's just plain wrong. I can't be part of a group that's discriminating." And a school board member in Broward Country, Fla., is shown stating indignantly, "We shall not, under any circumstances, discriminate."

A basic principle of journalism is that if you deliberately leave out important parts of a story, the result is prejudicial reporting. In this attack on the Boy Scouts' policy prohibiting homosexuals in leadership positions, "60 Minutes" failed to tell its viewers what the Supreme Court said in its decision last June in Boy Scouts of America v. James Dale. Left out was precisely why the Court ruled that the Boy Scouts have a right to "expressive association" under the First Amendment.

The majority of the Court emphasized: "We are not, as we must not be, guided by our views of whether the Boy Scouts' teachings with respect to homosexual conduct are right or wrong. Public or judicial disapproval of a tenet of an organization's expression does not justify the State's effort to compel the organization to accept members where such acceptance would derogate from the organization's expressive message. ... "The fact," the Supreme Court continued, "that an idea may be embraced by increasing numbers of people is all the more reason to protect the First Amendment rights of those who wish to voice a different opinion."

Does "60 Minutes" approve of forcing the NAACP to place in a leadership position an advocate of white supremacy? Or should a disability rights organization be compelled by the state to hire Dr. Jack Kevorkian as the head of one of its units?

Nor did the depiction of the Boy Scouts in "60 Minutes" as just plain bigots say anything about the previous Supreme Court precedent that affirmed the First Amendment expressive rights of other organizations: Hurley v. Irish American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group of Boston (1995).

Leslie Stahl did tell us, with approval, that the Broward County School board "no longer allows the Boy Scouts to recruit in the public schools. The local Boy Scouts have lost over $300,000 in city and county grants and donations from United Way."

But Leslie Stahl did not tell us that U.S. District Judge Donald Middlebrooks has granted the Boy Scouts a preliminary injunction prohibiting the Broward school board -- on First Amendment grounds -- from excluding the Boy Scouts from the schools. A spokesman for "60 Minutes" told me that they knew about the injunction, but that it would have taken too much time to say on the program what I've just told you. Later, Don Hewitt, head of "60 Minutes," told me the judge's decision should have been included.

A big point was made by Stahl that no Boy Scouts officials agreed to appear on the program. A spokesman for the Scouts told me they were afraid that their words might be distorted through editing. I think they should have appeared with a tape recorder to document what they said.

But "60 Minutes" could have obtained this statement by the Scouts: "It is ironic, in our pluralistic society, that some who champion individualism, tolerance, and diversity do not practice these principles themselves. ... From the beginning, Scouts are taught respect for different ideas, customs and cultures, and to recognize the right of individuals to subscribe to other beliefs.

"However," the Scouts continued, "respect doesn't include forced inclusion of values, ethics, or morals that are contrary to your own."

As Alexis de Tocqueville said in "Democracy in America," "The right of association is as inalienable as individual liberty."

JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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07/26/99: Lady Hillary and the press

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