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Operation Enduring Dissent 

Is the crackdown on free expression new, or business as usual?

Wednesday, Oct 3 2001
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A few months ago, Carol Wells, founder and executive director of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics, was invited to appear on the Adelphia cable public-access talk show Local Talk, hosted by Bill Rosendahl. Wells was to be one of four guests discussing political art on the September 27 show and had assembled examples from her organization’s archives. But then the world changed. ”After September 11,“ Wells says, ”I felt the images I was using, which were generic, needed to be stronger about speaking to the moment. And so I asked them, ‘Is it all right if I change my plans?’ They said ‘sure.’“

Noting the ubiquity of U.S. flags on cars, T-shirts and patio furniture, Wells set about culling from the center‘s vaults uses of the flag in the art of political dissent: A poster from 1970 shows the flag washed in green and bearing the slogan ”Ecology Now.“ Ernest Pignon’s ”Attica“ poster from 1974 reinterprets the red stripes of the flag as prison bars; another poster, by artist Galia Goodman in 1990, flanks the stars-and-stripes in a statement Shirley Chisholm made in 1969: ”Unless we start to fight and defeat the enemies of poverty and racism in our own country and make our talk of equality and opportunity ring true, we are exposed as hypocrites in the eyes of the world when we talk about making other people free.“

In light of this country‘s political mood, in which both German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and Peter Jennings are held accountable for anti-American slights real or imagined, Chisholm’s words might cause some TV producers to panic. Yet despite (or perhaps because of) the U.S. public‘s newfound interest in all things red, white and blue, producers at the local Adelphia outlet were initially enthusiastic about the political art. ”At first,“ Wells recalls, ”they just said ’fabulous.‘“ Two days before what was to be the Friday taping, Wells brought in slides of nine posters, at which point the show’s coordinating producer ”thought they were great,“ says Wells. But on Friday, just a few hours before the scheduled taping at Adelphia‘s Santa Monica office, she got a call from Rosendahl’s assistant, Krista D‘Angelo. ”She said that I had a choice of coming in that day without graphics, or postponing the whole thing,“ Wells remembers. ”When I asked her why, she told me that Bill thinks the posters are ’too inflammatory.‘“ Later, she was told that she could come on the show with three posters, ”Attica,“ ”Ecology Now,“ and another in which an artist had replaced stars with teepees.

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”That left me really confused,“ says Wells, ”because two of those three images are very strong. So I asked -- it was a request, not a demand,“ she insists -- ”to also include the one quoting Shirley Chisholm.“ D’Angelo called back. ”She told me, ‘Bill has made an executive decision,’“ Wells remembers. ”‘He’s not going to have you on the show.‘“

Rosendahl, who also hosts public-access talk shows called Beyond the Beltway, Week in Review and The God Squad, serves as regional vice president for Adelphia, the cable company that notoriously cut all ”adult entertainment“ programming when it acquired Century Communications in 1999. Adelphia also canceled Dr. Susan Block’s sex-ed show, despite a 1996 U.S. Supreme Court ruling forbidding censorship of public-access television. Still, Rosendahl himself typically embraces both controversy and a wide array of viewpoints; guests on his shows have included political artist Robbie Conal and former Vice President Dan Quayle. But that Friday morning, he says, he had just returned from a family funeral and wasn‘t prepared for the material Wells brought in. ”I walked in an hour before show time and didn’t know what I was going to see,“ he says. ”I hadn‘t talked to Carol Wells, and I didn’t know who she was. And I felt that at this present moment in the history of our great nation, to have six or seven posters about the flag was just not appropriate. I don‘t want to be in the business of fueling anybody’s hysteria.“

”He had to think about protecting this forum for progressive speech,“ said a source close to the show who asked not to be named. But the incident falls all too neatly into the present scheme of free expression, in which corporate advertisers, newspapers editors and even promoters of classical music are rushing to silence anyone they worry might offend the sensitized and grieving public. The most visible of these, of course, is Politically Incorrect host Bill Maher, who remarked that lobbing missiles from the air is a ”cowardly“ mode of battle. FedEx and Sears pulled their ads, and pundits rushed to condemn Maher -- not for this particular gaffe so much as for hosting what people like the National Review‘s Jonah Goldberg consider a generally lousy show. Only when White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer got involved did it become clear what was at stake. ”The reminder is to all Americans to watch what they say, watch what they do,“ Fleischer advised. A week later, a reader of Jim Romenesko’s Media News wrote in to say that ”watch what they say,“ had been edited out of the official White House transcripts. It was, however, still audible in the recording of Fleischer‘s press briefing, which is archived on C-SPAN.

In the wake of Fleischer’s unguarded remark, and the sinister-seeming editing of the transcript, Maher became worthy of mention in the same breath as the journalists who lost their jobs when they dared to critique George W. Bush: Tom Gutting, who was fired from the Texas City Sun after writing a column questioning Bush‘s leadership ability, and Dan Guthrie, who, after eight years as a columnist and copy editor for The Daily Courier in Grants Pass, Oregon, was told to leave after writing that Bush ”skedaddled“ after the suicide attacks. Thanks to Fleischer, free expression can now be considered officially under fire.

But it’s wrong to assume this is war-time hysteria. For the Bush administration, as well as Clinton‘s before him, it’s business as usual. If there happens to be a lot of squelching of free expression right now, it‘s at least in part because a lot more is being said. It’s useful to remember that before September 11, John Ashcroft‘s Justice Department had already jailed Houston book researcher and freelance writer Vanessa Leggett for refusing to disclose her sources to a federal judge. Associated Press reporter John Solomon had seen his personal telephone records subpoenaed when he declined to identify the law-enforcement officials who told the AP about a government wiretap of New Jersey Senator Robert Torricelli. Earlier this year, the White House had pledged to deny any further access to writers from Talk after the magazine published an article with mock photographs of the Bush daughters.

Nor is corporate America’s insistence on patriotism all that unusual. In 1996, the NBA suspended Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf of the Denver Nuggets without pay because he refused to stand during the national anthem. Abdul-Rauf protested that the song‘s patriotic fervor conflicted with his religion, Islam. ”You can’t be for God and for oppression,“ he said. A few weeks after his suspension, two talk jocks from a Denver radio station broke into the Colorado Islamic Center and spat out ”The Star-Spangled Banner“ on a trumpet. One of them wore a turban.

Rosendahl doesn‘t regret his last-minute decision to pull Wells off Local Talk -- he argues that an unprecedented level of ”fear and bewilderment“ requires a delicate approach to patriotic matters. But he has learned a little more about who Wells is and what she does, and has rescheduled her for an October 19 show -- provided she presents a wide variety of political art. ”I’d like to do what we did with Robbie Conal,“ he says. ”I‘d like to put all this political artwork in context.“

”That was my intent all along,“ says Wells, ”to put this art in context. That’s what I do for a living.“

Reach the writer at judith.lewis@laweekly.com

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