We live in a binary world. Michael Moore may have committed bad journalism by making injured veteran Peter Damon look like a critic of the war in Iraq. (Or maybe not.) Does it therefore follow that Damon deserves $85 million? There’s pristine journalism and there’s legally actionable journalism; then there’s the other 90 percent. That 90 percent is the zone in which Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” falls. (Earlier items, with links, below.)
Yet folks who ought to know better are so consumed with contempt for Moore that they’re abandoning their common sense. This morning, for instance, I did a 15- or 20-minute stint with Scott Allen Miller on WRKO Radio (AM 680). Miller leapt to Damon’s defense, claiming it would be no different if he spliced in a humorous quip from Mayor Tom Menino after an item about crack cocaine. Well, of course it would be different. In the NBC News clip at issue, Damon was, in fact, talking about his injuries. Moore didn’t change that.
And, uh, Scotto: Could WRKO survive a legal precedent that playing unaltered, accurate news clips can cost you tens of millions of dollars if someone doesn’t like the context? For that matter, could any talk show or news organization?
Even more ludicrous, the Boston Herald today editorializes in Damon’s defense. The editorial ends with this:
Ordinarily we’re not huge fans of taking every dispute to court. But any lawsuit that attempts to show Moore for the pompous fraud he truly is surely deserves a hearing on the merits. And any man who would exploit and distort the words of a genuine American hero is beyond contempt.
Question: Does Herald publisher Pat Purcell support the idea that he could be hauled into court every time someone thinks a Herald reporter has quoted him accurately but out of context?
I don’t want to go too far out on a limb without having a chance to see “Fahrenheit 9/11” again. But based on what I’ve read, it doesn’t even sound like Damon himself was taken out of context — rather, he simply doesn’t like the context in which he appeared. He is seen in an NBC News clip talking about the pain he’s in following a terrible accident in which he lost both of his arms while repairing a Black Hawk helicopter.
Yes, the clip is surrounded by anti-war and anti-Bush material, but none of it is attributed to Damon. He was talking about a new painkiller he was trying; Moore was more interested in Damon’s injuries. Not to sound insensitive, but so what? Moore obviously has the right to tell the story he wishes to tell as long as he doesn’t distort Damon’s views. It doesn’t sound like he did. Damon’s a war hero, and his complaints deserve to be heard. But that doesn’t mean he deserves $85 million. Or, for that matter, the price of a movie ticket.
(An aside: Let’s get over the whole notion of whether Moore is a journalist. It doesn’t matter. “Fahrenheit 9/11” is a form of advocacy journalism, regardless of Moore’s status as a journalist, a filmmaker, an entertainer or whatever.)
Then there’s the whole matter of whether Damon is a latecomer to the pro-Bush brigades. Scotto, for one, seems to think Damon and his parents appeared at an anti-war speech by Sen. Ted Kennedy, at the liberal Center for American Progress, simply out of respect for the office that Kennedy holds.
It’s possible. I’ll withhold judgment until we hear from Damon. But it’s hard not to notice that the Kennedy revelation came shortly after noon yesterday, and Damon, as far as I can tell, has not yet been heard from.
The bottom line is this: If every act of journalistic malpractice (if that’s what this even was) were worth $85 million, the news media — and the First Amendment — would cease to exist. No doubt there are those who would be happy about that.