A free press must be subsidized

by Michael Smith.

In a July 14 Wall Street Journal column, Columbia University president Lee Bollinger calls for a government bailout of the newspaper industry—an idea that’s popped up here and there for at least a couple of years. The moral hazards are almost too obvious to mention, but I couldn’t resist. You can see my reaction, along with those of several other letter writers, here.

Bollinger’s name may sound familiar. He created an uproar three years ago by inviting Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak at Columbia. The event was highly anticipated and hotly debated for weeks, and Ahmadinejad’s arrival in New York inspired what may be my all-time favorite headline

By show time, Bollinger was feeling the heat for providing a flamboyant America-hater a forum. To save his reputation (if not his job), he decided to forego the kind of gracious introduction an invited speaker would expect and instead deliver a lecture to Ahmadinejad. His performance inspired me to write a few words on the difference between high intelligence and good judgment. This is from the Cincinnati Enquirer, Oct. 11, 2007:

Years ago, my mother warned me about people who have the brains to build a clock but not enough sense to wind one.  Their new champion has emerged at Columbia University.

Lee Bollinger, the school’s president, brought in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak.  He figured to broaden horizons for students at Columbia’s School of International Affairs, which trains future diplomats.

Bollinger’s introduction of the Iranian president may have set diplomacy back a hundred years.  There’s been nothing comparable since 1992, when the first President Bush vomited on the prime minister of Japan.  Still, Ahmadinejad reaped a small portion of legitimacy—precious stuff, if you’re the public face of a thug state.

Giving a forum to Ahmadinejad was such a bad idea, it’s hard to imagine how Bollinger talked himself into it.  Maybe it was an old itch to dabble in radical chic:  There’s a certain exotic thrill in rubbing elbows with revolutionaries who don’t confine their deconstructionist zeal to the classroom.  Jimmy Carter knows the feeling well.

Whatever he was thinking, at some point he realized that a public relations win for Ahmadinejad would be a disaster for him.  That’s how Tehran’s feisty firebrand became a studio prop for the second coming of Bill O’Reilly. 

What the world saw was an ambush.  Good old American arrogance.  Ahmadinejad’s calm response momentarily made him a figure of dignity—proving that heartfelt international dialogue can indeed produce miracles, as John Kerry has always insisted.

Bollinger’s performance, which he characterized afterward as “free speech at its best,” made a lot of people wonder if his mother had ever taught him any manners.  I wonder if he can wind a clock.

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