Bob Franken: Pete and the Pope

  • By Bob Franken
  • Tuesday, January 20, 2015 7:48pm
  • Opinion

Back at the beginning of my TV career, in Cleveland local news, on-camera minority reporters were few and far between. Our business was just discovering the imperative of diversity. We had just one on our staff, a guy named Peter. Pete taught me a lesson that I’ve remembered through the decades.

The KKK was having a gathering in Cleveland, and, for some ridiculous reason, Pete was assigned to cover it. Pro that he was, he went to the event and ended up doing an interview with the grand dragon. Happily, the cameraman made sure to stay in a two-shot as the Klan guy described blacks as “beasts of burden” and “mules.” Imagine the impact of the image on the screen: Pete’s placid demeanor as he held the mike without outwardly reacting to the racist pig’s spewed hatred. It was a profoundly effective condemnation of bigotry.

Sadly, it is not the way most of us usually react to deeply offensive attacks. Take the gratuitously malignant cartoons that the French magazine Charlie Hebdo routinely publishes ridiculing Islamic and other religions’ sensibilities in the most juvenile, gross ways. Of course, we know that violent assassins presenting themselves as Muslim extremists launched a murderous attack in response to the cartoons depicting Muhammad. They killed a dozen people and spawned other fatal assaults.

Millions of us, to show our support for discussing ideas in an unrestricted way, quickly embraced the mantra “Je Suis Charlie” (“I Am Charlie”). But I want to change that to say “Je suis libre expression” (“I am free expression”), since after thinking about it, I don’t want to be associated with a publication or other performer who often trivializes the whole principle of open discussion with gratuitously offensive depictions of that which people hold sacred. They do it strictly for shock value and to add to the bottom line.

Pardon the cliche, but I can despise what they say while defending to the death their right to say it. In this case, of course, death came to those who had decided to regularly cross the bad taste line — at the hands of murderous fanatics who crossed civilization’s line to indulge their own twisted protector-of-the-faith fantasies.

Predictably, Islamaphobes everywhere were then sent into their own frenzies, as they used the unspeakable attacks to reinforce their long-held bigotry. They pointed out that millions of Muslims admit that they sympathize with the assailants or least understand what motivated them.

This is sad, because there is no justification for impeding the articulation of ideas, no matter how objectionable. Period. But the belief that somehow religion is set apart is not limited to Muslims. The pope himself has weighed in when he told reporters: “You can’t provoke. You can’t insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others. There is a limit.” If, for instance, said the pontiff, “someone speaks badly of my mother, he can expect to be punched.”

I’ve never publically contradicted a pope before, but, Your Holiness, you are flat-out wrong. In a free society, you can insult the faith of others. Without being punched or, by extension, killed. It may be juvenile, it may be crude, it may be outrageously anti-social, but it’s allowed and in a perverse way celebrated even by those of us who, in our own conversation, try to adhere to loose rules of civilized discourse. Cheap shots are the tactics of fools, but being a fool is not a capital crime. Unfortunately, there are those homicidal zealots who might get the wrong message from the pope’s words, that violence is somehow justified, and frankly, he should have known that.

Usually, the most devastating response to obnoxiousness is no response. That’s the lesson my colleague Pete taught me, and it should guide all of us.

Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.

More in Opinion

Alaska Chief Medical Officer Anne Zink promotes getting immunized with the flu shot this winter. (Photo courtesy Alaska Department of Health and Social Services)
Immunize when you winterize

An annual flu shot plus the COVID-19 vaccine protects Alaskans and our health care system, too.

(Peter Segall / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: Dunleavy’s first act as governor was unconstitutional

That’s according to a ruling by Senior U.S. District Judge John Sedwick.

This Aug. 3, 2021, photo shows Juneau International Airport.  The Federal Aviation Administration shared recommendations on Thursday for improving aviation safety in the state. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: How the FAA will improve the margin of aviation safety in Alaska

Alaska depends on aviation more than any other state…

Central Peninsula Hospital is seen in Soldotna on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. (Camille Botello/Peninsula Clarion)
Voices of the Peninsula: Perspective of an educator in a ‘high-risk’ group, part 2

During some of the darkest days of my time in ICU, it was obvious where we all live is a special place.

Lawmakers havereturned to the Alaska State Capitol for a fourth special session. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: Revenues should be determined before more PFD spending

The governor believes the dividend drives the entire calculation. Sadly, he has it backwards

Ronnie Leach. (Photo provided)
Point of View: For Domestic Violence Awareness Month, #weareresilient

At the onset of COVID-19, we expanded our services in a way to ensure COVID-19 consciousness.

Rep. Don Young talks during a June 2021 interview with the Empire. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion:Where’s Don Young when America needs him?

Once upon a time, avoiding political controversy was completely out of character for Young.

Peter Zuyus
Voices of the Peninsula: Seniors appreciate vaccination efforts

To those who have worked to encourage vaccination we say: Be proud, you are, in fact, saving lives.

Jackson Blackwell (courtesy photo)
Voices of the Peninsula: Carbon dividends are the bipartisan climate solution

By levying a gradually increasing price on carbon, U.S. emissions will be slashed by 50% in 15 years.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy holds a press conference at the Capitol on Tuesday, April 9, 2019. (Juneau Empire file photo)
Dunleavy: Facts Matter

Political opportunists care more about spreading political untruths than accepting the facts.

Steve Hughes. (Photo provided)
Voices of the Peninsula: We are all victims of COVID-19

It is disturbing to hear, as a triage nurse, the many reasons cited for not getting a vaccine that are based on misinformation.

Opinion: LGBTQ+ Alaskans deserve respect and dignity

Like every state that lacks equality, we need federal protection.