Free speech and pink slips


ALL THE INK and the airtime that’s been expended on Don Imus being fired for saying something controversial and stupid got me thinking about two other media guys -- working stiffs, not multimillionaires; professional informers, not inflamers -- who got fired for saying something controversial and wise.

Imus was canned after he slagged a women’s college basketball team. The two newspaper columnists were canned from their small-town papers after the 9/11 attacks for criticizing President Bush.

I know what you’re thinking: If that’s grounds for firing, the editorial offices at the nation’s news operations would be as empty as a Laura Bush stare, right? Nowadays, sure -- when Bush’s approval ratings are circling the drain. But remember the tetchy, proscriptive atmosphere after the 9/11 attacks, when the nation was circling the wagons around anything American, starting, as far as some people were concerned, with the president? Then-White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer took his own blue pencil to the 1st Amendment when he warned that Americans “need to watch what they say.”


In Grants Pass, Ore., at the Daily Courier, and at the Texas Sun, down in Texas City, journalists Dan Guthrie and Tom Gutting -- separated by about 30 years in age but not at all by their conviction -- were thinking: Where was Bush? Where was the presence that the nation craved in that terrible aftermath, but wasn’t getting?

As Guthrie wrote: “He didn’t storm back to the capital and lead us through our darkest hour.... He skedaddled” to one Air Force base, then another. Guthrie praised New York firefighters and the passengers aboard United Flight 93 as “the heroes of this rotten week.” As for Bush, Guthrie wrote: “We’re praying for him.” That was after he used, fatally, the word “cowardice.”

Hundreds of miles away, Gutting, who’d been a newspaperman since he was an Indiana teenager, was writing what turned out to be his last column. He praised Rudy Giuliani’s decision to be “highly visible.” He lambasted Bush: “It’s time we snapped out of the ‘support our president’ trance and start to be vigilant citizens, as our Constitution demands.”

Well. The reaction didn’t stop with the men’s firings. An Alaskan fisherman professed a wish to use Guthrie for crab bait. In Texas, Gutting became, as the more colorful threats went, “a man who needed killin’.”

In the half-decade since, the men, like the country, have moved on. Gutting, 28, researches grants at a Houston university and goes to law school. Guthrie, 67, teaches at a community college; the flags he put in his garden for dead soldiers have bleached to white, like so many of the flags slapped on bumpers after 9/11.

Of the 1st Amendment, Guthrie says: “I realize it comes with stipulations. You’re free to say what you want, but that doesn’t mean you can’t suffer repercussions.” Evidence Imus. Guthrie sometimes watched Imus and had to wonder whether the man even knew what he was saying. Did he “even know what ‘ho’ means? Did he think it meant a member of the ‘hood? We have ageism dueling with racism.”


Gutting’s first thought was “what a damn fool thing to say.” But should Imus have been fired? “I just can’t say that. As much as I abhor what he said and there’s real pressure to say ‘yeah he should be fired’.... “

I was writing a column as the World Trade Center towers were toppling, and in the heat of such a singular moment, I hoped I got it right: cautioning about the assaults we ourselves could mount on our civil liberties, so that 9/11 would be a “test of how much Americans truly believe in America.”

Guthrie’s and Gutting’s firings made my point faster than I could have imagined. Five years on, Guthrie says he hated more than anything else the letters and phone calls telling him to “leave, just leave -- that’s our response to the dissenter: Just leave.”

And Gutting? “I still think about it a lot. It’s when you get [your] ideals tested and you pay consequences for them [that] you find out whether you believe what you espouse to believe. And I wouldn’t change a damn thing.”

Can Imus honestly say the same? Watch for it: Some network somewhere will probably give him the chance.