Left meets right: On Fox News Watch, Neal Gabler and Cal Thomas concur on trumped-up nature of Colorado teacher story

››› ››› JULIE MILLICAN

On Fox News Watch, two Fox News commentators -- liberal media critic and author Neal Gabler, and conservative syndicated columnist Cal Thomas -- agreed that the controversy over a Colorado high school teacher's remarks about President Bush resulted from the exploitation of the incident by a high school student and the conservative media.

During the March 11 edition of Fox News Watch, two Fox News commentators -- liberal media critic and author Neal Gabler, and conservative syndicated columnist and Fox News host Cal Thomas -- agreed that the controversy over a Colorado high school teacher's remarks about President Bush resulted from the exploitation of the incident by a high school student and the conservative media. Teacher Jay Bennish was put on paid leave March 1 after a student, Sean Allen, recorded a lecture in which Bennish compared the style of Bush's January 31 State of the Union address to speeches made by Adolf Hitler. After Bennish's remarks were brought to the attention of a right-wing talk show host in Denver, the story received national attention when Allen appeared five times over a six-day period on Fox News' Hannity & Colmes.

During a Fox News Watch panel discussion, Gabler described the incident as "a case of a non-story becoming a story." Gabler continued, "[T]he parent -- the father -- went to a right-wing blog. Then they gave the audiotape to a right-wing radio show. The right-wing media flogged this story as another example of left-wing infiltration into our schools. Then the mainstream media were bullied by the right-wing media into picking up the story."

Thomas also took issue with the manner in which the story came to prominence. Noting that Allen never made a complaint to school officials about Bennish's lecture, Thomas said he was "very suspect of what the kid did" by "immediately going to the conservative media to make some big point rather than go through the system in the educational department." From March 2 to 8, Allen appeared five times on Hannity & Colmes. Only once during that period did the show host anyone representing Bennish -- the teacher's attorney, David Lane, on March 3.

Allen and his father released the tape to a local conservative radio host, Mike Rosen of Denver-based KOA radio, who aired portions of the tape and posted the audio on the internet. Fueled by conservative blogger Michelle Malkin, conservative columnist Walter E. Williams, talk show host Rush Limbaugh (subscription required), and Fox News host Sean Hannity, among others, the story quickly hit the national media. On the March 7 broadcast of NBC's Today, Bennish told co-host Matt Lauer that, as of that time, he had yet to receive a complaint from any parent -- including Allen's -- about the lecture in which he made the controversial remarks (although the Cherry Creek School District did receive a complaint from a "parent and student," according to a statement the district released). Bennish also contended that the portion of the lecture that was picked up in the media was taken out of context, and Lauer played a further excerpt from the class in which Bennish told his students that he did not expect them to agree with him and that he was trying to provoke critical thinking. Bennish has since been reinstated.

From the March 7 broadcast of NBC's Today:

LAUER: Had you gotten complaints from students? Had parents called, said, "My student's not comfortable with some of the messages you're delivering in class"?

BENNISH: No, I have not. And you know, like I -- like you said, and I would like to reiterate that, this is 20 minutes -- most people are not listening to the entire tape, and this is 20 minutes out of a 50-minute class, and the rest of the class provides the balance.

LAUER: The family here -- the student's family -- didn't go to the school board with this tape. They went --

BENNISH: They never -- they never contacted me. They have still never contacted me with any type of concerns.

LAUER: They basically shopped it around to conservative media outlets, and when they finally released it to one, it created an uproar. And on the tape, you can hear Sean Allen asking you questions that seem to be egging you on a little bit. Do you feel you were set up?

BENNISH: Well, you know, the lecture initially was an introduction to world geography, and we were covering very, you know, stereotypical terms like mental mapping and cultural landscapes. And I was receiving questions from Sean as well as from other students, trying to get me to respond to the State of the Union address that was the night before, and I explained to the students that in the case of the State of the Union, this is applicable to a world geography class, because for many people around the world, this speech might impact their lives more so than the speeches that their own--own leaders give.

LAUER: And after the portion that we've heard, you did say something else, and I want to -- in fairness -- play that portion as well.

BENNISH [from audiotape]: I am not in any way implying that you should agree with me. I don't even know if I'm necessarily taking a position. But what I'm trying to get you to do is to think, all right, that -- about these issues more in depth, you know, and not just to take things from the surface. And I'm glad you asked all your questions, because they're all very good, legitimate questions. And hopefully that allows other people to begin to think about some of those things, too.

[...]

BENNISH: You know, my job as a social studies teacher is to argue alternative perspectives and viewpoints so that students are aware of those point of views. They do not necessarily reflect my own views, they are simply thrown out there to encourage critical thought, so that students are aware that those views do exist in the world, and that they can then contemplate them and decide to make up their own mind. And I would like to reiterate also that all of my students are encouraged to take those types of things and go home, reflect on that and look at other current events, and get extra credit regardless of what their viewpoints are.

From the March 11 edition of Fox News Watch, hosted by Eric Burns, with panelists Gabler, Thomas, American University professor Jane Hall, and political analyst and Newsday columnist James P. Pinkerton:

BURNS: It's time now for our quick takes on the media. Headline number one, "Teacher's Turn." Jay Bennish, the Colorado teacher whose student made an audiotape of him comparing President Bush to Hitler in the classroom took his case to the media this week. He appeared on NBC'S Today show on Tuesday to talk about all the coverage of his remarks.

[begin video clip from NBC's Today ]

LAUER: The reaction you got, is it what you expected?

BENNISH: From the students? Yes. From the national media and the attention from people all over the country? Obviously not.

[end video clip]

BURNS: Neal, is it what you expected?

GABLER: Yes. Actually, this is the case -- it's very instructive, a case of a non-story becoming a story. Because the parent -- the father went to a right-wing blog. Then they gave the audiotape to a right-wing radio show. The right-wing media flogged this story as another example of left-wing infiltration into our schools.

Then the mainstream media were bullied by the right-wing media into picking up the story. And therefore, something that is of no interest really to anyone outside of this small school district is now a national story on the Today show. We're talking about it here.

THOMAS: I'm very concerned about restricting free speech. I'm on the teacher's side on this one, to the extent that the answer to offensive speech is not less of it. It is more of other kinds.

Now, the Colorado school system has a policy about fairness and balance. Maybe this teacher didn't give that, but he should be required to do it. He shouldn't be put on paid leave and suspended, however. And I'm very suspect of what the kid did, and the father, immediately going to the conservative media to make some big point rather than to go through the system in the educational department.

HALL: I think it's problematic in that you have the young man on Hannity & Colmes, and you have the teacher on the Today show. I thought Matt Lauer was too easy on him, saying well you basically [were] set up. But then, the young man goes on Hannity & Colmes and he gets only his side across.

PINKERTON: As Jay Ambrose of Scripps-Howard said [in a March 8 column], Jay Bennish pretends to be a teacher and Matt Lauer pretends to be a journalist on this.

I'm with the kid.

GABLER: What does Hannity pretend to be?

PINKERTON: Well, you can answer that one. I'll just say that this is an illustration of what [Instapundit blogger] Glenn Reynolds has in his new book, An Army of Davids [Nelson Current, March 2006]. It is the fact -- bloggers, tape recorders are making a huge difference in the media. And this case proves it.

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