Fox News Radio commentator Todd Starnes has come under fire over the past 24 hours following the publication of comments he made at the Value Voters Summit this past Saturday. His statements, which were partially taken out of context, were posted by Right Wing Watch (RRW), a blog that tracks — and seeks to expose — conservative speech.
It didn’t take long for headlines in outlets like The Huffington Post and NBC to embrace RRW’s views, staking the claim that Starnes called for a federal investigation into “South Park.” However, when his words are examined, the facts paint a very different picture.
In the initial post that set off the controversy, RWW wrote that Starnes is tired of seeing Hollywood get “a free pass.” While participating on a panel about “Religious Hostility in America,” the commentator delved into his views about religious freedom and the Obama administration’s treatment of “Innocence of Muslims,” the film that is being blamed — some say mistakenly — for widespread protests in the Middle East.
In an article entitled, “Fox News Host Wants Federal Investigation into ‘South Park’ for Blasphemy,” RRW writes:
The panel featured the familiar argument that Christians in America are somehow a beleaguered minority that is under constant assault. Starnes claims to have a pile of stories stacked up on his desk about “instances of people who have been facing attack because of their faith in Jesus Christ.”
Speaking of the controversy surrounding the laughably bad “Innocence of Muslims,” Starnes asked why the federal government isn’t investigating “shows like ‘South Park,’ which has denigrated all faiths.” He also demanded to know why President Obama hasn’t denounced Hollywood.
Similarly, The Huffington Post went with a headline that read, “Todd Starnes, Fox Commentator, Suggests ‘South Park’ Should Be Investigated By Federal Government” and NBC’s “Today” published, “Fox News Host Wants ‘South Park’ Investigated for Blasphemy.” Naturally, the overall theme is that Starnes wants the Obama administration to hamper free speech by going after Hollywood.
However, let’s examine the transcript that shows what, exactly, Starnes said during the panel discussion (emphasis added):
“We have the seen the administration come out and say, ‘we condemn anyone who denigrates religious faith.’ And they come out in regards to this anti-Muslim film.
Well, that’s well and good, but my question is, when has the administration condemned the anti-Christian films that are coming out of Hollywood? Where are the federal investigations into shows like ‘South Park,’ which has denigrated all faiths?
Where is the outrage when people of the Christian faith are subjected to this humiliation that is coming out of Hollywood? [...]
You have to let people know what’s going on in the country. These stories are stacked up on my desk right now — people who are facing attacks because of their faith in Jesus Christ.”
Watch the clip, which was posted by RRW, below (around the 46 second mark, notice that the video has purportedly been cut and spliced, an action that is noted by an ellipsis in the above transcript):
While the aforementioned outlets treated Starnes’ statement as though he was going after free speech and calling for government intervention into Hollywood’s affairs, a close examination of the text and video shows that the commentator was merely drawing a distinction.
If the Obama administration found it necessary to deride the makers of the anti-Islam film, why do they not do the same when movies and films similarly poke fun at Christianity? In fact, when he asked, “Where is the outrage when people of the Christian faith are subjected to this humiliation that is coming out of Hollywood?,” this was the very theme he was getting at.
Somehow, though, this point was lost by journalists at some media outlets. “Panelist and Fox News radio commentator Todd Starnes called on the White House to put a stop to Hollywood’s constant humiliating of Christians, both in movies and in television shows like the Comedy Central classic which he accused of ‘denigrating all faiths,’” The Huffington Post wrote.
NBC, too, reported something similar.
“In the wake of news reports about the anti-Islam film ‘Innocence of Muslims,’ a Fox News host has decided that a bigger and more professionally made production, ‘South Park,’ should come under fire,” the outlet opened its piece.
While both headlines and some of the content lead one to believe that Starnes was attacking free speech, The Huffington Post was fair in noting he told the audience, “This is not about a film, this about free speech!” — a line that showcases his favorable views on the First Amendment.
In addition to failing to include this line, RRW took the time to write the following:
Religious Right activists have been the most vocal supporters of the filmmakers, if you can call them that, and have rightfully pointed out that the First Amendment protects their activities. Starnes, however, seems to have a double-standard when it comes to speech that he deems offensive to his religious views.
To be fair. the outlets did make a potentially valid point in noting Starnes’ mention of a “federal investigation.” While the government did “condemn,” as the commentator noted, the anti-Islam film (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it “reprehensible” and “disgusting”), the investigation into the incident was for a very different reason. The Huffington Post continues:
So far there has been no known investigation into the “Innocence of Muslims,” a film arguably protected under the First Amendment. Los Angeles authorities did call the films’ alleged director Nakoula Basseley Nakoula in for questioning, but only because his involvement with the movie may have violated the terms of his probation, the Associated Press notes.
At one point last week, it was uncertain whether Nakoula was in legal trouble on criminal grounds (although some Hollywood elite are calling for criminal charges). However, his inevitable arrest was found to have nothing to do with the film’s contents and everything to do with a potential probation violation.
It is possible that Starnes’ mention of an “investigation” was based on incorrect information or not properly framed. Either way, the notion that he was calling for Hollywood to be investigated by the federal government is an overstatement and an unfair depiction for mainstream outlets to embrace.