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John Wellington Ennis

John Wellington Ennis

Posted April 22, 2009 | 04:53 PM (EST)

Yelling "FIRE!" in an Empty Theater


While I would prefer to not dignify John Ziegler by writing any more about him, I would like to take the opportunity to respond to his grievances against me while addressing more pertinent issues.

I do not feel the need to rebut every sweeping accusation from him, because as I have already detailed, this individual projects partisan pressure into every context. My lengthy refutation of his film Media Malpractice: How Obama Got Elected and Palin was Targeted was not so "laughably biased" as he would prefer, but rather a thorough break down of the film as one long subjective rant with news clips plied around it. The only thing "documented" in this documentary was Sarah Palin squirming while Zeigler forces her to watch some of her damaging press clips. She even says to Ziegler, "You're torturing me, man!"

My opinions never even got a chance to be affected by his film, because Ziegler offers no evidence other than his biased interpretation of news coverage. In fact, I have stretched to keep my mind open to many conservative viewpoints in spite of how Mr. Ziegler has argued them.

Mr. Ziegler fails to recognize that using any credible sources to support his assertions would help convince others of his viewpoint. As such, I see no point in continuing to debate him or even acknowledge him. This is not a biased agenda; I would really rather work around our divisive partisan mindset with someone who does not oversimplify, who is not myopic, who does not make egregious accusations.

To quickly offer corrections to his piece here on Huff Po:

I never suggested that his being handcuffed by USC security guards at the Katie Couric event was appropriate, just not surprising given his belligerent behavior.

In our sit-down interview, when Ziegler responded to my question "What is truth?" with a tirade about how truth does not matter, I did not misinterpret it as him saying that truth is not important to him or inconsequential. I understood what he meant. He believes that truth is bowled over and neglected in our partisan divide, and citing truth is ineffective in our culture. Thus, making your point louder and harsher is all that ultimately matters. I understood this because he lives this.

My citing of Ziegler's appearance on a Reality TV dating show was included for the reasons given in its original context: I found an apt comparison to his incredulous expression as USC security detained him with the look on his face as he describes to a woman that he believes marriage should be renegotiated every five years as the man's power in the relationship appreciates. That expression could be described as: "How could they NOT get this?" The woman looks horrified and the security guards look like they can't believe they are giving their "behave yourself" speech to a middle-aged man instead of a frat boy.

To be clear, I don't think Ziegler's appearance on a Reality TV show is embarrassing in itself. I have produced and directed all kinds of Reality TV; it's good sport. Ziegler is sufficiently able to embarrass himself without producers having to work at it. In fact, that is what John Ziegler really is, good Reality TV casting. He shows the hallmarks producers like: he talks without editing his thoughts, has lots of energy, and creates a visceral reaction in the viewer. This is a significant reason why he has appeared on the View, the Today show, FOX News, and more -- because he is a hothead you have to see to disbelieve, and segment producers know it.

While he may see himself as the only important actor in this situation, I did not contact John Ziegler for my column because it was unnecessary. As seen in my article, I continually refer to the USC video itself. That is because this video, when waved as an inflammatory right wing rallying cry, could pose as much a challenge to free speech as yelling "FIRE!" in a crowded theater.

At a time when manufactured and misdirected outrage has been boiling over at tea parties toward government authorities, concocting a civil liberties issue to advance an individual agenda is not only irresponsible, it is frankly dangerous.

For Americans concerned that this video shows a threat to our First Amendment rights of free speech or freedom of the press, there is more to the issue. While Ziegler has campaigned to make himself a martyr for free speech as an independent journalist, he has down played part of the story, as clarified by James Grant, the Executive Director of Media Relations for USC and as reported by the Huffington Post:

According to Grant, in the days before his eventual appearance on campus, Ziegler publicly announced his intention to demonstrate at the Couric event. USC was happy to accommodate Ziegler, and provided him with a designated area, where he could register his protest, be seen by event attendees and the student body, and pass out whatever materials he wished. These arrangements were ready upon Ziegler's arrival.


However, according to Grant, Ziegler showed up for the event making unexpected demands. He was no longer a demonstrator. Now, he was a journalist, with cameramen in tow, insistent that he had a right to enter the event. Told that the event was invitation only, Ziegler contended that he had the right to range up and down the entryway and stick microphones into the faces of attendees.


As adamant as Ziegler is that his appearance at USC was not aimed at being a stunt, this forethought into how to make an impact seems to suggest otherwise. Most indicative is that his original intent was to protest the event, creating the adversarial context. Then, arriving with cameras he claims he was not associated with despite being tethered to them, he approaches a USC security guard with a microphone and introduces himself. The security guard politely points out that anyone filming will have to stand behind the barricade that has been erected for that purpose.

Ziegler, smirking already, asks: "Based on what?" Security: "Based on this being invitation only." Ziegler proceeds to follow the guard with the microphone. The security guard immediately senses where this is going and enlists another security guard for enforcement of what was just explained. Ziegler clearly attended knowing he did not have access to cover the event, hoping for some backlash to dignify his otherwise solo cause. Spare us the staged outrage of "Unhand me!" slapstick.

When Andrew Meyer confronted John Kerry at the University of Florida, I credited him with citing Greg Palast's book Armed Madhouse. However, once the kid interrupted John Kerry trying to answer his questions, and got all worked up about Skull & Bones, I was not surprised to see him escorted away by campus security. (Though I was horrified to see him get tasered while held to the ground by six security guards.) There is no law per se against making people uncomfortable in public settings, but it is human nature to whisk away those that are upsetting others. I am not defending it, simply pointing out something a lot of people already recognize.

So when John Ziegler asks me what he should have been charged with, he is missing the point. In tense situations, cops make the laws, and whatever they say is the law at that time. Again, I am not crazy about this. But cops know charges can be dropped later when the present threat is diffused, so being arrested for something like "disturbing the peace," "inciting a riot," or "resisting arrest" are often used, no matter how illogical. ("How can I incite a riot if there is just me here? How am I resisting arrest if you can't name a charge you are arresting me for?") Ziegler had his designated protest/free speech/free press area, and did not like it. That is pretty much how it usually goes down for everybody. Pestering security guards until they apprehend you, then acting incredulous, that is not a threat to Free Speech everywhere.

If Ziegler actually was surprised by this reaction to showing up uninvited some place with cameras, it might be because he doesn't do it very much. As noted, he has not bothered to shoot anything for his documentary besides Sarah Palin insisting she should have gotten more favorable news coverage, and man on the street interviews with uninformed voters on election day in Los Angeles.

Many other people have shown up places trying to get legitimate information and have been treated far less politely by security than Mr. Ziegler was. There are so many independent media casualties from excessive policing, I could not begin to do justice to all of them here. There are blogs dedicated to it. John Ziegler's shameless provocation makes it harder on all independent media, regardless of ideology.

There is another clarification I need to make about Ziegler's thoughtful piece, "John Ennis Thinks I'm 'A Dumbass': A Point by Point Response." I did not call him a "dumbass." I pointed out that there is a fine line between making a point and looking like a dumbass, and asked in my headline, "Does the First Amendment Protect the Right to be a Dumbass?" While pondering the constitutional rights surrounding a dumbass, Ziegler apparently found that the term applied to him. I clarify this not to soothe Ziegler's ego, but to illustrate how readily and easily our language is co-opted by those who wish to buttress their argument.

To review, the First Amendment reads as such: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

I have not checked Drudge today, but last I heard, Congress was trying to sidestep accountability for torture, not pass laws against John Ziegler's outbursts. His video is still online, and he has been featured widely in our free press (he's no Susan Boyle, but who is?). He even got his response to my column promptly printed here on Huffington Post, with my encouragement. And what does he write about to belabor his point? Accusing liberals at the HP of opposing other people's free speech. Dude, we don't even spell check, let alone censor.

My suggestion that backers of Ziegler's antics be embarrassed is far from an attack on free speech, as he insists. It is in fact just the opposite: I encourage everyone to freely review all speech from everywhere, and then reach their own independent, informed decisions about how big of an embarrassment John Ziegler really is.

Ziegler's claims of oppression are tantamount to yelling "FIRE!" in an empty theater.