By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 4, 2006
The emotions surrounding the murder of five girls at an Amish school in Pennsylvania were still raw Monday when the "CBS Evening News" put on a commentator who blamed such violence on abortion and "expelling God from the school."
Brian Rohrbough, who lost his son in the 1999 Columbine school massacre in Colorado, made the remarks on the "Free Speech" segment, which for the past month has provided a 90-second platform for pundits, politicians and ordinary people to sound off.
The decision to approach Rohrbough and air his views prompted a storm of criticism, some of it within the ranks of CBS News. Anchor Katie Couric responded on her network blog, saying: "We knew when we decided to put on this segment that a lot of people would disagree with it. We also knew some might even find it repugnant.
"But that is the very essence of what we're try to do with the 'Free Speech' segment. This is a platform for our viewers to hear from a wide range of people -- those who may share your views, and those who don't."
Rohrbough, who addressed the Colorado Right to Life march in January, has blamed the Columbine attack on abortion in a number of local interviews. He filed a lawsuit alleging that a Denver police officer shot his 15-year-old son in the confusion of the Columbine attack. Rohrbough apologized to the officer in a Rocky Mountain News interview after an independent investigation concluded the officer had not yet arrived at the school when Rohrbough's son was shot.
Rohrbough also sued the school district over its refusal to allow him to include religious references in two four-inch tiles that are part of a Columbine memorial.
In his CBS commentary, Rohrbough said: "This country is in a moral free fall. For over two generations, the public school system has taught in a moral vacuum, expelling God from the school and from the government, replacing him with evolution, where the strong kill the weak, without moral consequences and life has no inherent value. We teach there are no absolutes, no right or wrong. And I assure you the murder of innocent children is always wrong, including by abortion. Abortion has diminished the value of children."
Rome Hartman, the newscast's executive director, said he was "surprised" by Rohrbough's remarks and "of course I knew that his remarks would be controversial, perhaps even offensive to some. I also knew that some people in our audience would agree with him. I also thought to myself, 'This is "Free Speech." We don't tell people what to say or what to think.' . . . I decided to run the segment."
Some online critics denounced CBS. A blogger at Dymaxion World wrote: "Grief makes people do, and say, stupid . . . things. But CBS is not grieving for anyone. What made them put this man on national television?"
Many detractors wrote to CBS's Web site. One called Rohrbough's remarks "the biggest load of hogwash I have ever witnessed. How could you use an unspeakable tragedy to give a rightwing flat earth nut job a podium?"
But a mother of three wrote to praise CBS's "courage," saying: "I'm sure that you will receive many e-mails denouncing your segment, but I appreciate hearing a 'conservative' view in what can be a very liberal media."