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Reflections on Lou Dobbs' Turbulent Departure

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Lou Dobbs quickly and unexpectedly announced his resignation from CNN this week, terminating his reported multi-year contract with the cable network. I have been calling publicly for months for CNN to stop putting Dobbs on the air, so I think it worthwhile to reflect for a moment on why his resignation was the right decision.

Although some have decried CNN's censorship of a self-labeled opinionated voice, I reject that notion. First and foremost, I am a champion of the First Amendment. The Media Institute, a non-profit organization that includes CNN and many other major news outlets as supporters, recently honored me with their annual First Amendment award for my work in championing free speech.

I believe free speech includes the right to be heard, but not everyone has a right to his or her own television show. Lou Dobbs exploited his position as a news anchor with his own nightly show and used it as a platform to advance his xenophobic and anti-business agenda. Now that he has lost that platform, he can pitch an op-ed as readily as anyone else can - and indeed his opinions belong somewhere other than on a serious news network.

What I found most troubling about CNN's nightly airing of Dobbs' opinions and rants was the fact that CNN was carried on screens in our nation's airports. Why, I wondered, did airport managers force Americans, our overseas guests, and airline workers to watch the worst face of America?

Lou Dobbs was on at prime time for one hour every weekday on CNN, and CNN is on in 48 major airports in more than 2,000 passenger-waiting areas across America. CNN claims that more than 223 million people are exposed to its programming in American airports each year.

What did they see and hear? Dobbs railing against minorities and immigrants so much that outraged Hispanic groups formally challenged CNN. Dobbs seeking to block trade with other countries and insulting our best trading partners. Dobbs exaggerating the proportion of illegal immigrants in jails and giving air time to a white supremacist. Most significantly, what we got each day was not news, but Dobbs' opinions.

Dobbs was an opinionated bully and he used his one-hour daily forum to espouse his own brand of nastiness to those who do not look like him or have his American lineage.

Again, I believe passionately in the First Amendment. Dobbs has the right to his views, as repugnant as I find them, and CNN certainly had the right to air Dobbs. But what I objected to most was the quasi-government agencies - airports - making money by agreeing to expose those views to Americans and our international guests.

The American Association of Airport Executives ethical code is replete with bars on partisan activity and taking public policy prerogatives from the government entities that own the airports. I'm glad that Dobbs' departure from CNN means that those ethics no longer need to be translated to action. But there is still a lesson for the future in the fact that Dobbs was allowed in our airports at all. CNN took the most trusted brand in objective news coverage and polluted it with the opinions of Lou Dobbs. No more could CNN claim to be the objective source of news it was when airports first started showing CNN in 1992.

Now that CNN has finally acted to get anti-immigrant, racist and protectionist xenophobe Lou Dobbs out of our airports and off its airwaves, this once well-regarded news outlet has an opportunity to reclaim its mantle.

Gary Shapiro is the president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association.

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