Burton on the Bay:

So Sue Me

Two cheers for Democracy:

one because it admits variety,

and two, because it permits criticism.

-Edward Morgan Forester, 1879-1970

And now in this democracy, while fostering variety, are we questioning the right to criticize? In his Two Cheers for Democracy, in 1951, Forester added: Two cheers are quite enough: there is no occasion to give three.

Perhaps E.M. figured something would come along like the current goings-on in Texas, where it's the longhorn cattlemen against Oprah Winfrey. I'm no great fan of Oprah, though years ago we both aired on different segments of the same Baltimore television station.

I'm not into talk shows, but they're entitled to the traditional protection granted the press in our democratic society.

Their ideas might be crazy at times and their programs bordering on the obscene, but they represent the media. Their failing is taste, the boundaries of which they so often cross, all in the ongoing quest for ratings.

Oprah, they tell me, has dressed up her act considerably and now promotes more literature and reading, less mother-and-daughter competition for the same man.


Mad Cows and Other Critters

But Oprah got in the soup in April of '96 when one of her guests, Howard Lyman, predicted the possibility of a U.S. outbreak of mad-cow disease. On Oprah's show, Lyman said U.S. beef producers were engaging in the same feeding practices suspected of spreading the disease in Britain, where it has killed 23 thus far.

So now Texas cattlemen are suing Oprah, her production company and Lyman for $10 million, contending Lyman's claim caused cattle prices to drop.

As I write, the continuing trial in Amarillo has become somewhat of a media circus. Oprah remains a favorite, it seems, of all - including Texans who don't raise beef. Getting into the act are others like animal rights protester Martin Goldstein, who suspended himself on a meat hook in front of an animal-rights poster before firemen pulled him down - and police charged him with trespassing and reckless endangerment.

Sadly, the whole issue is getting out of hand - and not just in Texas. In the Northwest following an apple scare several years ago, a law was passed banning bad press on agricultural products. On the East Coast, watermen sometimes have the jitters when seafood gets a bad rap. Thus far there has been no legislation on the subject.

What are we getting into? Is there a creeping campaign to thwart criticism? Are we building a barrier against complaint or against honest evaluations and assessments? If so, we'd all better start worrying.


We'd All Better Be Worrying

I'd be concerned if I were Doc Shereikis, whose column you find weekly in this publication. The movie professor rates motion pictures, the good, the bad and the ugly.

He gave Alien Resurrection an F. The flick probably deserved it. But what happens if eventually movie producers get their own legislation kayoing bad press? When a guy like Doc says a show stinks, it certainly lessens gate receipts.

He could be standing alongside Oprah for doing nothing more than trying to give consumers a good steer instead of a bum one. I rarely go to the movies, but wish I had checked Doc's reviews and ratings before spending a fortune to see Titanic.

I may risk joining Oprah in court, I've got to say the most expensive movie ever not only disappointed me but also misrepresented history. So sue me.

But the first thing I did when wife Lois and I got home, was check Doc's rating. He was generous and gave it a C+.

I'd have asked for my money back but, hey, my wife would have driven home without me. Like my grandmother Burton, she figures if you can't say something good about something, you keep your mouth shut. Sounds nice, but in practice it ain't.


Where Would We Be Today?

Let's get back to Oprah and the Texas cattlemen. Forget about the implications of mad-cow disease. Are we to understand that we can't question the health aspects of beef?

Would I - or you - end up in court if we suggested that fast food outlets and their hamburgers put us on the path to clogged arteries? We know it's true - I've had my bypass - but maybe a warning could keep others from going under the knife.

We won't even get into the French fries; there are the potato farmers who could put their lawyers to work. Or all the sugar in the oversized soft drinks that accompany the fries and burgers, which brings up the possibility of suits from the sugar lobby.

What about George Bush, who while president, made some awful disparaging remarks about broccoli? Will some farmers' association or other sue for lost business?

Where would we be today if 30 years ago, someone hadn't warned us that tobacco kills. We all suspected that it did - cigarettes were referred to as nails in a coffin - but it took some speaking out, and eventually some downright nasty talk, about the tobacco industry to prompt many smokers to quit. Those who haven't have at least been warned.

Now, Proctor & Gamble's fat-substitute olestra is headed for many foods, among them salty snacks and chips, to the anticipated tune of $400 million in annual sales. Is it safe for us to question associated long-term health consequences?

The warning label cautions olestra can cause abdominal cramping and diarrhea. But what happens when the fake fat blocks the body's absorption of some cancer-fighting vitamins and nutrients. Dare we ask?

If we find a worm in an apple, will a complaint put us in a Washington or Oregon courtroom?

Must I drive by the monstrous Baltimore Ravens Stadium that practically juts out over Route 95 without daring to complain that I was forced to help pay the bill, when my money could have been better spent to keep city libraries open or to beef up Bay restoration projects? Would Art Modell sue me if I gripe that the drab steel and cement structure is an eyesore?

Am I risking a suit pursued by golfer Casey Martin if I dare suggest the course is no longer level if any player can ride a golf cart?

Hey, maybe the golf cart industry would join him in suing me.

Would the cellular phone industry summons me if I continue to complain that drivers who chat while driving endanger other motorists? Or what happens if I complain about all the cellular phone towers breaking the skyline of Rock Creek Park?

What would Bass Shores do if I insist they have lost much of their flavor and tradition by their intended move to the Caribbean?

Dare I suggest, for fear of the government pulling my Medicare card, that seeing we have gotten along well for three years without a surgeon general we probably don't need the services of Dr. David Satcher now? Hey, he could get in on the suit.

Must I stop grousing about the cosmetic industry's painful experimentation with rabbits, cats and other creatures?

Hey, what can I criticize anyhow?

But don't you start on me. A nice settlement could help balance the family budget.

And, Oprah, good luck.

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VolumeVI Number 7
February 19-25, 1998
New Bay Times

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