Martin Bashir: Sarah Palin's Bus Tour a 'Breach of Federal Law'

MSNBC's Martin Bashir on May 31 insisted that Sarah Palin's bus tour amounts to a "breach of a federal law."

Anchoring his eponymous program, Bashir scolded, "In fact, the whole thing could be in breach of a federal law because the United States Flag Code establishes important rules for the use and display of the stars and stripes, the flag of the United States."

In his accusatory "Clear the Air" segment, the former ABC Nightline anchor lectured Palin that "standards of respect and etiquette" discourage using the American flag for "any advertising purpose whatsoever."

"She drapes herself in the stars and stripes and makes millions of dollars in the process," chided Bashir. "This has got nothing to do with the presidency and everything to do with filling her pockets."

The only problem: the Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that flag burning is protected by the First Amendment. If flag burning is protected speech, certainly displaying the flag on a tour bus is legal. Or do the rules not apply to Sarah Palin? In Bashir's warped sense of reality, conservatives like Palin would be arrested for flying the American flag at rallies in which they promote causes that Bashir does not support.

Where was Bashir's patriotic tongue-lashing for any Democratic politician who has ever flown the American flag at campaign rallies and in political advertisements?

[UPDATE, June 1 2:55pm ET: Click here for a still-shot of MSNBC using the American flag as part of its on-screen graphics in 2001.]

Even if Bashir wasn't aware of the landmark Supreme Court decision that settled flag-desecration issues, he is still misunderstanding the section of U.S. code from which he cited as evidence of Palin's crimes.

The Congressional Research Service, a non-partisan organization that provides legal analysis to members of Congress, clarified that observance of the Flag Code is "purely voluntary" in a 2008 congressional report: "While wearing the colors may be in poor taste and offensive to many, it is important to remember that the Flag Code is intended as a guide to be followed on a purely voluntary basis to insure proper respect for the flag."

By doubting another citizen's patriotism and labeling her a criminal, the man who lambasted Palin for exploiting the American flag for political purposes committed the same sin he ostensibly loathes.

A transcript of the segment can be found below:

MSNBC
Martin Bashir
May 31, 2011

3:57 p.m. EDT

MARTIN BASHIR: It's time now to Clear the Air and to ask a question: what is the purpose behind Sarah Palin's current bus tour? It's difficult to ask that question directly because Sarah Palin specializes in checkbook journalism. That is, she only gives interviews to a network that pays her in excess of $1 million a year. So we're forced to make judgements from the outside and it all looks like the precursor to a presidential campaign. The vehicle itself reminds us of all those campaign buses that crisscross the nation at election time. The media are ever-present, catching her every handshake and every book signing. And the journey itself – visiting locations of national importance along the East Coast and proclaiming once again as the most patriotic American that ever lived.

And yet, even in her paid-for interview, she seems coy and almost confused about what she's doing. "This is not a campaign bus," she said on Fox News. "This is a bus to express to American how much we appreciate our foundation and to invite more people to be interested about all that is good about America." It all sounds like a wonderful commitment to American values and American history, but it's nothing of the kind. In fact, the whole thing could be in breach of a federal law because the United States Flag Code establishes important rules for the use and display of the stars and stripes, the flag of the United States. Under standards of respect and etiquette, it's made clear that the flag of the United States should never be used for any advertising purpose whatsoever. Yet that's precisely what Sarah Palin is doing. She's using the flag of the United States for her own financial purposes. She drapes herself in the stars and stripes and makes millions of dollars in the process. This has got nothing to do with the presidency and everything to do with filling her pockets. And by raising her profile, she raises her income. It is as simple as that. So she was right when she said that hers is not a campaign bus. It's a cash bus and she'll keep it rolling for as long as she can. Thanks so much for watching.

--Alex Fitzsimmons is a News Analysis intern at the Media Research Center. Click here to follow him on Twitter.