On Monday’s "Good Morning America," co-anchor Chris Cuomo conducted a mostly softball interview with Columbia University President Lee Bollinger about his decision to host Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the prestigious school. Rather than grill the University president about the unpopular decision, Cuomo offered friendly questions, such as when he wondered, "What value do you think Ahmadinejad's comments will add to the debate in this country?"
The ABC host also appeared to have left an actually compelling question on the cutting room floor. At the end of what was apparently a pre-taped piece, Cuomo observed to co-host Diane Sawyer that Bollinger would consider inviting Osama bin Laden. He claimed, "Even when we brought up Osama bin Laden for an invitation, it wasn't dismissed. No one was dismissed." And yet, that query isn’t actually in the segment at all. Wouldn’t such a shocking answer be big news? At the very least, one would assume, that quote would be included in the interview. It should also be noted that Sawyer responded defensively to Cuomo even referencing the missing bin Laden question. She quickly added, "Yes, but [Bollinger] says the invitation has not gone to Osama bin Laden."
The ABC host also focused on how the critics were responding to the decision to invite Ahmadinejad to speak. Cuomo asked an extremely flowery question about dealing with the controversy: "You know, this country stands on the First Amendment, like a pedestal to greatness. It's what makes us great. How do you judge all of this reaction, this backlash?"
The interview did feature a few tough questions. Cuomo challenged Bollinger as to whether he thought Iran’s president wants to kill Americans. He then followed up by wondering if that mattered to the university president and if that would effect the invitation. However, the GMA anchor did not press Bollinger over his constant sermonizing to free speech. At one point, Columbia’s president condescendingly asserted, "It's very difficult for people to embrace a full and robust principle of free speech. I understand that." This might have been a good time to mention the physical and verbal attacks that Minuteman founder Jim Gilchrist endured during a 2006 speech at Columbia. A 2007 appearance has since been scrapped. (Other speaking invitations by conservatives have received similar disdain at the campus.) Cuomo, of course, never brought up the issue.
A transcript of the segment, which aired at 7:04am on September 24, follows:
Chris Cuomo: "The big question is what is the thinking that went into this decision? Well, the man to answer that question is Colombia University's president, Lee Bollinger. Thank you for joining us this morning, Mr. Bollinger. Well, so far, the reaction has been mostly negative. You must have seen this coming. So, let me ask you, why court controversy in extending an invitation to the Iranian president?"
Lee Bollinger (President, Columbia University): "Well, I think, first of all, if you ask students, you'll find a very positive response. Students really want to hear about people in the world and they want to know what's going on in the world. The reasons for doing this really go to freedom of speech and academic freedom. They’re fundamental. And what is at stake here, really, is the opportunity to be able to learn about the world and know about people, even dictators, even people who are highly repressive and highly dangerous, as Dr. Ahmadinejad. And I want this president of this university to defend that as a key part of academic freedom and of freedom of speech."
Cuomo: "When you say this is about free speech, nobody is really debating the right to speak in America. This is more about the choice, the selection of whom you're allowing to speak. What value to you think Ahmadinejad's comments will add to the debate in this country?"
Bollinger: "I think the values of making sure that academic institutions can do that, are many. One is, it's extremely important to know who the leaders are of countries who that are your adversaries, to watch them, to see how they think, to see how they reason or do not reason. To see whether they're fanatical or to see whether they’re sly. These are, these are the issues that are right at the core of the world today. It's possible, given what many people say, that this country may be going to war at some point with Iran."
Cuomo: "Well, what do you make of all of the controversy? You know, this country stands on the First Amendment, like a pedestal to greatness. It's what makes us great. How do you judge all of this reaction, this backlash?"
Bollinger: "It's very difficult for people to embrace a full and robust principle of free speech. I understand that. I think we have to recognize that free speech does not endorse someone. Free speech does not honor the dishonorable. But it's something that has hard won principle in this country and it distinguishes us from every other country in human history. The degree to which we are an open society and willing to listen, even to our most difficult adversaries and even enemies."
Cuomo: "Part of balancing his ability to speak with judging what he says will involve your challenging him. What documentation do you plan to use to challenge the Iranian president about the weapons flowing from his country into Iraq?"
Bollinger: "I think that's one of many that we have to raise in his presence. This is a man who has brazenly challenged the Holocaust as a myth. This is someone who has called for the destruction of Israel. This is someone who is as repressive against human rights activists and homosexuals and members of certain religious faiths as any dictator in the world today. This is a person who is dangerous. And, again, for all of these reasons, and because this person has such a significant role in world affairs today, it's vital that we as a society know as much as we possibly can about this person and that we send a signal to people in Iran, people of common sense and good will that we live by our principles and our principles include listening to those whom we may despise and are concerned about."
Cuomo: "Do you believe that the Iranian president wants to kill Americans?"
Bollinger: "From what I have observed through the statements in the press and the reporting through seeing him some on television, my sense is he, he does."
Cuomo: "Does that matter?"
Bollinger: "Well, I do think it matters, obviously. I mean, this is not something that we should ever take lightly. This is very, very serious."
Cuomo: "But he still gets the invitation?"
Bollinger: "But that's, but that’s the point. There are many people who are bad in the world today. Just as always is true. Our principles in this country lead us in the course, which I think is very noble and has served us very well, that when it comes to speech, we will listen even to those who have views that are most reprehensible."
Cuomo: "Well, Mr. Bollinger, I appreciate you coming on to discuss it. Certainly, the First Amendment and its extensions are a principle people will be talking about today. Thank you for joining us on GMA."
Bollinger: "Thank you, thank you very much."
Cuomo: "You know, the real issue here isn't the legalities or the First Amendment. It’s the choices that are made. Even when we brought up Osama bin Laden for an invitation, it wasn't dismissed. No one was dismissed. Everyone is case by case."
Diane Sawyer: "Yes, but he says the invitation has not gone to Osama bin Laden."
Cuomo: "No invitation yet."