Outside View: Buzz Comes Out Fightin'

By MARK Q. RHOADS, A UPI Outside View commentary   |   Sept. 28, 2002 at 4:55 AM
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WASHINGTON, Sept. 28 (UPI) -- The Los Angeles County District Attorney's office announced on Sept. 20 that it would not file a misdemeanor battery charge against Apollo 11 astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin for striking Bart Sibrel on Sept. 9 in Beverly Hills.

That is the least the D.A. should have done. Now Congress should authorize a new special medal to honor Aldrin for meritorious service to his country by punching out a Class A jerk.

Sibrel is a wannabe documentary filmmaker from Nashville, Tennessee. He claims to be one of those eccentric and intellectually obtuse individuals who believe that Aldrin and Neil Armstrong did not really walk on the Moon on July 20, 1969. He claims the Apollo 11 crew, including command module pilot Michael Collins, instead collaborated with NASA in history's most massive hoax designed to fool the Soviets and the rest of the world into thinking the U.S. space program was more advanced than it was.

America is a free country that guarantees people the right to express all sorts of fantastic, wierd or unpopular opinions. But Sibrel, who also claims to be a journalist, went way beyond just expressing his crazy ideas.

According to a combination of witness statements and snippets of videotape, Sibrel ambushed the unsuspecting Aldrin and Aldrin's daughter as they were coming out of the Luxe Hotel on Rodeo Drive. Sibrel then shoved a Bible at him demanding that Aldrin swear he had actually been to the Moon. This was all staged for the benefit of Sibrel's hired TV crew, apparently to be included in Sibrel's next hoax conspiracy reel for infotainment television.

Other witnesses said Sibrel used confrontational tactics such as calling Aldrin a fraud and a liar while shoving the Bible forward. Even the tape from Sibrel's own crew shows the taller Sibrel, age 37, menacing the shorter Alrin, age 72, as this supposed "journalist" shouts directly in Aldrin's face.

Witnesses and the tape agree that Aldrin punched Sibrel in the face. Aldrin said he acted in self-defense and most sane people would agree. Sibrel had the gall and public relations sense to call police to report the incident, but Aldrin was not there when police arrived.

Sibrel's TV crew told police he had videotape of the incident that has been broadcast on some networks. Witnesses also told the D.A. that some bystanders tried to protect Aldrin from Sibrel.

Buzz Aldrin is an authentic American hero who has dealt with many difficult issues in his life with grace, dignity and great courage. Sibrel is a punk who forced a violent confrontation for his TV crew and got it.

Now the TV executives at infotainment outlets that have broadcast Sibrel's nonsense in the past should censure -- not censor -- this reckless idiot by making sure he does not profit from his unethical and violent tactics. Gentlemen, maybe its dramatic footage, but keep it off the air and keep your checkbooks closed on this one.

For those who think Buzz Aldrin set a bad example for young people by punching his verbal attacker, a two-part short lesson in law and common sense may be instructive.

First, Aldrin has no history of prior criminal arrest. According to L.A. Deputy District Attorney Elizabeth Ratinoff, "Based on the totality of the circumstances, it is unlikely a jury would find Aldrin guilty of a misdemeanor battery charge." The District Attorney certainly made the right call.

Second, if Aldrin needed a defense of his punch, there is one readily available that applies perfectly to this case. In fact, the totality of circumstances in this confrontation makes a strong case that Sibrel, not Aldrin, should have been charged.

In 1942, the Supreme Court decided in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, that intimidating speech directed at a specific individual in a face-to-face confrontation can be tantamount to "fighting words." The person who engages in such speech can be punished if "by their very utterance [the words] inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace."

Since 1942, the Court narrowed its ruling in three ways.

First, it has limited the fighting words definition so that it now only includes its second example of words intended to incite an immediate breach of the peace.

Second, the Court has stated that in order for words to meet the test the words must "naturally tend to provoke violent resentment."

Third, the Court has held that fighting words must be "directed at the person of the hearer."

Reasonable people should understand that it was Sibrel, not Aldrin, who breached the peace on Sept. 9. He cornered Aldrin and his daughter, stood in their way as they tried to leave, and shouted words directly in Aldrin's face that would naturally tend to provoke violent resentment in a 72-year old pioneer who is understandably proud of his unique place in history.

Sibrel appears to be one of those people who lives in his own dream world. He was even tacky enough to exactly imitate a journalist character in the 1988 Bruce Willis film Die Hard. Just like actor William Atherton in the movie who also gets punched, Sibrel immediately turned to his crew to ask twice, "Did you get that?"

Sibrel's antics unfortunately help tar real television journalists with the worst possible reputation, particularly those who sometimes ambush interview subjects. It is for that reason also that Sibrel deserves to be blackballed by reputable television programs regardless of whether or not the programs are produced by the news division.

The failure of TV executives to condemn Sibrel and his tactics will only invite further public ridicule of "infotainment" that is already too often blurred with legitimate broadcast journalism. The executives cannot prevent an independent producer from hiring a local crew to shoot tape for a speculative program. But they can and should discourage renegade journalists by refusing to pay for dramatic tape that has no intrinsic news value other than confrontation.

Mark Q. Rhoads is a former Illinois State Senator and a former editorial writer for the Chicago Sun-Times. · "Outside View" commentaries are written for UPI by outside writers who specialize in a variety of important global issues.

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