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Larry Flynt: The Country’s Greatest Defender of Free Speech or a Woman-Hating Pornographer?

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Democracy Now! talks with the famed publisher of Hustler about President Bush, his lawsuit against Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the Clinton impeachment hearings, Gloria Steinem and free speech. [includes rush transcript]

In this election year books and movies that take on the Bush administration are taking in a significant amount of money and registering on the best-seller lists. Now, the controversial publisher of Hustler magazine, Larry Flynt, is throwing his hat into the ring. His new book is called “Sex, Lies and Politics: The Naked Truth.” It has been said that you don’t test free speech through the words of those you agree with, it is best tested through the words of those you don’t. For many people, Larry Flynt has defined that test. He is known for publishing an image of a woman being put through a meat grinder, for putting feminist icon Gloria Steinem on a wanted poster and depicting women in a manner that many people say is outright demeaning and encourages violence against women. At the same time, Flynt is known as a fierce defender of free speech and the first ammendment. His personal victory at the Supreme Court, defending the first ammendment is world-renowned, mostly due to the critically-acclaimed Hollywood film “The People vs. Larry Flynt.” We caught up with Flynt recently and I began by asking him to start with how he took on the US Congress during the Clinton years.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we caught up with Larry Flynt recently. He had gone into Radio Studio in San Francisco and we talked to him about his life. Larry Flynt has certainly paid a price for his outspokenness. He was shot, severely wounded by a white supremacist, and now gets around in a wheelchair. We talked to him about how he took on the U.S. Congress during the Clinton years.

LARRY FLYNT: While this is actually where the book starts, and it covers a six-year period of history that, although very bizarre, I think probably are six of the most important years in the history of the nation, but how I got involved in the impeachment debacle was every night when I would go home, it was I’d turn on the TV, it was Bash Clinton Night. But at the same time the polls showed that 70% of the people felt that he should remain in office. I thought this is inherently unfair. It’s undemocratic, and somebody’s got — somebody’s got to do something about this. So, I took an ad out for $85,000 in the Washington Post offering a million dollar reward for any person that could substantiate that they had had an illicit sexual affair with the congressman or senator. Well, we got quite a bit of results from that ad, but the first one to fall was Bob Livingston who was Speaker-Elect of the House, who was scheduled to take Newt Gingrich’s place. When he was forced to resign a couple of days later, he did an interview with The New York Times and he referred to me as a bottom feeder, and the_Times_ called me for a comment. And I said, yeah, that’s right, but look what I found who when I got down there.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what the response was? I mean, how did you get information on Congress Member Livingston?

LARRY FLYNT: Well, you know, he first came out and said I may have strayed from my family, but never with anybody that worked for me or a lobbyist. Well, my three primary sources was a lobbyist on Capitol Hill, an intern that worked for him and a judge in his home district. So, you know, he was very careless, you know, in terms of what he was doing. That’s the way most of them are that actually wind up getting caught. And of course, then in that web we also have Henry Hyde and Dan Burton and Bob Barr and some others. But everybody accused me of going after the republicans, but that seemed to be the people that we wound up getting. I don’t know why, but, you know, the conventional wisdom in Washington is if there’s a scandal, money is involved, it’s a Republican. If it’s sex it’s a Democrat, but in actuality is, it’s the complete opposite. With republicans, it’s sex. With democrats, it’s money.

AMY GOODMAN: What about Congress member Bob Barr, who was one of the House managers of the impeachment of President Clinton?

LARRY FLYNT: Well, the reason why we went after Barr is he had been on my list for a long time. He used to go up on the floor of Congress and say that abortion is equivalent to murder, and at the same time he was taking his wife for an abortion and paid for it with his own personal check, all of which we have evidence of. So, that is the kind of hypocrisy that really tears at our democracy, and I’m not interested in exposing anyone’s sex life just for the sake of doing it. But only if they take a public position contrary to the way they’re living their private life, then I think they’re fair game.

AMY GOODMAN: So what actually happened with Congress member Barr?

LARRY FLYNT: Well, obviously, that’s not — the fact that his wife had an abortion is not enough to get him in trouble with his congressional office, but we managed to get him defeated in Georgia because we turned over all of our investigative files to his opposition down there.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you actually pay people $1 million, like the ad said, for giving you information?

LARRY FLYNT: You bet we do, and for 30 years, I have had a reputation of if sources are reliable, I’ll pay for the information. The mainstream media frowns on this, but, you know, they can maintain, you know, their pompous attitude and their — what I consider below average reporting on important issues, but we go straight to the heart of it.

AMY GOODMAN: And in one sense, didn’t you pave the way, because mainstream media has paid for information in the past. I mean, you have the whole Jessica Lynch story now finally because it got tremendous exposure. Viacom had to own up to this, but what they were offering the young private who was at the heart of one of the Iraq invasion myths about what happened to her in Iraq, not that she was taken captive, but how she was freed. Viacom offered all sorts of gifts in the — in terms of concerts from MTV, the whole Viacom empire, if she would do her interviews with CBS. Can you talk about your involvement with the Jessica Lynch story?

LARRY FLYNT: Well, I was approached with — from — from two soldiers from Camp Pendleton who had nude photographs of Jessica that were taken into Iraq and they wanted to sell them to me for publication in Hustler. So I bought them outright, but I wanted to do some investigation first. I couldn’t believe the information that we was able to turn up that was completely — completely opposite of the public image we had of her. First of all, you know, she was a victim. You know, it’s not like Bob Livingston, he was no victim, but Jessica Lynch was actually a victim. She admitted that all of her injuries were sustained from when her humvee turned over. She never fired a shot from her gun because it jammed. She was taken to an Iraqi hospital where the doctors did everything they could to save her life. They even tried to return her to her unit, and the army wouldn’t take her because they needed more time to organize this dramatic Hollywood rescue, you know, with camera rolling — cameras rolling and the whole bit. They seen it as having their Joan of Arc, female Rambo, so to speak, and the Defense Department didn’t want to let go of that because they — they needed her to help sell their war in Iraq. So, I chose not to publish the photographs after I understood the whole story, you know, of what happened.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Larry Flynt, controversial founder of Hustler magazine, has written the book, Sex, Lies and Politics: The Naked Truth. Not everything you do has to do with sex, like suing, what, Donald Rumsfeld and going back from there, taking on the tobacco industry, taking on President Reagan. Can you talk about some of these crusades you have undertaken, and why you have?

LARRY FLYNT: Oh, yeah. Well, we — we were anti-tobacco and crusading against the tobacco industry before it was even chic. And when Ronald Reagan invaded the tiny island of Grenada, you know the press didn’t have a clue, and I sued the Defense Department for us not having press access to Grenada, but, of course, the conflict was over there before the judge even had an opportunity to rule on it, so the suit became moot. But when we invaded Afghanistan, I did the same thing, because when you look at all of those reports on the evening news and you see those faces popping up over the map of Iraq, you got the impression that it was being covered well by the American press, but many of those correspondents were hundreds of miles away from areas that they were reporting on. So, there was no press that was accompanying the soldiers on the battlefield. So, we sued, but we made it much more comprehensive. We’re saying that we have a First Amendment right to cover the war. If Americans are sending their sons and daughters to die in a war, they are have a right to know how that war is being conducted. I mean, Franklin Roosevelt had taken the attitude that George Bush had taken, you know, we wouldn’t even have a History Channel today. You know, for posterity sake, I think the conduct of a war, you know, needs to be recorded, but not only that, we do have that First Amendment right. Now, we lost in the initial trial court, in Washington. We have lost in the circuit court, and we have just petitioned the Supreme Court for cert. We think we have got a good shot of getting the Court to hear the case, because first of all, no case like this has ever been before the Supreme Court prior to this. We also ask that it not be limited to a particular theater of war. Like, we listed it as the press having right to cover the war on terror. So, if it breaks out in the Philippines or Afghanistan or Iraq or wherever it is, you know, the press can still be there, with certain restrictions. They can’t do anything that’s going to jeopardize the troops or national security or things of that nature, which was the same rules that they played by in World War II.

AMY GOODMAN: Larry Flynt, the controversial publisher of Hustler magazine. He’s written a new book. It’s called, Sex, Lies and Politics: The Naked Truth. We’ll come back with him in just a minute.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, the War and Peace Report, democracynow.org. We’re broadcasting on over 240 radio and TV stations around the country, Pacifica stations, NPR stations, public access TV stations, PBS, and both TV satellite networks, on Dish Network channel 9415, Free Speech TV, and on Direct TV, channel 375, Link TV. We’re talking to Larry Flynt, the controversial publisher of Hustler magazine. He has written a new book. It’s called Sex, Lies and Politics: The Naked Truth. We caught up to him in a studio in San Francisco while I was here in New York, and I asked him to talk about taking on the Republicans in the 1990s during the Clinton years. He had written a letter to Judge Kenneth Starr on September 22, 1998. I asked him to read the letter.

LARRY FLYNT: Well, I didn’t write the letter to Ken Starr until after he had released the Starr Report to all the libraries and schools in America and made pornography more widespread than I have been able to do in 25 years. The letter starts, “Let me take this opportunity to thank you on behalf of all of the employees of Hustler magazine and L.F.P. Inc., for your tireless work in producing the Starr Report. I have been impressed by the salacious and voyeuristic materials in your work. The quality and quantity of material that you have assembled in your report contains more photographic references than those provided by Hustler online service this month. I have included a chart in this letter that confirms that fact. Given your exemplary work, I would like to enter into negotiations with you regarding full-time employment for Hustler magazine and related services offered by L.F.P. Inc. When you conclude your work at the office of the independent counsel, you have broken historic grounds in disseminating pornography materials to a broader, more diverse community of Americans in the context you have helped to shape and alter long-held community standards regarding the acceptance of pornographic material. I congratulate you for having opened the doors for libraries and schools to pornographic literature. Those of us at Hustler need your assistance in extending the parameters of pornography to a wider community of adults. You have opened a new era in promoting explicit sexual materials. Your keen aptitude and relentless focus on disseminating pornographic materials is an inspiration to every employee at Hustler. Please let me know when you or any of your representatives can sit down with me and discuss if you are interested in making a valuable contribution to promoting the First Amendment through Hustler magazine. As far as compensation and relocation issues are concerned, please do not be concerned. You are a valuable asset who needs to be well compensated.”

AMY GOODMAN: You signed it, “Respectfully yours, Larry Flynt.” The response?

LARRY FLYNT: Well, obviously, I didn’t get a response. But I thought it’s ironic, you know, this guy’s supposed to be a puritan, you know, and he is anti-pornographic in all aspects and he — that report didn’t have to leave Congress. I mean, the trial had concluded in the Senate. The President had been impeached in the House. What deliberate reason he chose to mass circulate the Starr Report, I have no idea. I have no idea what was motivating him.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, it’s interesting to look at the Los Angeles Weekly report with the headline, “Starr Report More Pornographic Than Hustler Online Magazine,” yet it’s rated G and has been released by the U.S. Congress. Then the press release that you put out, based on the _Weekly_’s article saying according to a chart in the September 18-24th issue of L.A. Weekly, the number of graphic references to genitalia in Hustler online magazine is 44, the number of graphic references to genitalia in the Starr Report is 69. The number of graphic references to genitalia coming into contact with tobacco products in Hustler online magazine is zero. In the Starr Report, nine. Access restrictions to Hustler is adults only, membership fee. To the Starr Report, no age verification or implied restrictions, free download links. Hustler has linked to Starr Report. Starr Report does not have a link to Hustler online. L.F.P. Inc., releases Hustler online. The Congress of the United States of America released the Starr Report. Hustler online magazine is rated XXX for adult content. Starr Report is rated G for adult content. I’m reading from the press release of Hustler magazine after the Starr Report came out. This is contained in Sex, Lies and Politics: The Naked Truth by Larry Flynt, who is on the line with us now from San Francisco. You also, when talking about hypocrisy, took on Jerry Falwell and George Bush, George Bush, many years ago, more than 30 years ago. Can you talk about why?

LARRY FLYNT: Well, we ran an ad parody in Hustler, a Campari ad, where the individual talks about his first time, and it’s supposed to be his first time drinking Campari, but we kind of took some creative liberties and said this was about Jerry Falwell’s first time was with his mother in an outhouse in Virginia. Well, he came totally unglued, sued. Lost at the trial court, lost at the circuit court. He petitioned the Supreme Court for cert. Not one member of the mainstream media would even file a friend of the court brief with us, because no one felt that the Supreme Court would hear the case and not only that, none of them wanted to be associated with me. The Supreme Court selected my case against Falwell, and they ruled a unanimous decision in my favor stating that parody is protected speech. Justice Rehnquist in writing the majority opinion, he said, “Simply because government finds speech offensive gives them no right to suppress it.” Basically what they’re saying, if libel exists, fine, you can collect on libel, but if the average person cannot take what is being said or written as being seriously, and it falls under the category of parody, and libel does not apply. So, that’s been an important decision for political cartoons, for editorial writers, and you know, that decision came down in 1988, and if you go back in memory and — if you would like to remember the Carson Show. It was a great show, Johnny was very funny, but it was very tame. But after my court decision, now you look at Leno and Letterman and “Saturday Night Live,” and those skits and monologues are really on the cutting edge, things they never would have done in the 1980’s, but now they’re able to do it because of the court case I won.

AMY GOODMAN: Larry Flynt, you write in your book, Sex, Lies and Politics, about the different kind of gag rule. And this — well, this started a few months after you put the million dollar ad in The Washington Post and held news conferences talking about sexual hypocrisy in Washington. It was a response that you got, a tip from a Houston lawyer. Can you go into it?

LARRY FLYNT: Yes. We got a tip that in 1971 George Bush, who was not married at that time, was — had gotten a girl pregnant and had sought an abortion for her, and —- we took this investigation very seriously. First of all, not because of the abortion, because I’m pro-choice, you know. He was a young man, was not married at the time, and, you know, who knows, was probably even pro-choice. I know he hasn’t always been pro-life. When he was running for Congress in Georgia, he when asked about abortion, he said, that should be left between the woman and her doctor. But Roe vs. Wade was not the law of the land at the time. That didn’t happen until two years later. So -—

AMY GOODMAN: He ran for Congress in Texas.

LARRY FLYNT: Yeah. So, the reason why that investigation became so significant is because he had just — had just radiated hypocrisy into the presidential election. Because the religious right had jumped on his bandwagon, you know, and he was on this holier than thou morality kick, and I felt that the investigation was worth following through. We spent several months on it. We located the woman, in fact, who had the abortion. We even located the doctor who performed it, the hospital where it was performed. We talked to several of — as a matter of fact about four of the girls — the girl who had the abortion, her girlfriends who were aware of the pregnancy and the subsequent abortion. So, we had the story relatively nailed down, but what happened, just a few weeks before the election, the girl dropped out of sight. Well, my attorneys told me, you can’t do anything with this story because if she surfaces and says it didn’t happen, you know, you have got egg all over your face and you got a possible libel action. So, our hands was tied, but it was interesting to see that a short time later, she turned up living in a half million dollar home in Corpus Christi, Texas, and we felt that was a long way from the $13,000 a year that she was making as a cocktail waitress. So, I’m not saying that George Bush paid her off, but I’m saying if he didn’t, some of his cronies did.

AMY GOODMAN: You tried to get a mainstream reporter to ask the question. Can you talk about your interactions with Robert Novak and what happened? What was the question you were asking for?

LARRY FLYNT: Well, no, I — I managed to get my point across on “Crossfire,” but they cut it off on CNN’s website, but I — I went to other mainstream media figures — no point in dropping their name here. You would readily know who they are. They’re on the major networks. I showed all of the evidence that we had, and I said — I don’t want you to run with the story. I said, what I want you to do, I said, is you have got people out on the stump with George Bush every day. Just ask him the question. Everybody refused to ask the question. So, I confronted them with the fact that I said, hey, you asked about his drug use and you had no proof at all. And I said, I got all of this proof here, and you won’t even ask him about the abortion. I really think what the issue was, that the election was so close, that they didn’t want to come out, you know, with a story like this or asking questions like this, and risk, you know, tipping the election one way or the other. But it was — it really was a sad day as far as mainstream news goes because, you know, they should be able to ask any question they want to ask of a candidate that’s running for public office.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the criticism, Larry Flynt, that you have profited for so many years off of the exploitation and degradation of women, like showing a woman in a meat grinder. Your response to that?

LARRY FLYNT: Well, most of the criticism comes from the radical feminist movement, who really only claim to fame is to urge a bunch of ugly women to march behind. Other than that, I haven’t received criticism. I have had thousands of models pose for me. I have never had one, not one case where a model has said she felt she was exploited or —

AMY GOODMAN: But that the imagery. I’m surprised that you — I am surprised that would you say “the radical feminist movement,” the very same kind of words that people like Rush Limbaugh talk about when women are standing up and fighting for their rights.

LARRY FLYNT: Well, I support the women’s movement, equal rights, equal pay, non-discrimination in the workplace, but I just can’t convince myself that Andrea Dworkin and Gloria Steinem speak for the average woman in America. I talk to average women all the time, most of the officers in my company are women, and I just don’t see the connection. When I am using the word feminism or radical, I’m talking about the French. I’m not really talking about the average American woman.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me read to you from something. This came out after the film about you, and Gloria Steinem wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times. She said, “Unlike his film character, the real Mr. Flynt is hardly an unwavering advocate of free speech. Indeed, other feminists and I have been attacked in Hustler for using our First Amendment rights to protest pornography. In my case, the men calling me dangerous and putting my picture on a most wanted poster. I was also depicted as the main character in a photo story that ended up in my sexual mutilation. Given the number of crimes that seem to imitate pornography, this kind of attack does tend to get your attention.” And she says, “So now I’m not grateful to Mr. Flynt — so, no,” Gloria Steinem says, “I’m not grateful to Mr. Flynt for protecting my freedom as the film and its enthusiasts suggest I should be, no more than I would be to a racist or fascist publisher whose speech is protected by the Constitution. My question is, would men be portrayed as inviting, deserving and even enjoying their own pain and degradation as women are in Mr. Flynt’s life work?” And she says, Gloria Steinem writes, “Suppose Mr. Flynt specialized in such images as a young African American man trussed up like a deer and tied to the luggage rack of a white hunter’s car, or a nude white man fed into a meat grinder. Those are some of the milder ways in which Hustler portrays women.” Your response, Mr. Flynt?

LARRY FLYNT: Well, nothing that I’m going to say is going to change Gloria Steinem’s attitude. She was very useful to the women’s movement in the 1960s. But she’s remained very much in the 1960s. I think she’s out of touch, and as I said earlier, I don’t think that she is speaking for the average American woman.

AMY GOODMAN: But what if she is speaking for herself? What if she is speaking — she is just voicing her opinion on, would you have something like this, a African American splayed out with degrading images, that — I guess one of the questions is, you have taken on power your whole life, and the criticism of a number of feminists is that you reinforce the images of the powerful with these images of, for example, women being mutilated, like being put through a meat grinder.

LARRY FLYNT: You know, that is totally unfounded, misinterpreted to a very large degree. I mean, we have our own base of readership, and we do do a lot of outrageous, political and social satire and a lot of black humor. Some of it is offensive. Bf the First Amendment gives me a right to do anything, it gives me the right to be offensive, and if Gloria Steinem is offended she shouldn’t read the magazine.

AMY GOODMAN: But she’s saying, it perpetuates or gives permission to — she’s not saying you don’t have the right to say it. But she is saying that it gives a kind of permission for women to be degraded. Is there —- Let me ask—-is there anything you’ve regretted about what you’ve done or accomplished in your life?

LARRY FLYNT: There’s only been one thing that ever appeared in our [inaudible] that I regretted. That was after Betty Ford had her double mastectomy. And we ran a cartoon of a woman standing in the window of the White House and the caption on her was, “All I want for Christmas is my two front tits.” Now, that was very insensitive. I lost my mother to breast cancer. If I had that to do over, you know, I wouldn’t have done that. But, regrets, you know, only a few.

AMY GOODMAN: How were you shot?


AMY GOODMAN: Who shot you? How did you end up in a wheelchair?

LARRY FLYNT: I was charged with obscenity in Atlanta, George. I was on my way to the courthouse returning from lunch. I was shot by a white supremacist because of an interracial photo spread we had in a magazine. He’s presently on death row, not for shooting me, but for shooting a black man and a white woman jogging up in Utah. And he’s also the same man who shot Vernon Jordan several years ago, the civil rights activist.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Mr. Flint, what are your plans for this election year, a very hotly contested race?

LARRY FLYNT: Well, you know, there are only a handful of us that are lobbing grenades into the Bush camp. It’s me, Michael Moore, Howard Stern, Molly Ivins, D.H. Hatfield, Greg Palast, you know, you can count them all on both hands. So, if they make a difference we are going to be very happy. If they don’t make a difference, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t think I can take four more years of Bush.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you for joining us.

LARRY FLYNT: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Larry Flynt, author of Sex, Lies and Politics: The Naked Truth. He is the founder of Hustler magazine.

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