The 2002 political climate

CNN's Connie Chung told US citizen Martina Navratilova to go back to Czechoslovakia rather than complain so much

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Here’s something I accidentally just found when I was searching for something else: it’s from a July 17, 2002, interview of tennis legend Martina Navratilova, who had been a naturalized U.S. citizen at that point for more than 20 years. She was interviewed by Connie Chung, then the host of a prime-time CNN program, Connie Chung Tonight, where she played the role of neutral journalist. This was the very first question-and-answer exchange; it’s just remarkable:

INTRO [announcer]: Life after center court turns hot. Tennis legend Martina Navratilova, is she anti-American? Tonight, Martina sets the record straight with Connie. . . .

CHUNG [intro]:  It’s not the game that’s now getting Navratilova in the news again. The very personal admission to a paper that she wants to adopt a child and some very damaging quotes in German newspaper allegedly made by the tennis phenom. . . . All of this has pitted Navratilova against the country that has given her so much.

CHUNG [interview starts]: All right. I’m going to read what was said, a quote from that German newspaper. Quote: “The most absurd part of my escape from the unjust system is that I have exchanged one system that suppresses free opinion for another. The Republicans in the U.S. manipulate public opinion and sweep controversial issues under the table. It’s depressing. Decisions in America are based solely on the question of how much money will come out of it and not on the questions of how much health, morals or environment suffer as a result.”

So, is that accurate? . . . .

NAVRATILOVA: Well, obviously, I’m not saying this is a communist system, but I think we’re having — after 9/11, there’s a big centralization of power. President Bush is having more and more power. John Ashcroft is having more and more power. Americans are losing their personal rights left and right. I mean, the ACLU is up in arms about all of the stuff that’s going on right now. . . .

CHUNG: Can I be honest with you? I can tell you that when I read this, I have to tell you that I thought it was un-American, unpatriotic. I wanted to say, go back to Czechoslovakia. You know, if you don’t like it here, this a country that gave you so much, gave you the freedom to do what you want.

NAVRATILOVA: And I’m giving it back. This is why I speak out. When I see something that I don’t like, I’m going to speak out because you can do that here. And again, I feel there are too many things happening that are taking our rights away. 

CHUNG: But you know what? I think it is, OK, if you believe that, you know, then go ahead and think that at home. But why do you have to spill it out? You know, why do you have to talk about it as a celebrity so that people will write it down and talk about what you said?

NAVRATILOVA: I think athletes have a duty to speak out when there is something that’s not right, when they feel that perhaps social issues are not being paid attention to. As a woman, as a lesbian, as a woman athlete, there is a whole bunch of barriers that I’ve had to jump over, and we shouldn’t have to be jumping over them any more.

CHUNG: Got you. But sometimes, when you hear celebrities saying something, do you ever say to yourself, I don’t care what so and so thinks, you know. Yes, go ahead and say whatever you want to say. But you’re not a politician. You’re not in a position of government power or whatever.

NAVRATILOVA: No. And I just might do that. I may run for office one of these days and really do make a difference. But…

CHUNG: Are you kidding me?

NAVRATILOVA: No, I’m not. One of these days, hopefully. But when you say go back to Czech Republic, why are you sending me back there? I live here. I love this country. I’ve lived here 27 years. I’ve paid taxes here for 27 years. Do I not have a right to speak out? Why is that unpatriotic?

CHUNG: Well, you know the old line, love it or leave it. 

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I can’t even put into words how ugly that is on almost every level: the nativism and jingoism, the equation of dissent with lack of patriotism, the imperious decree of who should and should not remain in the country, the total abandonment of journalistic pretense. My first reaction was to think that this was very reflective of the political climate that prevailed back then, as though it were some temporary by-product of the 9/11-produced hysteria. But on second thought, I’m not sure that’s true. I don’t recall this exchange generating much controversy; would it now? I doubt it.

Glenn Greenwald
Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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