A smut peddler and a patriot

Hustler's Larry Flynt asks why a porn mogul and not the New York Times had to sue the government for press access in Afghanistan.

Published November 28, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

Larry Flynt wants to go to Afghanistan. No, he's not looking to sign up new Hustler subscribers, he wants to send reporters to cover our boys on the front lines. He'd probably even throw in some free mags for the troops if the Pentagon would give him access. The Defense Dept., alas, denied his request faster than Mullah Omar hightailing it to the hills.

But unlike the Big Kahunas of America's fourth estate, Larry doesn't take no for an answer. The Premier Potentate of Porn has filed suit against the DOD to allow Hustler's scribblers to go where the action is, just like Matthew Modine in "Full Metal Jacket."

Flynt's suit may have a snowball's chance in Saudi Arabia, but that doesn't bother him. After all, he's been doing battle for so long over First Amendment issues that conservatives cringe when they hear his name. Recently, the patriotic Sultan of Skin took a break from assailing the government and overseeing his Beverly Hills-headquartered empire of erotica to discuss his suit, the war on terrorism, civil liberties and his current bête noire, Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Why are you suing the federal government, and what do you hope to achieve by it?

We've had a long tradition going all the way back to the Civil War of journalists being able to accompany the troops onto the battlefield. This continued up through World War I, World War II, Korea and the Vietnam War. Think of how many more thousands of people might have died in Vietnam had it not been for the press. But after Vietnam, the commanders and the president started treating the press quite differently. It began when Reagan invaded Grenada. The press knew absolutely nothing about it. I filed a suit at that particular time, but the invasion was so short that the suit became moot before we could ever get a hearing. Then Bush invaded Panama and snatched Noriega, and the press was not included. And if you watched CNN during the Gulf War, you sort of felt like the war was being covered because you've got Peter Arnett on the rooftop of a hotel in downtown Baghdad giving you a blow-by-blow account, but there really were not any [journalists] with troops fighting on the ground.

I think Afghanistan is the straw that breaks the camel's back. I mean, you've got to draw the line somewhere. It's the press's obligation to report how the military is conducting the war. I know there are many factors that need to be taken into consideration, but we made a concession which I think was substantial. That is that any reporting done from the front lines could be censored by the field commander on the grounds of national security or anything that might put the troops' lives in danger. We've asked for a preliminary injunction from a federal court in Washington, and we're waiting for a date now. Bush likes to say this is a different kind of war, but you know FDR could have used the same argument for World War II. It's still a war. And we either have a free press or we don't. If these guys covering the war want to put their lives in harm's way, well, that's their business, and not the business of the secretary of defense.

What about the argument that the Department of Defense would be responsible for the safety of reporters involved?

That's what we made clear to the Defense Department -- that they were putting their lives at risk now, and that they did so at their own peril. So the Defense Department would not be liable there. We need them there to document and record the war, but also so the American people can actually see how the military conducted their operations.

Hustler is not exactly known for war reportage. If you were granted the access you want, who would you send and where would your reportage appear?

I would probably send my lead investigator on the impeachment proceedings and the trial in the Senate [of former President Clinton], Allan MacDonell. As far as people saying that we're not known for reporting on these activities, from 1995 on we've had several major pieces run [in Hustler], one on the movement of the Islamic fundamentalists, the heroin trafficking out of Afghanistan, the Holy Wars. We've got another piece coming up in February of next year. So it's not like we're not concerned with what's going on in that part of the world.

Of course, if we were granted access, future Afghanistan footage would appear in Hustler. But because of the three-month lead time, it wouldn't be the kind of coverage that's breaking news. However, I want to stress that I'm not doing this just for Hustler, but for all press, so everyone can have the news they need.

We are seeing some reports from Afghanistan, not necessarily with U.S. troops, but there are reporters in-country. Why would your reporter need to accompany the U.S. troops to get the story?

Well, when you turn on your TV, whether it be CNN, Fox or MSNBC, you see this map of Afghanistan and you see these various reporters in these isolated cities all reporting on the war. But in actuality, they're all in very remote locations, far from the front lines. We want the option, if the reporters want to go in, that the government allow a limited number of reporters to accompany troop operations on the ground. Hey, I'm not saying this is a slam dunk. I talked to a very important attorney last week who said, "Larry, it's a courageous thing to do. This suit needs to be filed. It's extremely important, but in cases of this nature, the courts tend to side with the administration. So don't get your hopes up."

But I think, for me not to do what I've always done all of my life, you know, going for the jugular if I believe in it, I'd really be copping out, really compromising. And compromise is just not in my vocabulary.

You've filed this suit, but have any other news organizations done likewise?

No, and it's the mainstream media that should be filing this suit, not me. They've got more money than I've got. The only reason why they're not is that they all want to be politically correct. Each of them are concerned about who's going to get the next interview with George and Laura Bush, rather than getting out there and fighting for the First Amendment and preserving it.

How would you grade the media's coverage of the war and the home front so far?

Writers and pundits are very quick to point out how the country has rallied around the president at this time of crisis. But I've got news for you, in the wake of 9/11, they would've rallied around Ronald McDonald. People have traditionally, always, supported their president in a time of war. Bush is awfully cocky now with this 90 percent approval rating and what he says is the gospel, but guess what? He's not always right, and nobody is always right. He's going to make a misstep somewhere and he's going to pay for it.

Another thing we're looking at possibly filing a suit on is this war tribunal thing. We're not challenging his authority to do this. After all, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, and Roosevelt permitted some Germans to be tried by war tribunal, but what we're questioning is Bush's right to have them tried in secret. I mean, it's bad enough that they're being tried by the military, and that it only takes a two-thirds vote to give them the death penalty, but they're also being tried in total secrecy. I just find that to be abhorrent. I don't believe that should be allowed to stand.

There are some who would argue that there have always been secrets kept from the American people in times of war, but that after war is over, the pendulum swings back to a more open society and easing certain restrictions on civil liberties. How would you respond to that argument?

That's not always the case. When you lose freedom, you don't lose it all in one fell swoop, you lose it a little bit at a time. I think we've got to tread very cautiously when we start distorting the Constitution in order to make things more convenient for ourselves. We've got a justice system that's the envy of the whole world. And for that reason, I don't think it should be tampered with.

To your mind, what's been the most disturbing breach of civil liberties since 9/11?

The most chilling aspect is all of these, what is it, a thousand detainees they've got, they won't even release their names. We don't know if these people have been provided with a lawyer. We don't know if they're being tortured. We have no idea under what conditions they're being held. Now, don't get me wrong, I don't have any sympathy for the terrorists. And I think they deserve exactly what's coming to them, exactly what they gave the people in New York. But you just simply cannot discard the Constitution in order to make things easy.

A lot of Americans might say, "Well, these people are not Americans, and in many cases there may be some problem with their paperwork. We should be tightening up on that sort of thing anyway."

They're not including just illegals. This also means non-U.S. citizens. Even if someone is totally legitimate and has their green card, they fall under Ashcroft's hand, so to speak.

Do you believe Attorney General Ashcroft can be trusted with these broad, new powers that he has now under the USA-PATRIOT Act?

I wouldn't trust him as far as I could throw him. To say that the guy is to the right is an understatement. He's to the right of Attila the Hun. He's probably the most dangerous man in America. And he comes off as so reasonable. Any time I see one of these conservatives on television, it doesn't bother me as long as their true colors are showing through. But when they start to sound halfway intelligent with the argument they're making, it just frightens the hell of me. And that's the boat I put Ashcroft in.

Do you think that Ashcroft will attempt to use any of his new powers to go after the adult entertainment industry?

Oh, I think we got a reprieve because of the war in Afghanistan. I think that we're at the top of his list. They can't keep the streets clean, but they sure want to keep our minds pure. And you can bet that Ashcroft will make Ed Meese look like Mary Poppins when it comes to persecuting pornography.

Do you think that the fact that adult entertainment is more mainstream now than it was 10 years ago makes it more difficult for someone like Ashcroft to put the genie back in the bottle?

Well, of course. Look, freedom of the press is only important if you have one. So what we're really talking about is freedom of expression. And that's a catchall phrase for it. It doesn't matter if it's a book or an X-rated video. Overwhelmingly, people want the right to be able to read, view, see whatever they want in the privacy of their own home without government intervention, and I don't think the government will be able to take that away from the American people.

But you spoke recently at a conference of civil libertarians here in Los Angeles. And you were warning them of what was to come in the way of a crackdown on porn.

Obviously, obscenity prosecutions are not a priority for the Bush administration at the present time. But if you take Ashcroft's tenure as attorney general and governor of the state of Missouri, and realize the terror that he brought to that state to anyone involved in the adult business, it's merely wishful thinking to think he's not going to do the same thing on a national level.

To stay on this topic for a moment, for the average person who may not subscribe to Hustler or enjoy watching pornographic videos, why should they be concerned that Ashcroft may use his power to threaten the adult entertainment industry?

Well, in the last century there was a guy who long before he started exterminating the Jews, the top of his agenda was censorship. But when he started burning books, he didn't start with the classics, he started with the so-called garbage and pornography that nobody wanted to read, and eventually it lead to Voltaire and Shakespeare. So, it's a Catch-22 that you get yourself in. I can understand why people may not find anything of interest in pornography. I'm sure if they don't, it's merely because they're strictly asexual, but whatever the reason is, I understand that they have that right, but at the same time, they must be willing to accept that we pay a price for everything. The price we pay to live in a free society is toleration. We have to tolerate things we don't necessarily like in order to be free. People have to tolerate the Larry Flynts of the world, and hey, I have to tolerate the Falwells of the world, or as I call them, the Falwellians of the world.

Do you think civil libertarians are doing enough right now to combat these threats to our freedoms?

There are a lot of people taking it seriously, but the only ones with the organization to do much about it is the ACLU, and they're dramatically under-funded. So when I speak before groups that have these concerns, I tell them they have to make their voices heard. The fact that they don't have a microphone or a newspaper or a TV camera is just not a good enough excuse. What we need is a good old-fashioned Boston Tea Party. If that had happened in Florida, if people had taken it to the streets, maybe five Republican judges wouldn't have picked a Republican to be our next president. Apathy is the biggest threat to democracy that there is.

Do you support the current campaign in Afghanistan, and would you support a wider campaign if that occurs?

Oh, absolutely. I think this is a war that needed to be fought. It's the first time since World War II that we've fought a war that we really needed to. We didn't really need to fight Korea or Vietnam. It's not very popular to mention what I'm getting ready to say, but those terrorists could've bombed Germany, France, England, Japan, Australia, dozens and dozens of countries, but they chose us. The big question is why? And I think we really need to take a long, hard look at our government's foreign policy and the image the Arab culture has of us. Now that doesn't justify what the terrorists did in New York. I'm not trying to cut 'em any slack. But any time that a people or a country takes an action against someone, it's going to create a response. So we really need to reevaluate some of the tactics we're using to peddle democracy around the world to some cultures that are not the least bit interested in it. These two young American girls that were over there in Afghanistan in jail for preaching Christianity, that's looney! And here they're getting a hero's welcome and are meeting with the president on their return. They have about as much business in Afghanistan as I do in a wheelchair.

Don't they have a right to proselytize for their religion?

I'm not saying they don't have a right. I find it offensive when it's our government peddling democracy to people who are not interested. That's proselytizing too. And when you've got one religion trying to peddle to another religion who're are really not interested in it anyway. I mean, come on, give me a break. For two millennia Catholicism has been trying to wring the neck of every other organized religion in the world. It hasn't succeeded yet, and it won't. If you could stomp them all out tomorrow, they'd just sprout up again.

There's been a lot of criticism of Islam in general, and some are making the argument that other religions, though they may have some extremists in them now, are not as bad as Islam because of its very nature. What do you make of that, and do you think that Christian extremists are as bad as Muslim extremists?

Absolutely. There are over 2,000 religions that exist in the world, and you really have to understand the history of how they all unraveled. There've been five different versions of the Christian Bible, the latest one being the King James version. I've had the opportunity to review some of the previous versions that have existed. The first one printed by the Gutenberg press, they had some things in there that makes the Quran look very, very tame. Such things as you're supposed to take your wife and children outside and whip them on the Sabbath. That's where that expression comes from, "Beat the devil out of them." I mean that is some bizarre stuff in the Bible. Why the King James version was commissioned was because [the Bible] couldn't be sold to the people in its previous form. Most people don't have a grasp of this sort of history, they only know what their local pastor wants them to know.

Though you've served in the U.S. Navy, there are still some who would question your motives and your patriotism. What would you say to those who assert you're simply bringing this lawsuit for publicity?

You know, I'm no Johnny-come-lately to this. For the past 30 years, I've been the most ardent defender that the First Amendment has. Sure, they call me a smut peddler, but that doesn't bother me, because I'm a smut peddler who cares. I care about our judicial system. I care about our political process, and I love this country. Most people who wind up putting labels on you and calling you names are mainly doing it out of frustration because they can't think of anything else to say.

After the Flynt Report came out, there was always the possibility that another shoe might drop and that you might have more information you might disclose. During all this time, have your investigators still been looking into the bedrooms of various politicians? Is there more we can ever look forward to?

We've got half-a-dozen good ones we can't go with because they involve phone recordings made in states requiring two-party consent, and some of our sources want too much money. Like they're holding out for the full million dollars. But we still work it.

Have you looked into Ashcroft at all?

Oh, yes, we're quite familiar with his background. He's just an extremely, staunch conservative guy. He's cut from the same cloth as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell and the rest of those guys. He just happens to be involved in politics.

A true believer?

I'm not so sure those other guys are true believers or not. It's the way they make their money. I don't know what they believe in. I know one thing, the only thing they can agree on unanimously is sexual repression.

You've lived through the Reagan administration. How would you compare what we're going through now to then?

This is very similar to Reagan. I liked Clinton an awful lot, but I had a great many problems with him too. I think it was extremely difficult for Clinton to stand up for what he believed in. I still think he was a much better president than people give him credit for. You know when I first heard Ronald Reagan say he believed in Armageddon, I thought oh, my, this is it. This is the end. But we managed to get through Reagan, and now we've got the Golden Boy in there. I don't know where he's going to take us. He's every bit as dangerous as Reagan. You see, Reagan had conviction. Bush has got an ego. And there's a huge difference when you start separating out the two.

By Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to Salon. He lives in Los Angeles.

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Afghanistan National Security Terrorism