Media Politics: Dollars and Censorship

by Jonathan Lawson,

There is no doubt that most of us who are looking forward to seeing Michael Moore's latest film Fahrenheit 911 this summer or fall will have little difficulty doing so, at least those of use living in medium-sized or large metropolitan areas. Of course, that's no thanks to the Disney executives who in early May announced that they were instructing subsidiary Miramax not to follow through on its commitment to distribute Moore's film. By the time you're reading this, Fahrenheit 911 will have been royally feted at Cannes and will probably be safely in the arms of another commercial US distributor more than happy to line its pockets with the lucre likely to be created by the film's pre-election release.

In the week before the Disney story broke, another information blockade from the corporate media hit the news, as Bush-connected Sinclair Broadcasting forbade its ABC stations from running an episode of "Nightline" in which host Ted Koppel read out the names of US soldiers killed in Iraq. If anything, the decision likely increased the program's nationwide audience, even in the markets where the program was banned by Sinclair.

Both of these vain attempts to hinder the flow of controversial information stirred up immediate cries of "censorship!" from many quarters. Others, including many progressives, have doubted whether the term is applicable. We rightly cry "censorship" when a government imposes filters or controls over media outlets, as many governments in the world do, or when newspapers or broadcasters are simply shut down by governments, as the US has done in Iraq. But what about a media company's information filters? Can they rightly be called censorship too?

Well, yes, but the question is an important one. When progressive email lists caught fire with righteous indignation immediately after the Disney/Moore story broke, one free speech activist in Seattle contested the censorship charge in an email exchange: "the day Disney or any other company is FORCED to distribute films they don't like, is the day we will truly be living under censorship... to call it censorship when [Disney] chooses not to distribute something they don't like is just ignorance."

This argument incorporates the common (if generally unstated and unexamined) assumption that corporations have free speech rights allowing them to choose what to sell and not to sell. The writer also suggests that government policies curtailing these rights would themselves be tantamount to censorship. Setting aside the very good question of whether corporations ought to have any constitutional rights at all, it confuses the entire importance of free speech to suggest that media companies need protection from public policies designed to maintain diversity. Finally, the argument also ignores both the special role media plays in a democratic society, and the tremendous power media companies have to shape public debates.

In 1969, the Supreme Court established an equivalence between government censorship and commercial censorship in the case of Red Lion Broadcasting vs. FCC. The decision read, "It is the purpose of the First Amendment to preserve an uninhibited marketplace of ideas in which truth will ultimately prevail, rather than to countenance monopolization of that market, whether it be by the Government itself or a private licensee." The Red Lion decision recognizes that the dominant role businesses can and do occupy in the "marketplace of ideas" gives them tremendous power to inhibit the free flow of information on which our democracy depends.

The Temperature at Which Truth Burns

Runaway corporate media consolidation resulting from bad public policy now allows five companies - Viacom, Bertelsmann, AOL Time Warner, News Corp. and Disney - to control over half of what we see and hear. A second tier, including such companies as Clear Channel and Gannett, have extreme domination in certain sectors. Finally, consumer outlets for buying books and magazines, seeing movies and the like, are also highly concentrated markets.

The effects of this concentration are the most pronounced in many rural communities, where there may be only Clear Channel radio stations and billboards, Viacom TV stations, USA Today and a Wal-Mart. Because of this situation, large media owners can wield nearly as much effective control over what we see and hear as could a totalitarian Ministry of Truth.

Ultimately, the word "censorship" is significant only in that it signifies an illegitimate form of information control which ought to offend us and ought to be resisted. That fact is more important than the word itself. However, while we're being so linguistically reckless, here are some other establishment media practices we might describe using the 'C' word:

* Wal-Mart or other powerful retailers refusing to stock economically viable media products because of their content --often effectively banning the products in rural areas where Wal-Mart squeezes out competition

* CanWest Global disallowing editors of its daily newspapers from publishing editorials which contradict the company line on issues such as the Israel/Palestine conflict

* Clear Channel's infamous post-9/11 do-not-play list

* PBS' refusal to air programming funded by labor unions, on the grounds that such financial ties (unlike corporate sponsorship) would give the appearance of bias

* Cable companies choking out public access and ignoring community media networks, while filling up channels with undesired commercial pablum

Crying "censorship!" about such issues may not be the most politically savvy way to fight these information blockades in every circumstance. But we shouldn't excuse them with apologies for corporate "free speech" rights-- we should view them as incursions on our democratic communications rights, and fight both to enforce public interest and diversity responsibilities for users of public airwaves, and to ensure that space will always be reserved for noncommercial and community media on satellite channels, on cable systems and on the air.

article originally published at .
The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey