October l, thousands of New York artists, activists and politicians rallied
outside the Brooklyn Museum against threats by the city’s Mayor Rudolph Giuliani
to defund one of the city’s preeminent cultural institutions because of one
painting on display at a controversial art show called "Sensation"
that had played earlier in London. The Mayor–who had not even seen the
canvas–branded it an outrage to Catholics because of its depiction of a black
Virgin Mary, surrounded by sexual organs with an overlay of elephant dung.
after speaker denounced what seemed to all as a blatant attempt at censorship, a
use of the public purse strings to punish. The debate raged for weeks on TV, on
talk shows, and in editorial columns. Significantly 60% of the public, including
many Catholics, supported the Museum, not the Mayor, in one newspaper poll.
had for his own political purposes decided to use this issue to curry favor with
right-wing constituencies in a bid for higher office. It is expected that the
courts will eventually rule against his playing cultural cop. But, his high
profile stance on the issue revived and reinforced the traditional face and
arena for conflicts over censorship: the role of the State, of government in
suppressing ideas it dislikes.
most people think of censorship, they think of bad governments doing bad things
to good people.
many still are with a frightening regularity.
a new and pervasive form of modern censorship is even more insidious, perhaps
because it is unseen. It has gone underground in some respects, and become
institutionalized well above ground in others. It has moved from the public
arena to the private one, the state to the corporation. Market driven censorship
may or may not be as blatantly ideological as political censorship but it
certainly calls less attention to itself. Its’ most pervasive by-product is self
censorship which is harder to track and less likely to be publicly acknowledged.
the media business, where I work, the mechanisms of censorship are now solidly
built into the editorial and program selection process where decisions are made
on what gets covered and how, what news gets on the media and what’s routinely
spiked. Programming formats which are increasingly the same across the spectrum
of seeming broadcast choice tend to insure a conformity and often seamless
one-note editorial flow.
day at thousands of newspapers and TV newsrooms, editors and producers gather to
make picks from a menu of story possibilities-assess pitches from reporters in
the field and news running on the wire. It is there they decide what to lead
with, and what to downplay. Increasingly, despite the plethora of news sources
and the size of the "news army" there is a sameness of sources and
angles. Like the word processors found on every desk, there is an idea processor
at work narrowing down what future generations will come to know as the first
draft of history. Increasingly those stories revolve around what’s some high
profile ‘giga event’-the O.J. Case, The Death of a Princess, Sex Scandal in the
White House, or a natural disaster. etc.
blackbirds in flight, the sky darkens with packs of reporters moving in swarms,
at the same speed and in predictable trajectory. When one lands, they all land.
When one leaves, they all leave. At first look, it seems as if all of this
happens naturally as it is ordained by some higher logic or the way journalists
are supposed to operate. The idea that there is censorship at work here is all
too often considered way off base.
in the media at least, programming is a verb as well as a noun. The programmers
and channel controllers from all the stations are part of the same well paid
elite, steeped in the same values, commited to the mission of maximizing
audience share and profits. They are chosen for their ability to play the game
and not challenge the audience with too many controversial ideas or critical
perspectives. It is not surprising when they circulate so easily within the
commanding heights of media power, moving from company to company and job to
they seem more concerned with negotiating their own exit strategies and stock
options than exercising power to fundamentally improve the range or quality of
viewing options. A kind of group-think corporate consensus, steeped in market
logic and deeply inbred by an un-brave news culture breeds conscience-free
conformity and self-censorship. That’s partly why we have so many safe, middle
of the road choices on the air and why views considered unsafe are marginalized.
Unlike dictators who jail dissidents, they simply ignore them. "Not for
Us" is the mantra guiding their rejection letters.
Censored, a group that reports on the new censorship, warns that journalism as
we have known it is sinking ever deeper in a sludge of sleaze, slime and
sensationalism-news that does not belong in the news. The consequence: we as
readers, watchers and citizens are drowning in both trivialization and
information overload. Independent producers with something to say have fewer and
fewer outlets through which to say it. Not surprisingly, the findings of Project
Censored itself are, in effect, censored, rarely reported in the mainstream
makes frightening sense in a globalized economy where consumerism is more
desired than active citizenship, where power is increasingly concentrated and
the public increasinly unwelcomed in a public discourse defined by the powerful.
If your goal is to numb people and drive them away from active particiaption,
than TV as "weapon of mass distraction" and wall to wall ebtertainment
makes sense. Shut up and shop is the now the message, and one that makes sense
to advertiser dominated media outlests.
program producers like my collegues ar Globalvision are rarely told an idea or
show is rejected because of its content. Reactions these days take the form of
neutral boilerplate, gracious back patting accompanied by expressions of respect
and phrase like "good work but not for us." When my own company
pitched public television in America on a unique human rights series hosted by a
prominent PBS newscaster, we were told "human rights is not a sufficient
organizing principle for a TV Series." Unlike cooking.
the mainstream becomes a mudstream, we have to try to scratch a bit deeper to
understand why "junk food news," stories and spectacles are grossly
over reported, sensationalized and hyped out of proportion to their
significance. The problem is institutional. As Peter Phillips, who directs
Project Censored, explains, "the structure of media organizations
themselves are creating latent forms of censorship that are just as potentially
damaging as intentional censorship."
type of journalism that this leads to is all too clear. All you have to do is
flip the dial and look at the pattern. The same headlines, the familiar anchors,
the packaged formats with their look-alike graphics and stirring music. The
stories revolve around the very important people at the top, promnoting
celebrities that the entertainment industries have created and marketed. The
daily fluctuations of the business behemoths are reported, the lives of ordinary
people for most part are not. There are and abundance of business channels,
including BBC World which recently announced an intention to shift to more
business news. They measure the winners and losers but no labor channels show
the human costs. In an era when content is supposedly king, the connections that
would help us make sense of what’s happening are missing, by design. Information
is everywhere; interpretation is absent.
covered least of all-the media itself, which has gone though structural shifts,
merging into cartel-sized monopolies which treat information as a subsidiary of
entertainment-oriented mega-businesses. Substance is a casualty of the synergies
that these arrangements produce…endless tabloidization and suffocating
is why I and other colleagues worldwide have created "The Media
Channel" (www.mediachannel.org) a global internet supersite as part of
England’s OneWorldOnline (www.oneworld.org) to continue to report on discuss,
and encourage action against the new censors and the threat the represent to
media freedom. Your involvement is welcome.
Schechter, Executive Editor of Globalvision’s Media Channel, is the author of
"The More You Watch, The Less You Know" (Seven Stories Press) and
"News Dissector" coming this fall from Electron Press (www.electronpress.com)