Invisible Censorship

By Thom, Cathleen | The Humanist, July 1999 | Go to article overview

Invisible Censorship


Thom, Cathleen, The Humanist


Freedom of the Press and Its Responsibility

Two or three years ago, I spoke with a man from at an conference in He told me the story of how all "controversial" newspaper articles in must be submitted to a for censoring. After this process, the newspapers still printed their original articles; they simply did so with thick black lines obscuring what was not allowed to be said.

In the United States and Canada, freedom of the press is also limited, but North American readers may never know what is being left out. Here, the restrictions are based on what publishers are willing to print and what advertisers are willing to support. In this way, publishers are the invisible censors of the Western world. In the words of Hollinger International President David Radler: "If editors disagree with me, they should disagree with me when they are no longer in my employ. ... I will ultimately determine what the papers say and how they are going to be run."

Those who fought and suffered for the constitutionally protected freedom of the press would have been horrified. That hard-won right was granted to a certain delegation of the populace so that it might scrutinize and comment on the events that shape our society. This, in turn, enables all interested parties to be equally informed and thus aids the community decision-making processes of the democratic system. The press should be, in effect, the responsive nervous system of the body politic.

Unfortunately, journalism has become a business, its actions dictated by the demands of the market. As media expert Ronald Collins remarked:

   Allowing advertisers to review contents and photographs and the placement
   of news articles before publication is no stranger to the journalistic
   landscape.... Editors are fully aware of the pressure that comes from
   advertisers who will yank enormous amounts of advertising dollars in
   response to certain stories.

This has severely limited the substance and variety of stories circulated by newspapers and thus degrades the very function of journalism.

The political discourse for which freedom of the press was granted has become more of an endless gossip column. The tabloid-driven obsession with Hollywood celebrities and Britain's royal family is an extreme example of how the freedom can and has been misused.

Tales of sensationalized crime are a particularly destructive class of stories because they lend themselves so easily to the infotainment market: they are interesting enough to guarantee an audience, are rarely controversial enough to divert advertising dollars, and can be fitted easily into a formula. From the business aspect, they are perfect, and it is that easily printable quality in their nature that has led them to create one of the greatest imbalances in the contemporary media.

The main source of the difficulty is the selection process. In this technological age, the press--and the rest of us--are inundated with information. Every moment, vast numbers of facts and ideas are transferred throughout the world, devoid of their context in history and society.

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