Unbrave New World (12/99)

On October l, thousands of New York artists, activists, and politicians rallied outside the Brooklyn Museum against threats by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to defund one of the city’s preeminent cultural institutions. The excuse was one painting on display at a controversial art show, called Sensation, that had played earlier in London. The mayor – who hadn’t 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.

Speaker after speaker denounced what seemed to all to be a blatant attempt at censorship, a use of the public purse strings to punish. The debate raged for weeks on TV and talk shows, and in editorial columns. Significantly, 60 percent of the public, including many Catholics, supported the museum, not the mayor, in one newspaper poll.

For his own political purposes, Giuliani decided to use this issue to curry favor with right-wing constituencies in a bid for higher office. It’s 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 in suppressing ideas it dislikes.

When most people think of censorship, they think of bad governments doing bad things to good people. And many still are, with a frightening regularity. But a new and pervasive form of modern censorship is even more insidious, perhaps because it’s 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, from 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.

Group Think in the "News Army"

In the media business, 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.

Each day, in thousands of newspaper offices and TV newsrooms, editors and producers gather to make picks from a menu of story possibilities, assessing pitches from reporters in the field and news running on the wire. It is there that 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. More and more, those stories revolve around some high profile "giga event" – the O.J. Case, the Death of a Princess, Sex Scandal in the White House, a natural disaster, and so on. Like blackbirds in flight, packs of reporters darken the sky, 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 if it’s 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. But today, 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, committed 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’s no surprise that they circulate easily within the commanding heights of media power, moving from company to company and job to job.

Personally, 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. The mantra that guides their rejection letters is "Not for Us."

From Mainstream to Mudstream

Project 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 doesn’t belong in the news. The consequence: 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 media.

This makes frightening sense in a globalized economy where consumerism is more desired than active citizenship, where power is increasingly concentrated and the public is increasingly unwelcome in a public discourse defined by the powerful. If your goal is to numb people and drive them away from active participation, then TV as "weapon of mass distraction" and wall to wall entertainment makes sense. Shut up and shop is the now the message, one that makes sense to advertiser dominated media outlets.

Independent program producers, like my collegues at 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 phrases like "good work, but not for us."

When my own company pitched US public television 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.

As 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."

The 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, promoting 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 aren’t. There is an 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.

And 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 cross-promotional hype.

This 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, discuss, and encourage action against the new censors and the threat they represent to media freedom. Your involvement is welcome.

Danny 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 soon from Electron Press (www.electronpress.com).