Telling stories

When Self-interest Leads to Self-Censorship

Posted by southwrite on June 12, 2014


Not long ago a writer friend told me the story of a mutual acquaintance who had been forced out of his editor’s job for “not having the right political opinions.”

It’s not new or unusual. People are sacked all the time for expressing the wrong thought – either at work or elsewhere. Bosses, as much as anyone, like to surround by those who agree with them and that’s true even within the media that values freedom of the press. (My press, not yours.)

And, of course it’s not just writers and editors who know that the wrong opinion can be costly. Perhaps it’s this knowledge that causes most social media users to keep their opinions to themselves on Facebook (about 70 percent) and elsewhere.

We think about the government cracking down on dissident opinions, but at least in America most of the censorship comes at work. Employees quickly figure out the party line or the boss’ point of the view and endorse it themselves. That can be particularly true in the media which after all are businesses ruled by opinioned and self-interested owners.

That’s one reason that self-censorship is probably the most common form. We hold back on saying what we really think seeking shelter in silence. The more chameleon-like adopt whatever coloration seems appropriate to fit in and hopefully thrive. Many convince themselves their newly acquired opinions are their own and become even more committed defenders of the official line than the bosses themselves.

Often when the media censors itself it’s not folding under pressure from government officials, but to placate advertisers or the influential. Many publications and media outlets try to maintain a wall between editorial and advertising, but it can sometimes be quite porous. In 1998, ABC News, which is owned by Disney, cancelled a report on the hiring of convicted pedophiles at Disney World. Michael Eisner, Disney’s chairman at the time, had said publically that he didn’t want the network covering the story. They didn’t.

Consider the nervous dance New York public broadcasting station WNET did prior to the airing of Alex Gibney’s documentary Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream. The film took a critical look David Koch, the billionaire industrialist. He and his brother Charles are known for their conservative politics and financing of a network of right wing advocacy groups. Koch is also a member of the station’s board of directors and had donated about $23 million to public television.

After some controversy the film aired. Another documentary critical of the Koch brothers called Citizan Koch was killed by PBS.

My first job out of college was at a small town weekly newspaper run by a hardnosed publisher who, for all his other faults, consistently stood up to pressure from advertisers. When the owner of the local grocery chain threatened to pull his ads if a certain story was published, we went ahead. The ads were pulled and for about a year, it was rough going. Eventually the merchant came back and I continued to think this was the way journalism always worked. It didn’t.

Even big city dailies kills stories that should have been told because of the publisher’s relationship with the organization.

At a lower level I’ve repeatedly seen my own stories altered in both big and small ways at the request of advertisers. In many cases the censorship came at trade magazines that made no pretense of being champions of a free press. My freelance career at one business trade journal came to an end when I protested the editor’s decision to gut a story that contained critical information about another company. For me that was rare. Since then I’ve usually gone along.

Freedom of the press is not a natural condition. It has to be created each day by journalists, editors, and publishers doing their jobs and taking stands that might be contrary to their immediate self-interest, but serve a higher calling and a grander idea.

One Response to “When Self-interest Leads to Self-Censorship”

  1. […] journalism. I've never read one of his blogs that didn't make me think. I particularly liked a piece he wrote about self-censorship in the media — like what some international organizations are doing […]

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