Center for Citizen Media Rotating Header Image

Journalists in Fear of Their Shadows

Christopher Hitchens: Who needs a state censor when the press bites its own tongue so effectively? Do you ever wonder what is the greatest enemy of the free press? One might mention a few conspicuous foes, such as the state censor, the monopolistic proprietor, the advertiser who wants either favorable coverage or at least an absence of unfavorable coverage, and so forth. But the most insidious enemy is the cowardly journalist and editor who doesn’t need to be told what to do, because he or she has already internalized the need to please—or at least not to offend—the worst tyranny of all, which is the safety-first version of public opinion.

1 Comment on “Journalists in Fear of Their Shadows”

  1. #1 Jon Garfunkel
    on Feb 19th, 2008 at 7:23 pm

    Hitchens is flailing here.

    I’d wager that there are two broad types of self-censorship. One is where the reporter or editor shields a fact or a story that they exclusively know– traditional gatekeeping.

    But the bulk of his article is about the other type– adhering to guidelines of style or taste. The Times, in its obit of Earl Butz, wouldn’t print the exact words he said three decades ago which got him booted from Ford’s cabinet (the Times won’t print kitty or So Happy It’s Thursday– unless it’s Tom Friedman quoting the President on an open mic). But anybody who read the present day code words — “desires that Mr. Butz listed in obscene and scatological terms” — could do a quicky-wiki search and find out what they were missing.

    I suppose that every so often there’s a reporter that bristles at the style guides, like J. Anthony Lukas, who coined “barnyard epithet” for the Times while covering the defendents at the Chicago 7 trial. I just can’t imagine that it’s as offensive to the free spread of information as classical gatekeeping. That’s where Hitchens loses all perspective.

    The Danish Mohammed cartoons is a tough call as well– but again, this wasn’t something people couldn’t find elsewhere.

    Now, he closes up with a discussion of the effect of the Alberta Human Rights Commission on the publishing of those cartoons. Hold on– that is a state censor. And this is where Glenn Greenwald’s reporting, which you linked to in January, cleans out Hitchens’s clock.

    Hitchens is one of the most fascinating writers in the English language, and his linkability testifies to that. But he took a sleepwalk through this piece.

    props out?