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Authors: Government Censorship Better than Corporate

UPDATED (with response from one of the authors)

LA Observed has a post about how KRON TV in San Francisco disinvited the authors of a new book from a talk-show appearance after discovering that the book, No Time to Think: The Menace of Media Speed and the 24-hour News Cycle, takes shots at the crappy state of local TV news. My initial reaction was incredulity. I mean, how clueless is that kind of move?

Then I read the entire item, which includes an outraged email from the authors — Howard Rosenberg, formerly of the LA Times, and Charles Feldman — in which they write, among other things, the following line:

Government censorship is not nearly as bad as is corporate censorship–especially by a company that serves the public—or ought to.

I find myself hoping that the email by the authors is a fake. If it’s real, the authors need a refresher course in First Amendment 101, not to mention reality. The most likely explanation for the authors’ ridiculous statement is that a) they were pissed; b) they wrote their outraged note in haste; and c) they didn’t proofread it before they sent it along.

Why ridiculous? Journalists should understand that only governments can censor. Other entities can make it difficult to get heard by large numbers of people, but that is absolutely not the same thing as being forbidden to publish at all.

And surely the authors should understand something just as basic: Assume, for the sake of argument, that there is such as thing as “corporate censorship” (even though, as noted, the expression is a non sequitur). To say that it’s much worse than government censorship defies common sense, and makes you wonder about their sense of proportionality. When a local TV station obtusely rescinds an invitation to appear on a talk show, that’s not remotely in the ballpark of preventing the authors from exercising their right of free speech.

Is their book as sloppy as their logic here?

UPDATE: Howard Rosenberg sent me this email (and said I could post it here):

I read your blog about our KRON adventure and, after a bit of reflection, I take your point.

I am extremely concerned about the impact of corporate overgrowth in media. Speaking for myself, though, in no way do I equate corporate blacklisting (which I believe does occur) with the much bigger thumb of government censorship. Ask, say, ordinary Chinese or North Koreans which they would prefer.

Charles and I have speculated that the failure of our book to receive coverage from the 24-hour news networks is because it pretty well savages much of what they do. However, in no way can we document that. It’s a tough, competitive business, and there could be a myriad of other reasons why we haven’t made the cut.

KRON, of course, is another matter. Here we have a station rather belatedly canceling our interview because the news editor perceived (I can just see a10-watt light bulb clicking on in a thought balloon over his head) that our book attacks local news. It does not. The primary focus of our book is media speed and the dangers that we believe it poses for all of us. But even if the book did attack local news, so what?

The issue of our cancellation–news judgment driven totally by self-serving criteria–is much larger than the success or failure of our book. It’s an example of single-station TV news blacklisting, reflecting a lack of integrity that I found to be common among local newscasters when I covered them as TV critic for the L.A.Times. Arrrrgggggh! But censorship? Not at all. No one is silencing our voices.

And by the way, we did dash off our e-mail to KRON’s news director in anger and in haste. You might say we did it too fast to think.

All the best,

Howard Rosenberg

The distinction between blacklisting and censorship strikes me as precisely the correct one here. (I’ve changed the title of this post to remove the word “clueless” — plainly not correct at this point.)

0 Comments on “Authors: Government Censorship Better than Corporate”

  1. #1 Steve Rhodes
    on Dec 31st, 2008 at 3:55 am

    While you’re right that the first ammendment only applies to the government, it does not have a monopoly on censorship.

    And Rosenberg (who I wish were still writing daily criticism) certainly isn’t the first press critic to have that view. George Seldes made a similar argument over 70 years ago in his book, Freedom of the Press.

    The irony is their book will get more attention now than if they had done the interview on KRON (which is just a shadow of what it once was).

    But if it had been one of national news programs or 60 Minutes, they would have reached a much larger audience than would hear that an interview had been canceled. But they probably wouldn’t have even booked them in the first place.

  2. #2 Dan Gillmor
    on Dec 31st, 2008 at 4:58 am

    Steve, however much you may want to equate private acts — however stupid or even evil — with governmental acts, censorship means preventing someone from exercising free speech. There is no right to free speech on someone else’s TV show or network, or in someone else’s newspaper or magazine.

  3. #3 Alex Ryking
    on Dec 31st, 2008 at 8:27 am

    Merriam-Webster,, and Wikipedia disagree with you Dan, as do I. Your definition of censorship is too narrow.

    As for Feldman and Rosenberg’s contention that censorship by a government is better than corporate censorship, I agree with you that it’s a foolish notion; I wouldn’t want my message altered or supressed by either one.

  4. #4 Seth Finkelstein
    on Dec 31st, 2008 at 8:38 am

    1) “censorship means preventing someone from exercising free speech.” – you assumed your conclusion. That particular definition IS NOT the only definition in common English use (sometimes I think I should collect examples of this point).

    2) In context, I take what they said to mean “[In the United States] Government censorship is not nearly as bad [in terms of practice effects] as is corporate censorship–especially by a company that serves the public—or ought to.”
    Whereas you seem to be reading it as something like “[As an abstract matter] Government censorship is not nearly as bad [in theoretical category] as is corporate censorship”

    The former is arguably true. The latter strikes me as a tendentious interpretation.

  5. #5 michael edward lenert
    on Dec 31st, 2008 at 11:20 am

    Dan –

    I think you are too harsh on Rosenberg and Feldman.

    There is little doubt that a broadcasting corporation’s systematic denial of access to the public airwaves in violation of its public service obligations is a form of censorship and a violation of law.

    You seem to be confusing the law of newspapers with the law of television and overlooking an important point: All television stations In the United States are supervised by the federal government and are licensed to serve specific geographic areas. Indeed, the law says that it is the “basic responsibility” of each licensee “to contribute to the overall discussion of issues confronting the community.” This is a non-delegable duty for which each licensee will be held individually accountable.” See Deregulation of Radio, 98 FCC 1075 (1984).

    Since a broadcast corporation holds a monopoly on certain public resources (the frequency that it broadcasts on) it is required to act in the public interest and provide suitable news and information to the population they serve or their license can be revoked by the Federal Communications Commission.

    Indeed, the Commission cannot grant a license renewal without hearing unless it determines, based on the available information, that the applicant has met its burden of establishing that grant is in the public interest. 47 USC §309.

    In terms of corporate censorship, the legal question is one of the permissible range of the licensee’s editorial judgment. For example, in the 1960s, television station WLBT in Jackson, Miss., refused to show people of color on TV, clearly an illegal form of private censorship. Had WLBT’s practice not been rejected it would have been the same as “state action” in supporting racism through censorship.

    Michael Edward Lenert
    Professor of Journalism
    University of Nevada

  6. #6 Joel
    on Dec 31st, 2008 at 1:08 pm


    If something is censored that means that all or part of it has been redacted. If one item is censored and another isn’t, the first item has still been censored. (You can see where this logic leads.)

    Jumping all over Rosenberg and Feldman because you disagree with their use of the term “censored” is making a mountain out of a molehill.

    The real mountain is the “Elephant in the Room” of corporate control of the message.

    For instance, think about how Gary Webb’s story was “thrown under the bus” by The New York Times, The Washington Post, et al. And eventually by your old paper, The Mercury News, which caved-in completely after initially supporting that true story.

    We can quibble about terms while Rome burns, or demand accountability by the MSM, but not both.

    Yours in Digital Justice,


  7. #7 “Censorship” Author Responds – Center for Citizen Media
    on Jan 3rd, 2009 at 12:21 pm

    […] Rosenberg replied to my posting that criticized his (and a co-author’s) misguided views on government versus corporate […]

  8. #8 Eric Roston
    on Jan 3rd, 2009 at 1:29 pm

    I’m with Dan (and Howard R.’s first full paragraph in response). Reporters whose news/commentary segments or stories are killed, no matter what the reason and however obtusely, are still free to say it as loudly as they want or can — with Web publishing now more than ever. They’re not censored. They just have to find another venue. There’s nothing in the First Amendment that says private companies must publish all material scheduled, or even produced by people they have hired. Speech regulates itself in this country, both for better and for worse: Individuals and entities decide what they want to say out loud — knowing full well that everyone else can react out loud, with equal or greater influence. When there are vast sums of money involved, decisions certainly become complicated.

  9. #9 Jon Garfunkel
    on Jan 3rd, 2009 at 3:12 pm

    I’m with Seth’s interpretation, and am in general agreement with all above, that you are making a mountain from a molehill here. Obviously the *substance* of Rosenberg & Feldman’s book should be of more interest to media critics. The only thing your readers can conclude here is that it the KRON director discovered that it “takes shots at the crappy state of local TV news.”

    But the book is larger than that (here’s the book link, btw); that’s not a fair summary to leave in reader’s minds.

    Reading the reviews of the book, there seems to be a great irony here: this directly illustrates how snap decisions *become* part of the public record. Rosenberg fired off an email, and his casual substitution of “censorship” for “blacklisting” gets him singed. And you, Dan, prematurely judge him as “Clueless” in a headline in not one but 2 quasi-academic blogs (here’s the other one).

    No time to think?

  10. #10 Dan Gillmor
    on Jan 3rd, 2009 at 5:51 pm

    I’m not going to try to persuade those of you who believe non-governmental entities can censor. I do believe, however, that you trivialize the word when you broaden its meaning this way.

    The topic of the book (Jon, I did link to it, though not until I received the note from Howard Rosenberg) is quite important. I’ve ordered it and will post a mini-review when I have time.

  11. #11 Jon Garfunkel
    on Jan 4th, 2009 at 3:36 pm


    Excellent point.
    On September 26, 2007, you linked to the NYT article about Verizon reversing course on their choice to block NARAL messages. But you neglected to catch this in the article:

    Nancy Keenan, Naral’s president, expressed satisfaction today. “The fight to defeat corporate censorship was won,” she said.

    Note that this is not a hastily-written email by a spurned private individual, it’s a prepared statement by the president of a national organization following a corporate policy redeemed in their favor. In fact, Keens referred to “censor” 4 times in a follow-up Op-Ed on this in the WaPo, and this became some more fuel for the NN movement.

    That’s just why I was confused that you were so quick to condemn this casual usage here.

  12. #12 Dan Gillmor
    on Jan 4th, 2009 at 3:52 pm

    You’re right. I missed that in the NARAL case.

    But the authors in this case are journalists. They, of all people, should (and obviously Howard Rosenberg does) know better. I hold them to a higher standard.

  13. #13 Jon Garfunkel
    on Jan 4th, 2009 at 4:22 pm

    Not to prolong this longer than necessary, but if we are being academic here, I thought that it was currently in vogue to see journalism defined by acts, and not by profession.

    An NGO President writing an Op-Ed in a national newspaper is undoubtedly creating an “act of journalism,” more so than a veteran journalist writing a hasty personal email. Thanks for removing “Clueless” from the title.

  14. #14 Seth Finkelstein
    on Jan 4th, 2009 at 4:55 pm

    AT&T Plays Gatekeeper. Censors Pearl Jam.
    August 9th, 2007 by tkarr

    Over the weekend AT&T gave us a glimpse of their plans for the Web when they censored a Pearl Jam performance

    Our friends at the Future of Music Coalition have done great work to mobilize hundreds of rock bands against such censorship but it’s a threat that concerns everyone.
    Censoring of Song Was an Error, AT&T Says
    Published: August 10, 2007

    SAN ANTONIO, Aug. 9 (AP) — Lyrics sung by Pearl Jam criticizing President Bush during a concert last weekend in Chicago should not have been censored during a Webcast by AT&T, a company spokesman said Thursday.

  15. #15 Dan Gillmor
    on Jan 4th, 2009 at 8:46 pm

    Seth, thanks for the other examples.

  16. #16 charles s. feldman
    on Jan 12th, 2009 at 3:50 pm

    I wasn’t going to contribute to this on-going debate over whether censorship or blacklisting was the proper word to use in our letter fired off to KRON…To be honest, I was actually finding the discussion fairly interesting.

    So, why am I writing this,then?

    First, a brief story that I hope will illustrate the point I will soon make.

    Many years ago, I was watching Orson Wells chatting it up with Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show. Carson, who apparently was a film buff to the extreme, asked Wells about one of the more famous camera angles (shot from ground level at an extreme angle) that had been used in “Citizen Kane” and that had been the subject of great debate over the years in books and film courses all across America. Indeed, I recalled such a discussion about this very shot in a film class I once took as an undergraduate in New York more years ago than I care to remember.

    Wells, as only Wells could, leaned back, or tried to–he was, after all, fairly–how should we put this?—fat–and laughed loudly in a bass roar that actually made my feeble television speaker rattle.

    Carson actually looked surprised. What was so funny? or words to that effect–Carson asked.

    Simply this, Wells replied: He had been amused for many years, he said, about all the theories and speculation regarding why he decided to place his camera at the one particular location to capture this one particular shot. The fact was, Wells said, the set had not been built to the specs it was supposed to have been which created a problem in terms of where to place the camera.

    The much debated–and often described as “brilliant” camera position was, said Wells, simply a practical matter. The debate was over something that wasn’t even real!

    Which, finally, brings me to my point: Of course government censorship isn’t better than private, corporate censorship or blacklisting, whichever you prefer. I wouldn’t even know how to evaluate such a thing in the abstract.

    But that was not the meaning of that paragraph–which, Howard is correct–was written fast and, therefore, probably not as clearly as it could have been. (And, yes, it does prove the point of our book, but leave it for others to determine that for themselves).

    Rather, what was meant was simply this: In this country–and that was what was being referred to–government censorship does not actually happen all that often, at least not in the truest meaning of the word. However, having spent more than a score years doing investigative reporting of all types, I have no doubt in my mind that corporate attempts to stifle discussion or conceal negative information from public view, is widespread, all to common and a growing problem.

    From non-disclosure “agreements” forced upon employees, to costly litigation designed to punish those who dare reveal company “secrets,” I have found, over the years, getting information from companies is often far more difficult that it is from government agencies.

    At least, in this country, there are laws in place (i.e., freedom of information act) that however badly they might be executed or even subverted, still exist and still provide a powerful weapon in the hands of a skilled journalist. Not so with corporations –even though these companies may manufacture drugs that make us sick, or tobacco products that addict our young, or cars that, more often than not, fail even the most forgiving of government crash tests. Good luck trying to pry information from these companies. You best have very deep pockets and lots of time to kill.

    Years ago, I remember a discussion at CNN, where I worked at the time, involving several reporters (I was one), producers and the then senior assignment person in Atlanta. There was a proposal on the table to do a series of reports from different parts of the country about a growing underclass–people who dropped out of the job market or could not get in–people whose education skills would forever cast them as non-productive citizens–people for whom poverty was a sentence imposed upon them that they could never appeal.

    The executive editor, who came from a very conservative, Southern, and Republican family (and a famous one at that) stopped the conversation cold. No! There would be no series on an emerging underclass in the United States because, she said, her belief-and her family’s belief- was there was no such thing as an underclass in America. If people were down and out, then they were down and out of their own doing, she stated in no uncertain terms.

    The proposed series of reports stopped then and there. The cable news network of record, as it liked to call itself in those days, would not report this story.

    Now, I can hear those quick to jump in and say—but, wait, even if CNN didn’t do that story, others did, or could have! Yes, that is true–of this one story; not of many others. Like minds tend to reach like conclusions: those who reach the ranks of newspaper executive editors or television network executive producers often think the same because they are the same in many ways.

    Lastly, I agree with an earlier comment that television and radio stations cannot be lumped in along with newspapers and magazines.

    We forget all to often that, by law, the “owners” of television and radio stations in the United States are custodians of the public airwaves, charged with a very special responsibility to promote fair and honest discussion within the communities they serve. This, of course, does not mean that they are required to throw open the switch to everyone who comes along with something they want said. But what it does mean is they MUST go that extra mile or two to make sure the public is exposed to as wide a range of opinion and debate as is reasonably possible.

    Charles S. Feldman

  17. #17 charles s. feldman
    on Jan 12th, 2009 at 4:20 pm

    Correcting spelling Orson Welles sted Wells!

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