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News ::
Wartime Hurdles to Media Free Speech
12 Nov 2001
Today's public faces a two-fronted assault on free speech--that of the usual wartime military censorship, and the hightened willingness of the news and entertainment companies to refrain from saying anything controversial.
In his first monologue on ABC's "Politically Incorrect" since September 11th, Bill Maher told the audience that he reserved the right to criticize the US government. "Feelings are going to get hurt so that people don't," he said. "And that's a good thing."

A day later, he found his show cancelled on three network affilitates, Sears and Federal Express dropping out as sponsors, and a reprimand from his bosses at ABC. He made a public apology for his statements that night.

Today's public faces a two-fronted assault on free speech--that of the usual wartime military censorship, and the hightened willingness of the news and entertainment companies to refrain from saying anything controversial. Maher's tangle with Big Media self-censorship illustrates this new level of scrutiny placed upon entertainment and journalism. Major U.S. media outlets have enacted a cautious campaign of self-censorship that many critics are calling a step in the wrong direction.

John MacArthur, publisher of Harper's Magazine, said in an interview with "People are afraid to say the politically incorrect thing or ask the un-PC question because they don't want to be seen as not supporting the victims emotionally." Supporting the victims of the attacks was the most important issue for media companies for at least two weeks following the 11th. Network television stopped running advertisements, late night talk shows toned down their humor, and film studios postponed the release of violent films like Arnold Schwarzenegger's Collateral Damage.

Perhaps the most glaring example of this kind of "sensitive corporation" self-censorship is Clear Channel Communications notorious list of over 150 songs deemed "inappropriate" for airplay since the 11th. Some examples were Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'," U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday," and the Bangle's "Walk Like an Egyptian," and "anything by Rage Against the Machine." Clear Channel owns over 1,150 radio stations wide (including Jam'n 94.5 FM and Kiss 108 FM in Boston). That amounts to own one in ten stations nationwide.

This kind of censorship is difficult to attack because no one is forcing the companies to do it. Dan Kennedy, media critic at the Boston Phoenix, writes that "the threat posed to the First Amendment right now is not so much official censorship . . . as self-censorship, a phenomenon that is far more dangerous in an age of media conglomerates than it would have been in an earlier time." What Kennedy is getting at is the problem free speech activists have been facing in this age of corporate mergers--fewer and fewer people control what more and more people say. "A list of songs banned by one radio station is of little consequence," Kennedy writes. "But when Clear Channel suggests that its nearly 1200 radio stations consider not playing certain songs, that's downright chilling."

As entertainment faces the barrier of corporate self-censorship, journalists now face the even higher-profile dilemna of a free and useful press in war time.

Robert McChesney, media specialist and professor at the University of Illinois, told that he blames poor reporting as much as censorship. "What's completely absent in our journalism . . . is any understanding of the US role in the world." This lack of contextual information in news reports, information easily obtained through public documents, is largely the journalists' fault, says McChesney. "In fact, even if you read the CIA's own internal documents, they're all about how the US is supporting sleazeball governments, and we're doing all sorts of terrible stuff. At a certain level, the people in our government understand that that's just public relations hooey, but our journalism gravitates towards that and sticks with it."

Robert Zelnick, a former correspondent for ABC News in Moscow and Tel Aviv in the 80s, explained to the IMC that reporting from “behind enemy lines” is a difficult thing to do, even in periods of relative peace.

“I was in Moscow during a period when it was very difficult to work,” he said. “If you traveled outside of Moscow, you had to be escorted by Soviet military. You could only report on what wasn’t restricted.”

In Moscow, Zelnick said, his press team had little contact with US military and was hard-pressed to get any information on the Soviet war with Afghanistan, in which US-funded and trained Afghani troops fought off Soviet troops for ten years between 1979 and 1989. “All we heard of was word of casualties and ‘silent dissent’ in the Soviet Union.” The United States worked under secret operations for much of that war.

Little reporting is being published in America from inside Taliban-ruled areas of Afghanistan. It was due to a Taliban invitation that U.S. reporters were able to report on a bombed-out village after U.S. air attacks had shelled it on October 14th. The U.S. certainly didn't volunteer information abut the Red Cross warehouse it accidentally bombed on October 16 until the International Committee of the Red Cross brought it to the press's attention.

Zelnick said that reporting inside of Taliban-ruled areas of Afghanistan now depends on what the military, both Taliban and US, will allow reporters to see.

“Right now, there’s been absolutely no inclination of the military to let the reporters in on anything,” he said. The only way to get into cities like Kabul, he said, is the make official contact with the Taliban. “When it’s in their interests to show you something—a blown-up building, for instance—they’ll take you there.”

MacArthur said "This will be the most censored war in history. Bush said in his [September 20] address that some victories won't even be visible. That means that the war is inteneded to be fought in secret, so of course the failures and defeats will also be invisible."

The Associated Press Managing Editors have already issued a formal complaint to the United States about restrictions placed on reporters in the last month. In a statement issued October 14 and signed by members of 20 journalism groups like the Poynter Institute, Knight Foundation, and the Society of Professional Journalists, they wrote "We recognize that these are perilous times when unusual measures must be considered. However, we believe that these retrictions pose dangers to American democracy and prevent American citizens from obtaining the information they need."

MacArthur remains skeptical about major media outlets ability to clear the hurdles to clear and truthful reporting for the time being. “To some extent the world will have to depend on freelancers and brave correspondents of news organizations who refuse to play ball and walk on their own.”
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