On Self-Censorship As A Canadian Preoccupation

There are always going to be thin-skinned readers, but writers who self-censor for fear of offending said readers suck more. #canada

This was going to be a missive sent over Twitter. Then I thought, what if someone replies to me, calling me out? What if someone says:

@m_cahill Care to name names, or are you AFRAID OF OFFENDING SOMEONE? #jerk

Allow me to elaborate (and do it in an environment I can totally control without distorting my message due to a 140-character limit).

Two articles in the last week were sources of outrage among certain parts of the online world, particularly on Twitter, where it’s particularly easy to express outrage*. The first was Ian Brown’s essay on men gazing at women in the Globe & Mail. It elicited a lot of criticism, from feminists who were offended by the objectification of women to people who simply construed Brown’s perspective as creepy in a Lolita sorta way.

My partner and I began talking about some of the anger we saw in our respective Internet social circles. I felt a lot of it was overblown. Predictable, actually (sadly). And yet I agreed with Ingrid, who reminded me that there is something to be said about “the gaze” which women historically have been on the other end of. In other words, it was a complex issue. All said, something I found admirable in Brown’s piece (and his writing in general**) was his forthrightness. Unlike so many writers there was no effort made to allay the concerns of the entire reading public that he wasn’t trying to offend anyone.

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Article: The Top Censored News Items of 2007

Slashdot, a site I visit every once in a while for media/technology news (their motto is “news for nerds, stuff that matters”) had a summary of a very interesting (if disturbing) article, by an outfit named Project Censored (from their website: “Project Censored is a media research group out of Sonoma State University which tracks the news published in independent journals and newsletters. From these, Project Censored compiles an annual list of 25 news stories of social significance that have been overlooked, under-reported or self-censored by the country’s major national news media”).

Indeed, the Top 25 Censored Stories of 2007 contains some pretty disturbing stuff. Like:

#2 Halliburton Charged with Selling Nuclear Technologies to Iran


#11 Dangers of Genetically Modified Food Confirmed

Again, though it may be easy, superficially, to think this is yet another left-wing group with a wishlist, it isn’t. These are well-researched, authoritative items of interest that are cross-confirmed by third-party contributors. That our media (and yes, there is an Americentric focus to the list – Project Censored is, after all, an American outfit) pays scant attention to any of these and yet devotes slightly less time to Anna Nicole Smith’s death than on the day of 9/11 is a travesty.

Since we’re on the topic of journalism, ethics, and self-censorship, allow me to talk to you about bias. There’s been a lot of mud thrown since just before 9/11 (and obviously since) about a “liberal media bias” in the news. In return, and certainly since 9/11, there have been just as many accusations about “right-wing media bias” also. The problem is that neither accusation is particularly correct – or rather, neither of these stances tackles the larger issue: money.

Television news requires advertisers to produce it. The producers of television news require viewers in order to sell advertising time. Ostensibly, there is no difference between news programming and sitcoms. They need to keep viewers watching in order for the advertisers who sponsor/pay-for the program to feel as if their money is well spent. Print news is the same (as are their internet-based spin-offs): advertisers are the lifeblood of news. It has been this way for over a hundred years.

So, getting back to the “liberal media” vs. “right-wing media” infighting, it’s not a question of who is truly pushing a “liberal agenda” or what show is promoting an unquestionable “right-wing” viewpoint. It’s about making money, getting viewers, and above all, keeping advertisers happy.

This is one of the not-so-good things about capitalism. When you surrender journalism to “the market”, the market wins every time. Thus, Anna Nicole Smith’s death is the rational choice for keeping viewers entranced and advertisers happy over, let’s say, the destruction of the world’s fish stocks. Complexity – and if there’s anything you can count on in life, it’s complexity – does not sell, or so “the market” dictates.

There are always exceptions – PBS in the US and CBC in Canada: however, both have been corrupted by government intrusion, if not partially hobbled. Funding for public broadcasting is constantly being trimmed and political interference, particularly in PBS’ case, has started to infect the roots.

I write all this not to say “don’t read newspapers, don’t watch Newsworld @ 11” but rather so that people understand that, yes, it’s possible for a newspaper or broadcast to spend pages of print and minutes of talking without actually focusing on stories that are truly substantial.

My advice: Keep digging. Don’t get sidetracked by trifling “left” vs. “right” debates when the freedom of news itself is the issue.