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Saturday, January 28, 2017

Direct or Indirect or Not at All?

Not long ago I wrote about a book causing a big ruckus in the publishing and bookselling world. That is, I did not write about the book, per se, but about a movement within the publisher’s customer base to boycott – in some cases, only the book; in other cases, everything coming from that publishing house. The question I raised was whether or not a boycott constitutes censorship, and I argued that it does not. One reader took a different point of view and seemed to find my rhetoric equivalent to that of religiously conservative bakers and florists not wanting to provide wedding cakes and flowers to gay couples. I rejected the equivalence (see comments following original post) but failed to convince my opposition. I guess you would say we hold different views on the moral legitimacy of boycotts, as well as on their efficacy.

A piece by Alan Rusbridger in the December 8, 2016, in the New York Review of Books may  shed further light on the question. At any rate, it is an important look at the question of freedom of the press and so deserves reading. 

Rusbridger looks closely at journalism in Kenya and highlights what he calls “financially induced self-censorship,” which he abbreviates as “fiscing.” I find the abbreviation infelicitous, but the phrase is central to his article. There is no direct censorship involved, he notes, in financially induced self-censorship. Instead,
 ... newspapers respond to the potential withholding of revenue by censoring themselves.

I have refrained from adding my own italics to the quote above, but I believe it is a rare human being who has not “self-censored” at one time or another. Who has not railed in private, in very intemperate language, against something or someone and at another time given the opinion more moderate expression in a social or public setting? I would say, in fact, that a certain amount of “self-censorship” greases the wheels of society and allows us to live together, creating space for civility. Sometimes it may go by the name of diplomacy.

Rusbridger, however, is not concerned with politesse. In Kenya, it is increasing fear of journalists, specifically newspapers, and the “government’s extreme sensitivity to criticism” that are at stake when it comes to reporting stories unfavorable to the government. For instance, riots following an election with questionable results killed 1200 people. Charges were filed by the International Criminal Court against the president and his deputy. Quite a story! Not one getting covered by the press in Kenya, however. As one investigative reporter asked rhetorically, “[W]ho is going to go up against the president and the deputy president?” One who tried was killed and the hard drive of his computer stolen.

As I look at the phenomenon of “financially induced self-censorship” as it exists in Kenya, three features of the situation stand out:

Ø  Kenyan journalists are not self-censoring solely out of fear that they may lose their jobs or see revenues drop. They also fear for their lives.

Ø  Kenyan journalists are refraining from criticizing the government out of fear of the government’s power.

Ø  The financial hardship Kenyan newspaper people fear is a direct consequence of government advertising on which newspapers depend.

Rather than call this any form of “self-censorship,” then, I would call it indirect censorship. There is no government office through which articles must pass for permission to print (that would be direct censorship), but the fact the government holds the purse strings and threatens to withdraw funds if criticized – with more dire threats in reserve – is certainly a strong disincentive to the exercise of freedom of the press.

What about when an advertiser rather than a government is holding the purse strings? Such temptations to “financially induced self-censorship” (to stick with Rusbridger’s terminology) have always existed for American newspapers and magazines and are nothing new Betty Friedan, in The Feminine Mystique, revealed the way stories in women’s magazines were directed to advertisers’ interests. Right here in northern Michigan, within the past decade, a major advertiser in Traverse City’s daily newspaper pulled all ads after the paper covered a story unfavorable to the company. Print media sometimes selects only that advertising that promotes values it wants to uphold or, more rarely, decides to raise subscription prices to do away with advertising altogether so that editorial integrity is not compromised in any way.

Yes, loss of revenue can tempt journalists – writers and editors both -- to suppress stories unfavorable to advertisers. But this is very different from having the financial rug pulled out from under one by a government, with power to inflict still greater harms, if a newspaper criticizes the government.

Relating what Rusbridger calls “financially induced self-censorship” to a boycott by consumers, whether wholesale or retail buyers, I see another important issue at stake, one I did mention in my earlier post. A government, backed by a military establishment, has enormous coercive power. The same is true of any large corporation dispensing advertising dollars, although I have argued here and elsewhere that it is only a government can inflict actual censorship, direct or indirect. Consumers of goods and services, on the other hand, will always hold the weaker financial hand, and it is only by joining forces in a boycott that they can hope to level the playing field and bring about changes in the behavior of businesses looking for profits, wherever they are to be found.

Direct censorship, indirect censorship, self-censorship, boycotts. How do you see them?

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