Censorship Within Democratic Societies
by Peter Phillips and Ivan Harslof
Censored 1997, Project Censored
Is it possible to understand censorship in a modern society,
where the flow of information is rapidly accelerating and communication
technology makes it possible to expose almost every corner of
political and social life to a wide audience? Is there any value
in discussing censorship in democracies, where freedom of expression
is ensured in constitutions and amendments?
By reviewing some of the current research within the field
of communications, we wish to establish a broad analytical framework
for the identification of censorship mechanisms as they may occur
in modern democratic societies. Media concentration is rapidly
changing the face of censorship and new broader definitions are
needed to understand the full dimensions of the issue. We conclude
this chapter with a report on our 1996 study of how one of the
most informed groups about the media situation-U.S. newspaper
editors-perceive media concentration as a threat to First Amendment
Censorship is normally considered a defensive phenomenon,
in the sense that censorship is a mechanism that deliberately
prevents information from reaching the public. It is regarded
as a function exercised by authorities in public as well as private
organizations-to control the content of publications (Fairchild,1976).
Even in modern democratic societies this overt form of censorship
continues to occur, as well as its more subtle variations. In
fact, legal regulation of freedom of expression continues to be
seen as an important part of almost all democratic constitutions
(Lipset, ed., 1995), as well as international conventions.
John Keane, in his book The Media and Democracy (1991), regards
state censorship as a phenomenon which continues in modern democracies.
He identifies a tendency toward the creation of mutually-protecting
undemocratic processes within and between modern capitalistic
societies. This is, according to Keane, one of the main threats
to the free flow of information about state activities. Governments
use a number of mechanisms to regulate and distort the exchange
of information and opinions between their citizens. These can
include legal tools, such as secret services declaring 'emergency
situations' or initiating pre- or post-censorship of publications
for state security reasons, or simply lying to the public about
governmental actions or positions.
This kind of information management seems to be the case in
the current CIA-drug smuggling affair. The CIA has denied any
direct involvement with the Contra drug smuggling operations in
the 1980s; however, it has become increasingly clear that at least
some elements of the CIA knew the drug smuggling was occurring.
Therefore, by omission, it was actually lying to the public (Webb,
1996). Similarly, one of the most recent examples of state censorship
has been the U.S. military establishment's control of press coverage
during the Gulf War (Haines, 1995). (For more details about state
censorship see, "Less Access to Less Information," Appendix
The use of such tactics is not, however, limited to government
agencies. Likewise, private corporations may overtly censor outgoing
information, as in the case of Ford Motor Company and the Pinto's
exploding gas tank (Hills, 1987).
Indeed, the defensive application of censorship as a concept
seems the most obvious because of its direct links to the traditional
images of the zealous censor cutting, banning, burning, and retouching.
However, it might be necessary to take into consideration more
offensive traits of censorship if we want to fully understand
the existing patterns of repression within modern societies. The
expansion of the concept of censorship to include offensive public
relations activities by powerful deep-pocketed corporations establishes
the promotion of certain versions of reality in the public as
an important mode of censorship.
This year's number 19 censored story provides us with an example
of offensive censorship. The story reveals how major corporations
have hired the public relations firm Hill & Knowlton to do
a pro-China campaign to influence Congress and the American public
in order to secure China's trade status as a "most favored
nation" (Silverstein,1996). In their book, Toxic Sludge is
Good for You (1995), Stauber and Rampton give a comprehensive
account of the growing propaganda-for-hire industry in the U.S.
that is increasingly involved in the promotion of special interests
in order to influence political debates and public opinion. Offensive
censorship is the strategic structuring of information released
to the public by large powerful corporations or governmental agencies.
Images of the zealous censor or "public relations official"
imply that censorship is an intentional act performed on the manifest
level. But in a modern market economy, other processes of more
intangible and latent natures should not be ignored. Jansen (1991)
and Keane (1991) both put forth the notion of market censorship
in order to visualize the idea that economic forces strongly determine
what information is reaching the public. Thus, market censorship-extending
Adam Smith's classic metaphor-is censorship conducted by the invisible
hand of the market. For example, editors and owners of news organizations
will tend not to pursue certain news stories that might offend
major advertisers. Market censorship also includes the notion
that news organizations are actually marketing groups that are
constantly analyzing readership numbers and viewer percentages.
This analysis tends to lead to the selection of news stories for
their public-titillating qualities rather than their societal
news value or educational attributes.
The way in which this latent mode of censorship operates is
analyzed in Herman and Chomsky's book Manufacturing Consent (1988;
and updated in Herman, 1996). They claim that because the media
is firmly imbedded in the market system, it reflects the class
values and concerns of its owners and advertisers. According to
Herman and Chomsky, the media maintains a corporate class bias
through five systemic filters: concentrated private ownership;
a strict bottom-line profit orientation; over-reliance on governmental
and corporate sources for news; a primary tendency to avoid offending
the powerful; and an almost religious worship of the market economy,
which strongly opposes alternative beliefs. These filters limit
what will become news in society and set parameters on acceptable
coverage of daily events.
Chomsky (1989) is careful to point out that the propaganda
model is a structural theory that shows how large or significant
interests in society influence decision making by simply being
powerful in their own right. He does not try to claim that government
or corporate media owners directly and systematically dictate
news coverage perspectives to editors and producers. However,
a number of researchers have given numerous examples of this type
of media control (Parenti, 1986; Demac, 1988; Bagdikian, 1992;
Mazzocco, 1994; and Stauber and Rampton, 1995). Certainly a limited
process of overt influence is operating as well, but in Chomsky's
marketplace perspective, overt control is unnecessary, because
the system will tend to do it automatically.
Ben Bagdikian's (1992) ongoing concern that monopoly control
and continued concentration of media organizations threatens the
First Amendment emphasizes the importance of the propaganda model
for understanding censorship in modern society. Increasingly concentrated
mega-media organizations will only diminish any possibility of
news organizations resisting marketplace pressures.
That media ownership has an important impact on what becomes
news, and how the news is treated, is well-documented by Wasburn
(1995). In a comparative content study of commercial, public,
and government broadcast content in the U.S., Wasburn found the
newscasts of commercial broadcasting organizations tended to be
uniform, rarely critical, and most likely to present news as mere
facts, with little, if any, contextual background information.
Furthermore, a highly ethnocentric view of the world was frequently
offered in the commercial newscast. There was also a clear absence
of stories dealing with international events. In contrast, the
publicly-owned news organizations in the study were more prone
to give an account of the context in which news events were embedded,
and to give the public some insight into foreign affairs.
If we come to understand that censorship, in its defensive
and offensive modes, operates within a societal structural system
dominated by the powerful, we come very close to the Marxist/Gramscian
theory of cultural hegemony. This theory implies that values,
ideologies, and issues of the powerful are transmitted through
societal institutions as socio-cultural mechanisms that cultivate
ideas and inform the masses. Mass media is but one institution
within a structural framework of domination and control evident
in a capitalist society. Some thorough work on how the corporate
media distorts the news in favor of upper-class interests and
official government positions has already been done. The works
of Cohen and Solomon (1995), Croteau and Hoynes (1994), and Haines
(1995) all extensively document current corporate media bias in
presenting and framing the news.
However, the validity of this perspective has been historically
debated. Altheide (1984) pointed out numerous examples of media
criticism of elites and governmental policy which he suggested
renders the hegemonic or propaganda perspective incomplete. Nevertheless,
the fact that Watergate-like exposures of government corruption
or corporate malfeasance do occur does not necessarily diminish
the overall pressures for news organizations to operate within
the parameters of power expectations in society.
Carrage (1993) maintains that this kind of critique depends
on what scale one allows for the occurrences of contradictions
within the dominant ideology in the application of hegemonic theory.
And in fact, by accepting some contradictions and inconsistencies
on the manifest level, the system could be said to maintain the
illusion of pluralism (shared power) for public consumption while
maintaining an ongoing compliance with dominant ideologies and
THE HUMAN DIMENSION
In discussing censorship one often tends to forget the role
of the media audience-the readers, listeners, and viewers. How
does the selective, free media consumer fit into this system of
censorship? The relationship between the media and the audience
has been subject to thorough examination. Particularly within
the last fifteen years, it has been increasingly recognized that
the audience is not a defenseless, passive, and cognitively uniform
mass, but rather a diverse group of active, interpreting individuals
(for an overview of this approach, see e.g. Biltereyst, 1995).
Becker and Kosicki (1995) suggest that media effects should be
regarded as a transaction between audience members and messages
producers, with neither fully dominating.
It is important to make a distinction between collective and
individual transactions. The former implies that the audience
reacts to the content provided by the media, but that this content
to a certain degree is determined by expectations about audience
interests. These expectations are based on prior experiences with
audience behavior. The content-reaction outcome is thus shaped
by a continuous negotiation between the producers and the audience.
By refusing to pay attention to certain kinds of media messages,
the audience sends a collective signal to media producers to change
the content. This is one of the reasons that U.S. Saturday morning
television has almost completely eliminated female lead characters
in cartoons. Media networks were losing half of their market share
by running female leads because little boys refused to watch cartoons
with female leads while girls would watch either (Carter,1991).
The collective signals sent from the audience are not only
related to quantitative measures of numbers of readers, listeners,
and viewers, but also to the demographic 'quality' of these, assessed
within the parameters of market segmentation. Different advertisers
demand different audience groups with specific economic profiles
and consumption habits. Media producers are to some extent compelled
to adjust media content so that they deliver suitable audience
groups to advertisers (Stabile, 1995).
The public does have an influence on media content, but this
content modification may reflect consumer prejudices and individual
socio-emotional desires for entertaining stimulation over reflective
or hard-hitting news. News organizations often say they are just
giving the public what it wants. However, market share-based consumer
viewing reports place media organizations in competition with
each other to develop the most entertaining news coverage, but
not necessarily the most accurate or important. The question becomes:
what does the public really want? Psychological theories of self-actualization
and maturation stress that basic human nature pushes people to
seek to understand themselves in terms of their social environment.
Does this mean humans really just want entertaining stimulation
or do we naturally seek to become more informed and aware of our
Ben Bagdikian (1992) claims the American public is taking
diminishing interest in news events, as reflected in the decline
of newspaper readership and newscast viewership, due in part to
mass media's lack of a critical qualitative coverage of important
news events, and a drifting toward news as entertainment. In 1993,
journalist Dan Rather was quoted as saying, "We have all
succumbed to the Hollywoodization of news...We trivialize important
subjects...and give the best slots to gossip and prurience"
(Sacramento Bee, October 1,1993: A-22). Is more entertaining news
really a reflection of the public's desire or is the public's
lowered interest in news a reflection of the fact that basic human
needs for meaning and understanding are not being met? The basic
assumption that is in use to address this issue will have an increasingly
important influence on concentrated mega-media systems. Does the
public drive the media or is the media driving the public to a
lower level of expectations? Qualitative aspects of what future
societies will look like may well result from how we answer this
As it should be clear from the outlining of various modes
of censorship mechanisms in Figure 1, media concentration appears
to be a major cause of the systemic filtering of public information
in a modern society. The impact of media concentration will be
subject to further examination in the following section.
AN ALTERNATIVE PERSPECTIVE ON MEDIA CONCENTRATION
In a new film on media censorship, "Fear and Favor in
the News Room," University of California, Berkeley Professor
Emeritus Ben Bagdikian says the press is like a cathedral and
a bank. The cathedral has the responsibility to tell the people
the moral truths about themselves, while the bank collects their
money. The two roles represent a potential conflict for the press
in the United States today. The press is the only industry specifically
protected by the Constitution, due to its professional duty to
maintain the free flow of information, a responsibility essential
to the democratic process. Bagdikian's concern is that the media
have evolved into massive corporate entities that are advertiser-driven
profit machines, and are rapidly drifting away from their duty
to provide the public with vital information.
Ben Bagdikian first published his book, The Media Monopoly,
in 1983 and has updated four editions with a fifth pending (Spring
1997). His primary thesis is that media corporation mergers and
takeovers are diminishing the number of news sources and this
threatens freedom of information in our society:
No single corporation controls all the mass media in the United
But the daily newspapers, magazines, and broadcasting systems,
books, motion pictures, and most other mass media are rapidly
moving in the direction of tight control by a handful of huge
multinational corporations. (Bagdikian, 1992: 3)
Bagdikian (1992) documents how the controlling interests of
America's mass media were reduced from 46 to 23 corporations between
1981 and 1992, and he predicts there will be fewer than a dozen
by the turn of the century. He is careful to note that journalists
and editors still maintain strong ethical standards regarding
objectivity, the First Amendment, and public access to information,
but claims these standards tend to become structurally suppressed
by bottom-line fiscal considerations as media corporations consolidate.
In a country where several daily newspapers have traditionally
operated in a single city, we now have reached a point where 98
percent of U.S. cities have only one daily and 80 percent of these
are owned by corporate chains. Gannett Inc., the largest newspaper
chain in the U.S., currently owns over 80 dailies spread throughout
the U.S., with a total readership of over six million (Alger,
1996; Bagdikian, 1992).
In Culture Inc. (1989) Herbert Schiller laments the corporate
takeover of public expression by larger and larger privately-owned
companies. He cautions against the complete privatization of cultural
discourse and warns against the internationalization of media
conglomeration. He also cites Bagdikian's work as essential to
understanding media power formation.
Ever since public media advocates lost the national fight
against the privatization of radio in 1934 (for a detailed history,
see McChesney, 1991), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)
has set limits on the number of radio and television stations
any single corporation could own. These limits were greatly reduced
under the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996. This bill was
described in the press as a grand celebration of the free market
system. However, the nation's major news outlets did not find
it the least bit newsworthy that for the first time in history,
one individual or company could own an unlimited number of televisions
and radio stations. The fact that the bill would allow one company
to own radio, network, and cable television stations all in the
same market also went unreported. Major news outlets did not find
it worthwhile to report that the national "audience cap"
had been raised to 35 percent, making it legal for only three
companies to eventually own and control our entire news and information
system (Lowenthal, 1996).
Mass media coverage of the Telecoms bill fits the propaganda
model perfectly. Self-interested corporate-owned news outlets
did not critically debate the most important communications legislation
passed by Congress in the past 60 years. Instead, the media industry
contributed over two million dollars in PAC funds to Congress
during the first half of 1995 to support pushing through the Telecoms
bill (Naureckas, 1996).
Even the alternative press in the United States paid little
attention to the monopoly impacts of the Telecoms legislation.
Ralph Nader and James Love wrote a letter to the editor of TAP-INFO
(an Internet newsletter) in July of 1995 decrying the bill as
a closing up of the marketplace of ideas in America. They stressed
the dangers of deregulating media ownership and warned of the
monopoly impacts of the bill. Nader and Love's letter was eventually
named the most censored story of 1995 by Project Censored, but
still there was little or no debate on the issue of media concentration
before passage of the bill (Jensen, 1996).
Since passage of the Telecoms bill, the issue of media concentration
has become a cause celebre among alternative publications in the
United States. In late February 1996, the Institute for Alternative
Journalism, managers of the national alternative news service
Alternet, hosted a Media and Democracy conference in San Francisco
which was attended by over 700 alternative press journalists,
editors, and publishers. A central theme for the entire conference
and the topic addressed by keynote speaker Ben Bagdikian was the
negative impacts of the Telecoms bill and the threat of media
monopoly in the United States. The Nation ran a special issue
last June devoted to "The National Entertainment State"
with comments by twenty media critics and a media concentration
centerfold map (The Nation, June 3, 1996). (A reprint of The Nation
article is in Chapter 7.) Similarly, The Monthly Review's July
1996 issue was completely devoted to communications issues.
Mega-mergers and buyouts of national media organizations have
accelerated rapidly in the past two years. Disney's takeover of
ABC, Westinghouse's absorption of CBS and recent merger with Infinity,
Microsoft's partnership with GE's NBC, and Time Warner's merger
with Turner's CNN have created massive new media entities. In
a 1996 update on propaganda theory, Ed Herman said:
" The dramatic changes in the economy, communications
industries, and politics over the past decade have tended to enhance
the applicability of the propaganda model. The first two fiIters-ownership
and advertising-have become ever more important. The decline of
public broadcasting, the increase in corporate power and global
reach, and the mergers and centralization of the media, have made
bottom line considerations more controlling (Herman, 1996:124)."
The key concerns of propaganda theory, as expounded by Chomsky
and Herman, and Bagdikian's media concentration, are as follows.
1. Media concentration is threatening freedom of information
in the United States and this directly impacts the quality of
democratic citizen participation.
2. Corporate media is diminishing the quality of investigative
reporting and increasing the level of entertainment-oriented news
3. The public is taking an increasingly skeptical view of
corporate news and is quantitatively limiting viewing and reading
4. Editors tend to assign and approve stories that meet the
expectations of their corporate owners and advertisers, and edit
or cut stories that might tend to offend them.
5. Journalists within major media corporations will tend to
ignore or tone down stories that might offend editors, owners,
6. Major mainstream corporate media outlets will tend to support
the foreign affairs policies of the United States Government,
and have become increasingly dependent on government sources for
news story content...
... alternative press editors in the United States tend to
be concerned about the main issues presented in propaganda/Bagdikian
theory, and that to a lesser degree, mainstream editors probably
share these concerns. Additionally, alternative press editors
tend to believe that right-wing think tanks have had an increasingly
greater influence on the major press in the U.S., and that left-leaning
think tanks are less influential. They tend to reject right-wing
perspectives on the liberal bias of media in the U.S. and the
importance of free market systems for news services. Alternative
press editors also feel that independent news organizations probably
have greater editorial and journalistic freedom than mainstream
groups, and that independent news organizations are more thorough
in their story development than their mainstream counterparts.
Mainstream editors ... view neither left- nor right-wing think
tanks as having increased influence. Nor do they agree that alternative
media have greater story development than the mainstream. It seems
that mainstream editors might be split on the free market issue.
This leads us to believe that the Bagdikian perspective, in which
editors and journalists are ethical hard working people in a structurally
changing system, is possibly correct.
Multi-national conglomeration, mixed media market intrusions,
new technologies, and horizontal-vertical corporate expansions/takeovers
will likely continue to alarm journalists and First Amendment
advocates. The recently passed federal telecommunications legislation
will likely accelerate these concerns and increase public dissatisfaction
as well as professional journalist alienation.
Chomsky, Herman, and Bagdikian have given us a theoretical
framework to measure ongoing hegemony. Their frame is compatible
with hegemonic theory to the extent that media systems continue
to structurally concentrate their distribution and funding processes.
The extent to which professional journalists and editors, the
public at large, and the alternative press will resist these structural
changes, however, remains to be seen.
This work suggests that expanded survey studies of mainstream
and alternative editors would likely help monitor these issues,
and provide a deeper grounding of the theories. Freedom of the
press is important to the preservation of democracy and a valuable
sociological endeavor worthy of broader study.
and Media Control