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 rights.

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 A).

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 interests...



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 social environment?

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 question.

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.


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 States.

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 coverage.

3. The public is taking an increasingly skeptical view of corporate news and is quantitatively limiting viewing and reading activities.

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, or advertisers.

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.

Propaganda and Media Control