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Censorship from State to Self

Nicholas Johnson

Media Regulation, Censorship, and the Potential for Corruption:
Practices Protecting or Controlling the Public

Chairs: Erhard Busek and Ellen Mickiewicz
Panelists: Nicholas Johnson; Fivos Karzis, News Editor, Producer, City of Athens Radio;
Petra Lidschreiber, Chief Editor, RBB-TV, Berlin; and
Mikhail Fedotov, Executive Secretary, Russian Union of Journalists

Commission on Radio and Television Policy:
Central, East and Southeast Europe

Vienna, Austria

October 21, 2005

Note: For the full text of books and other writing by Nicholas Johnson on this and related subjects, see "Nicholas Johnson and Media Reform" at; additional biographical information is available at

My thanks to Erhard Busek and Ellen Mickiewicz for organizing this gathering and for permitting me to participate. It is an honor to be in such distinguished company, and it goes without saying that it is always a great pleasure to be in Vienna.

We are to address the matter of censorship.

For many people the word "censorship" suggests the most obvious extreme: a government official who screens all print and broadcast items before their release.

Implicitly, such a censor is expected to make the government look as good as possible. The media will be kept “on message,” with favorable stories “hyped,” and objectionable material downplayed or eliminated.

Some will argue that this is the only appropriate use of the word “censor.”

Let’s not quibble over definitions. My point is simply that the free flow of information and opinion is essential to the civic society that is the foundation on which democracies can be built and maintained.

From this perspective it makes little difference who wears the boot that steps upon the hose of news and information; whether we call it “censorship” or “editing;” whether it is done by government, global media conglomerates, or advertisers. Propaganda is propaganda; omission is omission; and the ignorance and misinformation that result are equally damaging regardless of who bears responsibility for either.

To paraphrase Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “How can a democratic people be kept in ignorance? Let me count the ways.”1

Consider, for example, the rather dramatic findings of the Program on International Policy Attitudes 2003 study, “Misperceptions, the Media, and the Iraq War.”2

In early 2003, many Americans had misperceptions about Iraq; for example, 68% of Americans believed Iraq played an important role in the Twin Towers attack of 9/11, including 13% who claimed to have seen “conclusive evidence.”3 By June, 52% believed Saddam Hussein was “personally involved” and worked closely with al-Qaeda.4 From May to September 35% believed weapons of mass destruction had been found;5 24% believed they had been used;6 and 31% believed a majority of the world’s people favored the U.S. invasion.7 By contrast, a contemporaneous Pew study found that, in six of eight Muslim nations, the actual opposition to the U.S. action ranged from 67% to 97%.8

Perhaps more significant was the variation in these statistics depending on the television viewer’s choice of network. For example, among Fox News watchers 80% held one or more of the three misperceptions. Only 23% of the public broadcasting audience had a single misperception. Two-thirds of Fox viewers believed there was an al-Qaeda-Iraq link, whereas only 16% of the public broadcasting audience was similarly misinformed.9

Most striking of all, those who paid close attention to television news were more misinformed than those who did not. For example, among Fox viewers who did not follow the news only 42% held misperceptions regarding a link between Iraq and al-Qaeda. Among Fox fans who followed the news closely, 80% held this misperception.10

Danny Schecter’s book title, The More You Watch the Less You Know,11 was formerly only that: a catchy title. What the Program on International Policy Attitudes study documents is that Schecter’s catchy title has now become reality. The more viewers watched, of any network’s programming, the more likely they were to be misinformed.

That these misperceptions were as much or more the fault of the five firms that now dominate American media than of the government’s spin meisters is of little consolation to the families of the thousands of dead and wounded in Iraq – the Americans, and the multiples more of Iraqis. Misperceptions are misperceptions, whatever their source.12

And so we see that it is not true, as the old adage has it, that “what you don’t know can’t hurt you.” As former CBS News President Fred Friendly has said, “What you don’t know can kill you” – whether your ignorance relates to the dangers of unsafe products or the rational for unnecessary wars.

I won’t speculate as to whether this particular example of media misinformation was the result of a Faustian bargain between the U.S. government and the five dominant media firms. Would they be willing to sacrifice their journalistic integrity for billions of dollars of frequencies and lenient FCC policies regarding mergers and program regulation? Hopefully not. But if they were it would not be the first time such a deal was struck.13

There are, of course, much less dramatic reasons for media failures when it comes to providing a self-governing, democratic people the information and opinion they need.

1. Publicly-held corporations, dependent on Wall Street’s favor, must not only make a profit, but an ever-increasing profit in order to increase the only number that counts: the price of their stock. It’s easier to increase profit by cutting costs than increasing revenues. And so we see newspapers with 20% profit margins cutting staff.14

But cuts in staff – including the elimination of some foreign news bureaus – ultimately takes the form of cuts in news.

2. Advertisers’ influence has torn down the “Berlin Wall” that used to separate the news side of the business from the advertising side. Advertisers’ public relations handouts, or stories about new products and models, may be presented as news.15 Consumer-oriented pieces, critical of advertisers, are somewhere between an endangered species and extinct.

3. Then there are the journalists – members of a profession for which I have great respect, having once written a nationally syndicated column, hosted a network TV show, and worked with reporters all my professional career.

But they are no better or worse than the members of any other profession.

They differ with regard to the quality of their education and experience. Many media owners hire those they can pay the least. When those reporters  rapidly move on, as inevitably they do, they are replaced by others who are often equally inexperienced and unfamiliar with the community.

Almost all are given short deadlines, virtually no resources, in terms of staff or other support, and too little time for background research – let alone “investigative reporting.”

4. Many stories are off the radar screen. For example, few owners, editors – and their reporters – even see, let alone write about, the poor until, startled, they discover them floating in the waters of New Orleans after a hurricane.


Some cynical reporters catch on immediately. Others, more idealistic, may learn of the owner's and editor’s ideological or partisan perspective the hard way.

Self-censorship can come from a lack of courage, discomfort at the prospect of involvement in controversy, or an unwillingness to risk getting fired. It may come from the social pressure of neighbors, or co-workers. It is re-enforced by laziness: it takes a lot more time and trouble to investigate a story than to re-write a news release.

I tell an apocryphal story of a young woman reporter who writes an investigative story on her own time, and proudly shows it to her editor. He rejects it, with very little comment.

The next time she gets an idea for a story she remembers her last experience and runs the idea by the editor before starting on it. Again, he discourages her.

The third time she thinks of doing a bit of investigative journalism she hesitates, anticipating the editor’s response, and doesn’t even present the idea to him.

And the fourth time? The fourth time she doesn’t even get the idea.16

Self censorship. It is in some ways the most invidious source of public ignorance or misinformation, whether the product of some of the world’s largest publicly held corporations or of a lonely, idealistic young reporter.17

It is unknown, largely unknowable, and occasionally a greater force for public ignorance than any formal, official government censor.


It is always useful in the analysis and formulation of public policy -- or indeed the creation of any institution's or individual's missions or goals -- to distinguish between "ends" and "means."

From this perspective, I would suggest that our focus might better be on the creation of an adequately informed democracy's citizenry -- as an "end" -- rather than on the "censorship" that is but one means of impeding our efforts to reach that end.

If we believe that a prerequisite to democracy is a free flow of information and opinion -- not incidentally from as well as to a nation's citizens -- this imposes enormous demands upon that nation's mass media to uncover and present the full range of information and opinion as fully, fairly and accurately as possible.

Engineers refer to the "signal to noise ratio" of electronic communications. Censorship eliminates the signal entirely. But, as we have seen, "misperceptions" are another way of confusing noise with signal. And both can come from a reporter's self-censorship as well as from a global media conglomerate's pushing either its owner's ideology or its stock price.

Will Rogers used to say, "It isn't what we don't know that gives us trouble, it's what we know that ain't so."18 I'm not sure Will Rogers was right about ignorance, but he's certainly right about misperceptions. Whether ignorance or misperception, either can, and does, kill us -- along with our hopes for democracy.


1  Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Poems (London: 1850) (“Sonnets from the Portuguese,” No. 43, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways”), widely available including at

2   Steven Kull, Clay Ramsay and Evan Lewis, “Misperceptions, the Media and the Iraq War,” Political Science Quarterly, vol. 118, no. 4, pp. 569-598, Winter 2003-2004, available at And see Essential Information, "Dear Editor, Publisher, Producer, Reporter," March 4, 2003, available at (a letter from 31 media activists, authors, academics and journalists, including Nicholas Johnson, anticipating many of the problems that subsequently arose in Iraq media coverage and urging steps to avoid them, including the observation, "State-controlled media comes in many garbs").

3  Kull, Ramsey and Lewis, supra, n. 2, at 571-72.

Id. at 572


Id. at 573.

Id. at 574.

8 The Pew Global Attitudes Survey, Summer 2002 and May 2003, discussed at Id., 574, n. 8.

Id. at 581-84.

10 Id. at 586.

11  Danny Schechter, The More You Watch the Less You Know (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1998), information available at

12  For a documentary film on the subject, see Danny Schechter’s “Weapons of Mass Deception” (2004).  See also Danny Schechter, Embedded: Weapons of Mass Deception How the Media Failed to Cover the War in Iraq (New York: Prometheus Books, 2003), information regarding both available at For an entertaining, fictional account of the political use of war for ulterior purposes, and the ability of government and media to manipulate, see the feature film "Wag the Dog" (1997). Credits, summaries, reviews and a 30-second excerpt ("trailer") available at .

13  See, e.g., Ben H. Bagdikian, The New Media Monopoly (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004), chapter 10, “Dear Mr. President . . .,” pp. 204-217 (detailing relations between President Richard Nixon and Hearst CEO Richard E. Berlin, regarding the newspaper industry’s support of Nixon’s re-election in exchange for the president’s support of the mis-named “Failing Newspaper Act”).

14  The issues involved in the impact of the financial community on publicly-held corporations, and its consequences for layoffs of journalists and cutbacks in the quantity and quality of news, are discussed at some length in "Profits and the Press," The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, March 22, 2001 (transcript, with links to audio and video formats), available at,

TERENCE SMITH: [N]ewspaper profit margins are higher than many other industries. Why the pressure, the continuous pressure to keep them up or even increase them?

LAUREN RICH FINE: Well, I think that comes with being a public company. I think it's the same with every industry. . . . [T]he real issue here comes from trying to serve the public in a high-quality fashion, but at the same time being beholden to shareholders.

TERENCE SMITH: [W]hat profit margin does Wall Street expect from a newspaper, a publicly-held newspaper company? If they average in the 20s, is that enough? What does it have to be?

LAUREN RICH FINE: Well, it's never enough, of course. This is Wall Street we're talking about. I think the expectation is that you can improve your margins over time. And what happens is each company is compared to its peer group. And so you indicated there's a range of 22 percent to 29 percent. If somebody's at 22 percent, you want to see a clear path of how they're going to move their profits to 29 percent margins. . . ..")

In support of Lauren Rich Fine's comment, above, that "it's the same with every industry," a current example from a related industry involves Apple Computer. In October 2005 the company's senior executives described their fourth quarter as "the best in Apple's history." Earnings per share were four times what they were for the comparable quarter a year earlier. And yet, because this increase was not as much as hoped for, and projected, by Wall Street, Apple's stock actually declined in value by 8 percent. Paul Taylor, "Apple Share Down Despite 'Best Quarter,'" Financial Times, October 12, 2005, available at

15  A current example is the press coverage given the new Apple video iPod device. See "Apple Unveils New Video iPod," Reuters, October 12, 2005, available at
ID=2005-10-12T182107Z_01_YUE263268_RTRIDST_0_TECH-APPLECOMPUTER-IMAC-DC.XML, and Richard Waters, Joshua Chaffin and Paul Taylor, "Apple and Disney Herald New Media Era," Financial Times, October 12, 2005, available at

16  In searching Google for a source for this story, I found it, ironically, in a presentation to the Commission on Radio and Television Policy 11 years earlier, Nicholas Johnson, “An Autonomous Media,” Background paper prepared for the Commission on Radio and Television Policy-Aspen Institute Session, Aspen Wye Woods Conference Center, Maryland, May 4-7, 1994, n. 39, available at

17  It is regrettable, even if understandable, that the media would get mixed reviews on its ability to report about itself.

A case in point at the time these remarks were being prepared involved both a reporter and no less prestigious an institution than the New York Times. Its reporter, Judith Miller, had just been released from prison, where she had been sent once found in contempt for refusing to tell a grand jury the name of one of her sources. The matter under grand jury investigation involved the possible White House role in revealing the name of a CIA operative (Valerie Plame), allegedly for reasons of retribution against her husband (former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV), who had been critical of the Administration.

Critics of the Times were asserting the paper should be more forthcoming in reporting the aspect of the story involving its editors and Ms. Miller. See, e.g., Ahmed Amr, "The Public's Right to Know All About Judith Miller," Dissident Voice, October 11, 2005, available at ("There is a whole bunch of questions that the public wants answers to. And Judith is a walking treasure trove of all kinds of information that the government and powerful corporations -- like the New York Times -- don’t want you to know"); the blog entry at "The Huffington Post," Jane Hamsher, "Judith Miller: Bustado," October 13, 2005, available at; and the Times' response, David Johnston, "Times Reporter to Testify on Recently Found Notes," New York Times,  October 12, 2005, at ("Mr. [Bill] Keller [The Times's executive editor] said, 'once her obligations to the grand jury are fulfilled, we intend to write the most thorough story we can of her entanglement with the White House leak investigation'"). See also, Nicholas Johnson, "Open Meetings and Closed Minds: Another Road to the Mountaintop," Drake Law Review, vol. 53, pp. 11, 19, nn. 25 and 26 (2004), available at ("Newspapers and television corporations . . .  are the most vigorous proponents of openness of meetings -- unless, of course, it is the media’s records or meetings that are at stake").

18  From "Will Rogers Quotes" available at .