Saturday, January 26, 2013

Censorship Sucks

by Mark Alpert

Like many writers, I’m avidly following the turmoil at Southern Weekend and the Beijing News, the Chinese newspapers where reporters are challenging the censorship of Communist Party propaganda officials. It’s an irresistible story because the heroes are journalists -- hooray! -- and they’re fighting a repressive political system that may finally be on the brink of major change. I have a special interest in the story because my upcoming novel, Extinction, is set mostly in China, and the book’s plot involves the repression of political dissent there. (And I just learned that a Chinese translation of the book will be published, albeit in Taiwan, not mainland China.) But the controversy also reminds me of a humiliating incident that took place thirty years ago when I was starting my journalism career. I discovered firsthand that censorship occurs in America too.
It was the summer of 1983. I was in graduate school at Columbia University, studying creative writing, but I knew I couldn’t stay in school forever and I’d have to find a job soon. So I got an unpaid internship at the Scranton Times in Pennsylvania (the newspaper is now called the Scranton Times-Tribune). I was a journalism neophyte -- I hadn’t even written for my high-school paper -- but now I had a golden opportunity to learn the trade. For my first assignment I called a bunch of local travel agencies to find out where Scrantonians spend their vacations (actual headline: “Cancun, Disney World Are Favorite Vacation Destinations”). Most of the stories I wrote that summer were fluffy feature articles that could be safely assigned to an inexperienced reporter (another headline: “Elderly Have Happy Time At West Side Senior Center”). But as every journalist knows, real news sometimes pops up unexpectedly.
On July 25th the newspaper sent me to a meeting of the Scranton Plan, a group of community leaders who were encouraging businesses to set up shop in the Scranton area. In truth, it was a pretty dull assignment, which perhaps explained why no one but the summer intern was willing to go. The Scranton Times was intimately connected to the Scranton Plan; the newspaper’s co-publisher at the time, George V. Lynett, Sr. -- whose family owned the Scranton Times and continues to run it to this day -- also served as a co-chairman of the community group. Lynett opened the meeting with a review of the group’s strategies and a summary of the business advantages of Lackawanna County (cheap power, large labor pool, etc.) In the middle of this phenomenally boring discussion, someone else at the meeting -- sorry, I don’t remember who, and I lost my notes a long time ago -- wondered aloud if the group was neglecting to mention one of the prime advantages of the area. He said they might want to consider publicizing the fact that Scranton had a much smaller minority population than New York and other big cities.
Suddenly, I was all ears. I expected Lynett to scold the local bigot. I thought the publisher would firmly rebut the troglodytic view that large minority populations were somehow “bad for business.” But instead, to my astonishment, Lynett said the Scranton Plan didn’t need to publicize the area’s dearth of minorities because the fact was already implied in the group’s promotional pamphlets, which had pictures of only white people.
Even though I was a neophyte, I recognized that this was news. How could a newspaper publisher in the 1980s say such a thing? What’s more, Lynett knew I was there to cover the meeting. Did he expect me to simply ignore what he said?
When I returned to the newsroom to write the story, I included the controversial comments. The copy editor passed the text to the managing editor, who dutifully passed it on to Lynett, and soon afterward I was called to the publisher’s office. To his credit, Lynett was polite and apologetic. He told me that if we were in a journalism class, most of the students would agree that he should run my story as I wrote it. But this was the real world, he said, not a class. He said the story would make Scranton look bad and possibly hurt the local economy, which had been struggling for decades. He deleted all the comments about minorities from the article, turning it into a dry, boosterish account that wouldn’t embarrass the newspaper or its publisher. (The censored story is pictured above.) I was disappointed and dismayed, but there was nothing I could do.
I’d just seen the truth of journalist A.J. Liebling’s famous maxim: “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” And I would see it again: four years later, when I was a reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser in Alabama, the newspaper’s publisher tried to water down a series of stories in which I described the unyielding racial segregation in that city. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare this kind of interference with the strict press controls that the Chinese government imposes. But any kind of censorship is insidious. If writers truly want to be heroes, we have to be constantly on guard against it.


  1. While censorship may well suck, I'm a firm believer that the owner of the paper has the final say as to what their dollars pay to print. That being said, they have no power over a press they don't own. That's the beauty of our nation. You can open your own press & say whatever you want without fear of prison, beatings or death. This is why I honestly don't like the idea of NPR & PBS. I know...some may wanna fight about that but I really think it's a bad idea for a news/public opinion source to get government funding. Whoever pulls the purse strings dictates the output.

    We do currently have freedom but that liberty can
    be stripped fron us so fast it is pretty scary. Like if you happened to make a low budget movie that may be offensive to some people who may even be driven to kill over its content were they to see it and those same angry killer types happen to plan & carry out a terrorist attack for non-related reasons and you become a government scapegoat to divert attention from a failed policy that got an ambassador & a couple SEALS killed & you end up in prison and getting your previously unkown name slandered at the UN with the blame even though said baddies had never actually heard about the movie before beginning the blood letting.

    Yup...censorship comes in many forms.

  2. Great post Mark. I worked for a small local start-up paper for a while and was told of a really good story by a friend.

    A pioneer cemetery was being vandalized and abused and local government was ignoring the problem and thwarting those who wanted to stop it.

    Yet, I knew that the paper was fledgling and trying to woo local government into using them as a contractor for official notices. I also knew the issue would really be inflammatory and divisive. I walked away from it and wrote op-ed pieces with historical flair.

    In my last job with a firm that contracted with the government, we were all firmly told that no one was to be publicly critical of the governor's policies, especially in social media. To do so would be grounds for dismissal.

    China will be able to contain it for a while, but social media is like trying to stuff a cat into a box that already has a beachball in it.

    And BTW, your book sounds awesome. Terri

  3. While I agree with you--it would have been nice for that story to get out--it's not censorship. As basil said, that's editorial control. It's only censorship if the government or other external authority does it. The only thing preventing you from publishing that was the lack of a press, and fear for your job. (Today the lack of a press wouldn't matter.) That's not censorship; that's life.

  4. I agree with Dana. Censorship is interference with free speech by the government. You have a legal right in this country to say whatever you want, but there is no obligation for a private entity such as a publisher to distribute that speech. In China, it's the government that prevents free speech, often by imprisoning the speaker or writer. I do agree that it was stinky of that publisher to edit your story in that way. I ran into that a lot when I was working for small papers in years past, and it was never fun. I sometimes got in trouble--one time I ran a story about sex discrimination by a business group over the publisher's objection. To his credIt, the publisher didn't try to force me to change the story. He did, however, change the headline to read "One Woman Reporter's Opinion". That still makes me laugh when I think of it.

  5. Dana and Kathryn are right. This is not censorship.

  6. "Censorship is the suppression of speech or other public communication which may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, or inconvenient as determined by a government, media outlet, or other controlling body." (From our pals at Wikipedia)

    Yeah, it was censorship through editorial control. There are degrees and this is at the milder end. Papers massage their messages all the time through selective news gathering and analysis. My local paper pretty much ignores all national and world news. Their world stops at the county line. Scarcely even an acknowledgement when the president was re-elected. Before the net, papers could mold a town's social and political viewpoint with editorial censorship. I think it can be insidious.

    This was an editor who didn't want embarrassing statements he was a party to put out for shock and ridicule.

    It was news. Now, it would have also hurt the town's reputation (one reason I backed away from the cemetery story). The question is, would the editor have felt the same way if Mark had brought him the story and it was the editor/owner of the rival paper who had said it? Was he more concerned about his own rep or the town's?

    As ownership of the press falls into fewer and fewer hands, editorial censorship looms larger. This is an awesome post and discussion.


  7. I was the anonymous post above. Well, yes, this is censorship in the broad sense. The broad sense includes forms of censorship that are just fine. People have the right to property. That means that they can censor their own property as they wish; no one can force a newspaper owner to publish something he doesn't want to. That's the key element: force. Any time the government censors, force is involved because the government will fine or jail you if you don't comply. But no one was forcing Mark to work at the newspaper where he interned. And it would have been wrong for Mark to force the paper's owner to publish something against his will. So, bottom line, censorship that involves the initial use of force = bad; censorship that doesn't involve the initial use of force = within the owner or editor's rights.