Censorship or Editorial Judgment?
Tibor R. Machan
The term “censorship” has apparently been quite corrupted. Watching a recent prime time broadcast of a number of recent Saturday Night Live shows I noticed now often those who discuss the program kept referring to the NBC quality control folks as “censors.” As I see it, that’s like calling a parent a censor for insisting that no pornography is watched on the home TV set. As a metaphor it might do but literally it is wrong.
Censorship is, strictly speaking, when a government (or some agent of it) bans the private showing of some program, like SNL. But when the producers of the show refuse to go along with the writers on what is to be broadcast, that’s not censorship.
I write a lot of columns and now and then–very rarely I admit–an editor of a blog or newspaper who uses these will ask me to revise a sentence or change a word or two in my initial draft, which I then either do or substitute another column.
The editor isn’t censoring me or my column but applying a standard to the material being published in the forum, one the editor is responsible to make as good as it can be (within all kinds of limitations).
So, if the producers or owners of SNL refuse to allow some skit to get on the air, claiming that it is too vulgar or offensive, this too amounts to nothing more than what editors and publishers have the full authority to do.
Now all this should be crystal clear except it is become obscured by the gradual invasion of the private realm by public authorities. Television, especially, is the victim of this because of the official fiction that the broadcast airwaves are public property. Indeed, in 1927 the US Senate, by an act of declaration, nationalized the airwaves. (This was done allegedly so as to help solve a problem faced by the Navy which didn’t like what it regarded the anarchy that prevailed in the electromagnetic spectrum and asked Congress to accommodate it, which Congress did by nationalizing the electromagnetic spectrum, something various experts have called the lazy way.)
Once something is public, in a democracy it is exposed to the dictatorship of the voting and represented majority, never mind any individual rights to liberty or property. So who really can tell who in the last analysis has the proper authority to apply quality control on “public” television?
Of course, these days there are politicians who have no compunction contemplating genuine censorship. Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia recently chimed in about this. And he was directing his censorial inclinations not at some iffy entertainment show but at two cable news networks, Fox-TV and MSNBC-TV. As the Senator put it, “I’m tired of the right and the left…. There’s a little bug inside of me which wants to get the FCC to say to Fox and to MSNBC, ‘Out. Off. End. Goodbye.’” And he added, “It would be a big favor to political discourse; to our ability to do our work here in Congress; and to the American people, to be able to talk with each other and have some faith in their government and, more importantly, in their future.” So the Senator’s being tired of something justifies such censorial impulses?
Just observe how those in charge of public facilities like parks, forests, beaches, roads, sidewalks, and so forth eagerly intrude on the activities of citizens making use of these. Merchants whose shops open onto the sidewalk, for example, are forbidden to have a smoking section even on the premises that aren’t public because, as the legalese has it, they are “affected with the public interest.” Never mind that by this line of reasoning all those newspapers sold at kiosks and in boxes on street corners could be subject to censorship. (I assume there is some kind of loophole that makes it possible to escape this–for the time being!)
It used to be conservatives who were willing to refuse to conserve the principles of the Founders when it came to pornography or other things of which they disapproved but you can see that this is not so any longer–Senator Jay Rockefeller is a liberal of high standing!
The statist impulse needs constant resistance and opposition, from anyone eager to impose his or her standards on us all. And the recent US Supreme Court ruling protecting the free speech rights of that church that demonstrated at the funerals of American soldiers was a good example of such resistance and opposition. Those people are a despicable bunch, yes, but their rights need protection.