Monday, April 24, 2006


"We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still."

-- John Stuart Mill


On Sunday, The New York Times Magazine featured an article devoted to Google's censorship of searches in China. Now, because The New York Times basically frames national discussion in America I'm proud to announce this week is Censorship week. Enjoy:

As Benjamin Franklin once said, “whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.” Everyday there are people you’ll never meet who decide exactly what you should and shouldn’t watch, hear and read. This type of suppression has far-reaching implications, shaping everything from public opinion to legislation.

It is no small secret that commercial radio contain restrictions. No swearing. No sexual language. No violent speech. This reality has been moved into the spotlight with Howard Stern’s recent shift from terrestrial broadcast radio to satellite radio due to, what he claims as, unfair treatment and inconsistent obscenity constraints. However, something that receives far less attention are the hundreds of pirate radio stations operating across the country. Often broadcasting with a specific political bias, these tiny pirate radio stations are targeted by the FCC and shut down when discovered. The most famous of all American radio pirates is Stephen Dunifer of Free Radio Berkley. According to Dunifer, his micro-powered pirate station is a direct response to corporate radio’s narrow play list and limited range of viewpoints. The FCC reacted with years of expensive legal action in an attempt to silence Dunifer’s project. Breaking away from traditional rulings, Free Radio Berkley won against the FCC and is still in operation today.


Unfortunately, such outcomes have become the exception and not the rule. For example, Tipper Gore formed the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), which took the music industry to court over vulgarity and sexual lyrics. The PMRC’s aim was to force record labels to mark “obscene” albums with a black “parental advisory” sticker, notifying parents of possibly offensive content. This drew criticism from artists as diverse as Frank Zappa, John Denver and Jello Biafra, who would later be brought to court over obscenity charges for artwork contained in his band, Dead Kennedys’ album, Frankenchrist, a costly battle which nearly bankrupted his independent record label. Unlike Dunifer’s good fortune, the judge ruled in favor of the PMRC. Consequently, large retail stores - including the largest, Walmart, - refused to sell any album branded with a Parental Advisory sticker.


The intention of the PMRC was to shield children from objectionable material, yet they nor most anybody else pay too much attention to what is being taught in the classroom. As early as the 1950s, about one-third of all of American school’s teaching material came from corporations. With such a large amount of influence from big businesses it is inevitable they would put a different spin on economics, the environment and history. Some students are given books such as “How to really be a Millionaire” and “The Millionaire Next Door”. These books show how great it is to have money and builds up unrealistic expectations. As far as the environment goes, the damage done to the air, water and soil by factories are not discussed in depth, if at all. In history class, violent labor struggles like the Flint, Michigan Sit-Down Strike or the 1913 Christmas Day Massacre are most often missing. This means students are not getting the full story.


The problem of censorship is simple, there are facts and views that are considered dangerous or upsetting. The FCC and the PMRC ruling represents what the government thinks is in good and bad taste, and even though this is not acceptable, popular opinion also shapes some of the decisions made by the government. This part of what is censored and what is not has its roots in the 1800s. The stuffy restraint of the Victorian era has carried over into the twenty-first century. Another cause is the interests of corporations that want to conceal compromising information from consumers.


What is the solution? First is to dismantle the FCC. Easier said than done, right? But the airwaves are public property and have no business being monitored and interfered with by the government. This would then help change public opinion. It would be a radical change for people to view images they have been sheltered from, but after a while the population will be able to alter their tastes and make a judgment on what is worth their time and what is valueless. Lastly, corporate funding must be stopped. Industrial control is dangerous, that is why tax money should be used to create a variety of unbiased panels of scholars to write and edit textbooks for schools. This way the whole truth can be told.


From the music we buy to the books we read, to the newscasts we watch, we're not receiving the full truth. Thankfully, the solutions are within our reach, all we have to do is act on them. Perhaps it is Mark Twain who summed it up the best: “In our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either.”

10 comments:

Ming said...

I think I'd have to argue that non-bias does not exist. Everyone has a background and a set of knowledge which will inevitably influence their thoughts and beliefs. I see that you've indicated that you'd like the formation of a panel, which may reduce bias by weeding some of it out through discourse.

I was just in a staff meeting today about censorship in the school library. Some of the books that were banned in the US in the 90's are ridiculous. "Of Mice and Men" and "The Grapes of Wrath," two Steinbeck classics, were frequently banned from libraries in the States. Why? I have to say I don't see the overwhelming need to shelter children; if "sensititve" issues are discussed properly, the kids are actually learning something relevant that will stick with them. I just made up a rule that my students can't call eachother "gay" which I don't think is unreasonable. Grade 7 and 8 are tumultuous enough without singling people out inadvertently through using derogatory terminology. I think that where a lot of teachers go wrong is by simply asserting that such language will not be tollerated without giving students an explanation. I made the kids discuss connotation and denotation. They looked it up. They saw that the dictionary doesn't equate it to "stupid" and therefore were shown that the meaning they were using was wrong ... I hope.

Anyway, this turned into far more of a rant than I anticipated. Just seems like such a relevant topic that keeps coming up lately.

rich_of_spirit said...

Very valid point, an unbiased scholar is about as real as a unicorn or the easter bunny, however, I still contend that a tax payer funded panel of scholars would be an improvement over receiving one very narrow point of view from corporate interests. The days of the truth being printed in textbooks is still a vast distance away, perhaps not even in sight, but we can strive to refine the current system.

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