Our first post in an ongoing series exploring the transformation of journalism and what that means for democracy. Journalist and media critic Anne Elizabeth Moore describes the forces that are inadvertently silencing political speech in the United States.
Sometimes, accidental policy can do a lot of damage.
In the spring of 2006, Time-Warner, the largest periodicals publisher in the United States proposed an increase in bulk mailing rates which would force smaller-scale publishers to shoulder the majority of the increases. The United States Postal Service agreed, willingly shifting their costs away from one of world’s most powerful media operations and towards their smaller competition.
The ever-privatizing USPS was once chartered by the country’s founders with the notion of supporting American democracy via cheap media distribution. But it now was flirting with the Dark Side, a metaphor made visible in several cities throughout the US when the postal service launched a marketing campaign for Star Wars, one of the most profitable film franchises ever. Independent filmmakers received no such publicity help.
Shortly thereafter, a non-profit organization that insulated independent and non-corporate periodicals from pressures like these declared bankruptcy while owing months or years of back pay to many of the publishers affected by the bulk-mail rate hikes.
In the essay that follows, we’ll see how more and more small publications went out of business — an organizational bloodbath foretelling the current demise of the American newspaper industry. By 2008, no print publications covering corporate control of American culture and politics were left to report the police abuses that targeted independent media makers, first at the Democratic National Convention, and then at the Republican National Convention. Over the course of three years, despite the opportunities presented by blogs and social media, many voices offering dissent against the machinations of our political system and its corporate backers had been silenced.
More troubling is that these events have often been described as the natural outcome of a healthy free market. The opinion has been voiced, more and more frequently, that a lack of merit has led to these market changes. An honest debate is possible over whether MSNBC offers more valuable information than a local newspaper, but perhaps merit should not be a primary factor when considering access to information. In a democracy, the needs of citizens for deep and varied information sources must balance against the need to reward the most successful media business models. In a democracy, the silencing of voices is always censorship. However accidental.
Accidental censorship: a working definition…
Admittedly, it is easier to accuse one’s enemies of coercion, corruption, and censorship than it would be to accuse one’s friends of the same. But when one’s friends — business partners, friendly government agencies, longtime supporters and associates — assist in the process of silencing voices, in collusion with those that might be spoken against, it is all the more necessary.
Somewhere between overt censorship — restrictions imposed by an outside force meant to suppress information — and self-censorship — internal decisions to withhold information, generally made out of fear of overt censorship — lies a system of control over freedom of expression favored by democracies and almost entirely invisible to either the perpetrators or the censored. To ease the consciences of the oppressors here, and gain the trust of the oppressed, we’re going to call this accidental censorship. Because no one involved intends to explicitly suppress information, the term fits just fine. Yet in certain cases the information suppressed affects only those voices that dissent from, decry, or defame the powers that be — those enacting the policies, legislation, or technological advances in the first place — that may accidentally silence voices of protest. That is accidental censorship.
Accidental censorship is enacted through economic policies, legislation, and technologies that tend to hinder certain kinds of speech, often in combination with (and in marked contrast to) the rewards, adulation, and support granted other kinds of speech. This is the paradox of our times: while the volume of information online grows fantastically and the cost of publishing approaches zero, the range of topics being actively discussed in public space has narrowed. This contraction is most visible in the increasingly consolidated media that most Americans watch and read. A decrease in viewpoints represented in media has implications for not only the electoral process but also policy decisions and consumer behavior. Accidental censorship is inherently undemocratic; it must be understood and resisted.
Punk [Planet] is dead…
The nefarious if largely unknowable forces behind accidental censorship have been busy in recent years, and few individuals without direct experience can testify to their impact. The demise of my former magazine, Punk Planet, is an example. When we announced our final issue in the summer of 2007, there was no more significant news story among a certain close-knit but international band of scruffy losers who eschewed mainstream media. If you were not white, not male, not between 18 and 34 years of age, and failed to identify with punk, DIY, or anti-consumerist culture, you might have missed the news.
But if you were all or most of these, the outpouring of sorrow expressed in your visits, phone calls, emails, letters, YouTube testimonials, blog posts, good-bye parties — not to mention the glowing obituaries in magazines, zines, and newspapers — were all deeply appreciated. This emotion, however, runs close to the nostalgia so thoroughly mined in recent discussions of the so-called “death of journalism,” and obscures the fact that the demise of our little magazine was brought about by an identifiable set of dynamics that continue to impact the viability of print publishing in the US.
The accidental censor at work in Punk Planet‘s case was our very own newsstand distributor — or rather, the for-profit forces that had come to plague all media, periodicals distribution included. A decade beforehand, newsstand distribution had been a healthy business, with competing companies always on hand to vie over the hateful task of shipping boxes of any given title all over the world. But just as the media conglomerates were voraciously gobbling up more and more print, broadcast, and web outlets, they were also — less publicly — back-pocketing the means of getting those various dispatches in front of readers. It was a situation many in the independent publishing community bemoaned, so in 1999 the Independent Press Association (IPA), the not-for-profit charged with creating a network of support for its member titles, purchased Big Top Distribution Services to ensure that at least one national independent distributor remained viable and capable of getting independent magazines into stores. But by the tail end of 2006, the IPA told the hand-to-mouth publications it placed on newsstands that it was closing its doors. Many were owed several thousands of dollars — entire years’ worth of back earnings; totals equaling annual operating budgets. Punk Planet, a 13-year-old magazine that served as the backbone of youth-focused independent publishing, couldn’t survive.
As Paul Davis writes, in a muckraking essay we were determined would appear even if it was the last thing we at Punk Planet published (and it was), “The fallout has been profound — the independent publishing community has experienced an unprecedented bloodletting in recent months, as magazines run on a shoestring have been unable to overcome huge losses in operating income.” For several years previous, the not-for-profit organizations’ desire to compete with the for-profit distribution model, indicated by ever more corporate new hires, had snowballed into an internal “tightly regulated, top-down management approach.” This, in turn, “led to a lack of transparency” in its external fiscal communications. For several years, tiny-budget magazines had struggled with inaccurate financial reports, unreturned phone calls, and unexpectedly small checks. Accountability issues also mirrored the for-profit business model, but it was not the only destructive swath being clear-cut through the largely not-for-profit world of independent publishing.
Earlier in 2006, the United States Postal Service (USPS) had announced a rate hike that would disproportionately affect small-circulation magazines with higher bulk-mail costs. Following the announcement, the USPS allowed for only six days of public comment, but made scant fanfare of the fact that the proposal had been submitted by Time-Warner, one of the largest periodical publishers in the world, with titles including Newsweek, Time, and Entertainment Weekly. The new rates favored large-circulation magazines (Time, for example,) with increases of less than 10 percent, while small-circulation magazines, those that print lesser numbers — often they are political, like Mother Jones, the Nation, National Review, New Republic, and Weekly Standard — would pay 30 to 40 percent more. The projected increases for some titles were estimated at US$500,000 — an amount that approached the annual budget of a few of the affected publications.
An “unprecedented promotion”…
The rate-hike announcement also coincided with a massive, nationally implemented Star Wars marketing campaign undertaken by the USPS. An “unprecedented promotion,” the Lucasfilm website proclaimed of the 30-year-anniversary coup of an entire arm of the quasi-governmental agency when, in hundreds of cities across the country, for an unknown cost, mailboxes were done over in cute robot drag. “When you look at a mailbox, the resemblance to R2D2 is too good to pass up,” one official stated. (You’d expect this quote from a Star Wars marketing rep, but it was provided by a USPS spokesperson.) A concurrent Target toy promotion further helped to account, alongside DVD sales, film and special effects production and real-estate revenue, for Lucasfilm’s 2006 profits of $1.2 billion (calculated on average).
In effect, two different for-profit media ventures had turned the post office’s national reach to private benefit, a problem no lesser American historical figure than James Madison had predicted.
When the post office was established in 1792, debates raged: not over how much to charge who for carrying what to where, but over whether or not periodicals — newspapers then mostly — should be charged at all. Madison stated that charging for delivery of the mass media of the day was “an insidious forerunner of something worse,” while Benjamin Bache, Ben Franklin’s grandson, argued that commercial pressure would quickly limit and soon end the creation of periodical publications.
As the largest employer in the country, the postal service was established as a governmental arm with the mission of delivering the widest possible array of media to the widest number of people. Clearly, it was not in the interests of democracy to use that wide access to promote a single film series or publisher’s titles to those same people. But these were deliberate acts, enabled by the gradual privatization of the USPS, and with the sole objective of making profit. It is only by accident that independent publishers were stuck with the check.
Yet the pending economic downturn was clearly playing a role as well-evidenced by more than just the increasingly wonky decisions of traditionally less cut-throat agents. Punk Planet‘s last year of publication (2006/2007) had, on average, fewer ad pages than in 2003: approximately half. Exciting web technology, blamed for both the demise of print publishing and the increased costs of sending mail, provided a shiny distraction from the fact that independent online music labels, bookstores, publishing houses, and internet boutiques — much of independent culture, in fact, and a great deal of it web-based — was folding or suffering financially.
Between 2003 and 2007, when Punk Planet finally closed its doors, Stay Free!, Clamor, Kitchen Sink, Herbivore, Grooves, Rock N Rap Confidential, HeartAttack, and Rockrgrl all stopped printing. More have followed, joined now by movie-star rags, trade titles; even mainstream outlets like the Rocky Mountain News, Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the non-profit Christian Science Monitor have shut down their daily papers.
A figure greater than zero…
Elsewhere I have tallied and lamented the precise number of perspectives and opinions lost in this elaborate process, a figure that, being greater than zero, should alarm anyone concerned with democracy in America. Here, what’s important to note is that this loss was not merely the results of shifting consumer tastes, an argument often cited when lamenting the loss of Punk Planet (as tempting as it may be to remind us that punk is dead). Rather, this was a series of small but profound decisions by individuals and the organizations they managed from all points along the political spectrum, from the Executive Director of the not-for-profit IPA to the marketing director of the for-profit Lucasfilm, Ltd., and from the governmental (or semi-governmental) Postmaster General to the megalithic publisher Time Warner. These small decisions tended to favor certain kinds of speech — in this case, corporate — at the expense of others — in this case, anti-corporate — and failed therefore to preserve free speech at all.
That this scenario has come to pass in the United States, occurring across a bipartisan series of presidential administrations, each adopting ever more corporate friendly policies, will surprise no one. Yet we should realign our entire sense of surprise around this realization: it seems natural to life in a democratic nation that only certain individuals have access to all of its liberties. We have become comfortable with the suppression of certain voices, under certain conditions. Those conditions are multiplying rapidly and have fueled a dwindling of voices, as Sir David Hare underscored in an excellent speech at this year’s Freedom of Expression awards. “All sorts of wonderful reasons in all sorts of different cultures — religious and non-religious — are going to be given in the next 10 years, as they were given in the last, for why people should not say what they want, about what they want.” It is because these reasons strike us as reasonable that we do not consider them censorship. But it is because they keep entire classes of people from participating in the public sphere that, in fact, they are.
A near-perfect example of accidental censorship — and one particularly apt to explain the easy implementation of such policies under the free market — was brought to life over Easter 2009 weekend when online bookseller Amazon admitted to a “glitch” that had caused 57,310 books to be removed from public view. While admitting error, Amazon simultaneously never denied that the “accident” was the unintended result of a policy decision to keep books with sexual themes or subjects hidden from Harry Potter fans. The affected books were on a wide range of topics including sexual health; feminism; lesbian, gay, and transgender issues; and erotica. They had all been tagged under an algorithm as “adult.”
Authors had trouble locating their own books on the site, and in the ensuing hubbub, hackers falsely took responsibility for the problem, various Amazon officials came forward with partial explanations, and virulent microbloggers (tagging posts with the term #amazonfail, now the incident’s de facto moniker) fed each other theories and harangued the company.
Early revelations of the problem had occurred months beforehand, but Amazon finally responded to the Twitter storm with the following canned statement: “In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude ’adult’ material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature.” Two days later, Amazon told Publishers Weekly that the problem was an “embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloguing error” and began, slowly but surely — analog pace, some would call it, in a digital age — to relist the various books and manuals that had been affected. For many, the question then became, as Publishers Weekly explained, “just how a sophisticated technology company could let something like that happen and then not respond to the criticism that erupted in a more timely and open fashion.” Some, however, spotted a deeper problem.
As media and technology critic Mary Hodder pointed out in a smart description of the incident, the company’s explanation of the blatant censorship as an “accident” relies on an acceptance of its hidden incorporation of algorithms. These, she notes, remain hidden for a reason: “technologies that use them are designed not to share the methods for providing information.” This is the commodity in intellectual property: knowing what factors drive decisions. Still, we’re reminded of the natural-seeming selectivity that gives some authors access to readers but shuts others out when, Hodder explains, systems like Amazon provide no “notice to users of the assumptions that a system is making.” In fact, she adds, these “may not even be apparent to those building the system.” So that when, as Amazon later explained, a French employee “accidentally” checked the wrong box, it’s entirely believable that he didn’t know he’d removed 57,310 books from the site’s promotional lists. So, true, #AmazonFail was a “glitch” — an accident — but because the tagging system had predetermined that books neutral on or supportive of homosexuality were marked as adult, while books that were denunciatory of it were not, the fundamental biases within Amazon’s algorithmic system were exploited, and an array of products the company represented were selectively hidden from public view.
It should go without saying that it is as political to denounce homosexuality as it is to laud it; it may be less evident that finding homosexuality unworthy of judgment one way or the other but still deserving of discussion as a health, social, or sexual issue is an equally political stance. The latter two, both representing minority points of view in contemporary American culture, were wholly eliminated, for a time, from Amazon’s marketplace of ideas — based solely on the political stance with which they approached human sexuality, and not on their literal or graphic depiction of it.
The #AmazonFail would not be the last time readers looking for reporting on gay, lesbian or transgender issues would be cut off without warning.
On a Monday morning in November 2009, staff arrived at the Atlanta office of Southern Voice, a 21-year-old gay newspaper, to find the doors locked. A note on the door informed them that the parent company of their paper, Windows Media, had shut down. Four other newspapers that served the LGBTQ community, including the 40-year-old Washington Blade, had been shuttered on the same day.
Windows Media was owned by the Avalon Equity Fund, a private investment fund that had been acquiring media properties, in part financed by a government loan. Avalon was in federal receivership after violating the terms of a loan from the Small Business Administration (SBA) by not having sufficient outside investment relative to the size of their loan. The SBA took over the fund and began selling off assets. Presumably because the papers were not at that time profitable (along with, I should note, much of the US economy) they were listed on the liabilities side of the ledger, and closed without fanfare.
The staff of the Washington Blade were quick to organize themselves and launch a new print publication, DC Agenda, within a week.
The instant rebound of one of the five closed newspapers raises the question: why is the SBA, a government agency with a mission to “help Americans start, build and grow businesses” closing newspapers without first exploring ways to sell them or convert them to a community-supported business model? At the very minimum, transferring rights to the paper’s name would have allowed the unknown DC Agenda to retain the 40-year-old Blade’s history as the newspaper of record for the national LGBTQ community at no cost to the government.
Economic hard times or online competition alone can’t explain this. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, ad sales at Southern Voice were recovering after panicked companies suspended advertising in early 2009. The first issue of the DC Agenda sold “six pages of ads without even trying,” according to editor Kevin Naff. Boston gay weekly Bay Windows (a competitor of the Avalon papers) described Avalon’s debt-funded newspaper buying and subsequent implosion as a “gay newspaper killing spree” fueled by poor management and a disinterest in community. Bay Windows editors assured readers that despite the poor economy, their paper was fine and that the financial crunch that destroyed the Avalon properties had to do less with bad economics and more to do with the now-familiar story of unsustainable, leveraged acquisition by the Avalon Equity Fund managers. It is dark comedy that the killing blow came from a government agency chartered to help “start, build and grow” small businesses.
But the end result is the same: for reasons largely unrelated to reader interest in these newspapers or the value of their reporting, a sizable portion of the US’s gay journalism went silent during an election cycle where gay rights referenda are among the most intensely contested issues facing voters.
The pattern of unstable ownership disrupting newsrooms is not limited to left-leaning outlets. In the same month the Washington Blade closed, the daily Washington Times found a key source of revenue cut off. The conservative newspaper and radio outlet was once reliably kept afloat by funding from Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. After the elderly Moon turned control of his finances over to his children in October 2009, the Times learned that the champions of the marketplace would now have to survive in it. This seemingly unanticipated change triggered what the New York Times described as “a tumultuous two weeks of resignations, firings and a discrimination complaint from the former editorial page editor.” The paper, which was hailed as an editorial niche for opinions too conservative for mainstream papers and has served as a key training ground for conservative reporters, has since announced layoffs of at least 40 percent of its 370-person staff.
The stunguns of democracy…
It is as tempting to write off some of these examples as simple examples of doing business in a free-market economy as it is to write off others as technological glitches. But when the overarching effect is to restrict the voices represented in media, and the restriction frequently lands hardest on minority opinions, we should not only consider such examples acts of censorship, but we must also work to prevent them in nations devoted to democratic participation. Because if accidental censorship is passively accepted, even speech that is not anti-corporate, politically unpopular, or “adult” might soon be difficult to voice.
This became clear to me a few days after we announced the closing of Punk Planet, when I ran into a reporter from the Chicago Tribune. “Bummer about the magazine,” he said, and I agreed: “But the even bigger bummer is to come, when we start to see the range of issues we would normally have covered go untracked in other media.”
If I could have predicted it with any accuracy, I would have mentioned the still-15-months-off Republican National Convention in St. Paul, when Tasers, pepper spray, mountain bikes, mace, smoke bombs, and Triple Chaser grenades (which may cause “injury or death,” the product description warns) were used in an episode of police violence nearly unprecedented (the dogs and firehoses used against the 1960s civil rights movement being another, much better reported, example). Volunteer medics, legal observers, and the independent press were all targeted. Police emptied entire pepper spray canisters directly into the eyes of protesters; some protesters were beaten with bicycles. Several hundred arrestees were denied medical care while detained, and Taserings continued in police custody. Three hundred ninety six people were detained on the last night of the convention alone, when those mainstream reporters sent to cover the convention had already gone home, and many independent reporters were still locked up. Nearby homes were raided by police; residents claim the police did not show search warrants.
The crackdown was funded by a US$50 million grant from the Department of Justice and bolstered by an insurance policy that had the Republican Host Committee agreeing to cover the first US$10 million in litigation over civil rights violations. (Slightly less violent tactics were used at the DNC convention earlier that month in Denver, making police torture and the silencing of political voices a bipartisan problem.)
The early-September 2008 event went largely unnoticed by the mainstream media, who were drawn instead into a debate over whether or not Tina Fey was being “unfair” to Sarah Palin. Even political media, like Huffington Post, rejected stories emerging from St. Paul as not of mainstream interest — while Democracy Now’s reporting was largely focused on host Amy Goodman’s own arrest (which occurred alongside several other reporters.) Bloggers ignored this story too. The Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan would later breathlessly cover street protests in Tehran but made a single mention of protesters in St. Paul amidst his thousands of words addressing the RNC. Talking Points Memo, the Corner and other leading political blogs largely ignored this episode.
Sure, hindsight is 20/20, but several of the reporters then in jail had written for me already, and an impactful issue of Punk Planet would have been easy to devise. The point is: no internationally distributed political or cultural magazine emerged touting RNC police torture as a cover story. None were left to do the job. Online evidence of this event remains largely limited to YouTube videos, Minnesota Public Radio archives and things I wrote.
This, however, would have been difficult to explain to the Tribune reporter. Although a fan, he disagreed that the closing of this single magazine would matter. “It’s a niche market,” he told me. “It doesn’t affect that many people.”
I was appalled that a fellow member of the press would so cavalierly accept the closure of any news outlet, and said so. Likely, his perspective has changed since losing his job at the Trib. Still, I expect all journalists — even former journalists, whose ranks are filling out these days — to follow Hare’s prescription for all appearances of censorship, accidental or otherwise: “you must condemn censorship, intimidation, bullying, coercion, torture, encroachment on human rights and illegality in your friends with exactly the same rigour you bring to its condemnation in your enemies.”
Upcoming in the Accidental Censorship series: Global Integrity will examine the experience of independent media around the world, as told by its practitioners, while friends at the Community Media Workshop bring a content analysis that provides evidence of the decline in local coverage over 20 years.