The Gulf war and its television chroniclers have introduced millions of Americans to the American press. It has not been a uniformly pretty sight. The conduct of these daily briefings often is messy, rather like the making of sausage. Still, the public gains a sense of some of the handicaps under which we often labor. "Censorship" and "propaganda" are no longer abstractions. They take concrete form in many images from the war, from Baghdad in particular.
This knowledge may promote at least a glimmer of understanding of the general issue of press freedom and of the constant efforts to restrict it, both here and abroad. These efforts come in many guises.
A couple of months ago, the Daily Spectrum, a newspaper in St. George, Utah, published a wire service feature telling readers how to bargain when buying a new car. The car dealers were unamused. They declared an advertising boycott. The paper, part of a chain owned by the Canadian baron, Lord Thomson of Fleet, apologized with alacrity for its "poor judgment" and, in effect, conceded and legitimized the "right" of advertisers to help edit the paper.
The Spectrum's Waterloo occurred on the same day the Philadelphia Inquirer published an editorial containing the sensible suggestion that a new contraceptive be offered to impoverished women, black and white, as a way to reduce the number of babies born into poverty.
The paper was charged with racism by members of its staff and by outside pressure groups who equated birth control with "genocide." Besieged and guilt-stricken, the Inquirer hoisted the flag of surrender. The editorial writer apologized in print, confessing that he was "misguided and wrongheaded" and had written "hastily and foolishly." It was reminiscent of some of the repentant confessions attributed to Chinese dissidents and American POWs in Hanoi and Baghdad. It was also reminiscent of an incident with a similar outcome involving The Washington Post Magazine a few years back.
In Tokyo last year, a television news commentator said that drug wars threatened to turn New York City into a "slaughterhouse." The butcher's union denounced him and demanded that he undergo "sensitivity training" to wipe out his "bigotry" against the burakumin (village people) of Japan who are "descendants of social outcasts relegated to low-class occupations as handlers of meat and leather." The anchorman, Tetsuya Chikushi, spent a year in a re-education program. When he emerged, he denounced the "media" for their "insensitive" treatment of the burakumin, whose campaigns of denunciation have so intimidated the Japanese press that it maintains "a virtual silence" on all matters involving this caste.
In New York, striking journalists and other newspaper unions, are attempting to impose on the Daily News the penultimate form of "censorship": physically destroying the paper where possible and using all methods to keep it out of the hands of its readers. Delivery trucks have been burned and their drivers assaulted by people accustomed to pontificating on the virtues of a free press. Newsstands have been damaged and their owners threatened with bodily harm if they commit the crime of distributing the News. Replacement workers have been put in fear of their lives, while New York politicians propose laws to make their employment illegal.
Washington politicians have proposed to exclude from federal art grants any material not only "obscene or indecent" but also material that "denigrates the objects or belief of a particular religion or ... denigrates or debases or reviles a person, group or class of citizens on the basis of race, creed, sex, handicap, age or national origin." Similar proscriptions, covering both speech and writings, have been adopted by leading universities in many parts of the country.
Our newspapers, in general, are stouthearted in denunciation of censorship way off in the Gulf or in defense of aesthetic freedoms -- the artistic freedom of a Robert Mapplethorpe or 2 Live Crew or the freedom of expression represented by flag burning. But there are journalists among us who find it easy to rationalize the behavior of the Spectrum in the face of economic pressure, the behavior of the Inquirer in the face of staff and community pressures and the behavior of strikers at the Daily News. Trying to have it both ways is not an inspiring spectacle for disciples of the Bill of Rights.