As we survey the cultural landscape after the atrocities of September 11, we ought to note the special danger posed to free expression by media concentration. It seems that censorship has now been largely privatized, with the heavy hitters of the media cartel–the owners and major advertisers–themselves acting quickly to shut down critical discussion.
Such was the case with Bill Maher, the host of ABC’s Politically Incorrect, which suddenly appeared to be at risk of cancellation after Maher, chatting on the program with Dinesh D’Souza, referred to US military policy as “cowardly” because of its inordinate reliance on dropping missiles on ground troops. Maher made his point not as a pacifist or leftist but as an armchair militarist, grousing that America’s strikes abroad are not sufficiently warlike. Nevertheless, his casual remark got him in major trouble with both Sears and FedEx, two of his corporate sponsors, and led a number of ABC affiliates to temporarily drop the show. (The sponsors and the stations acted in response to a quick surge of right-wing agitation.) Disney CEO Michael Eisner got into the act, summoning Maher into his office for a hiding.
Maher then saved his show by very publicly displaying his conservative intentions–explaining, to Bill O’Reilly, that he had only meant to blame (who else?) Bill Clinton for our “cowardly” dependency on smart bombs over fighting men. Thus he kept his show afloat, and even got to stand out as a First Amendment hero–but the fact that he could come so close to cancellation due to rightist sentiment and corporate whim (and with a show called Politically Incorrect!) should give us pause.
The same tendency is currently at work with other work less visible than Maher’s show (which is no great shakes, it must be said). For instance, several managers who work for Clear Channel, the world’s largest chain of radio stations, recently put out a list of songs that they “suggested” not be played for the duration of our sudden war on terrorism. The long list includes John Lennon’s “Imagine,” Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and anything by Rage Against the Machine.
And in the wake of the attack on September 11, Barnes & Noble quickly canceled my scheduled readings from The Bush Dyslexicon, which they apparently assumed would irk their customers–an odd move for the world’s largest bookseller, which ought to be expanding, and not narrowing, the national debate. Private censorship per se is nothing new, of course. Any thorough history of wartime America will make that very clear. But when the major players exert as large an influence as they do now, the problem is compounded exponentially.