Thursday, February 09, 2006


That's a fightin' word to a lot of people concerned about freedom, apple pie, and the American Way. And as it should be. It's so important that it is embodied in the First Amendment to the Constitution (makes you wonder sometimes why they didn't think of it while writing the Main Body):

"Congress shall make no law...(controversial bit about restricting religion here)...abridging the freedom of speech or of the press..."

We should be always on our guard against having our freedoms curtailed or removed. Creeping loss of freedom can happen through censorship and the restriction of the Free Press, thus why it was encoded into the First Afterthought of the Constitution.

But what is Censorship?

Merriam-Webster (online) says, in its first definition: 1 a : the institution, system, or practice of censoring b : the actions or practices of censors; especially : censorial control exercised repressively.

Who are these "censors" referred to here? Following the M-W link gives: 2 : one who supervises conduct and morals: as a : an official who examines materials (as publications or films) for objectionable matter b : an official (as in time of war) who reads communications (as letters) and deletes material considered sensitive or harmful.

They don't link to a definition for the word "official" but this is the key to my thought here. An "official" is, to me, someone in the Government at some level, be they President, Senator, Mayor, City Public Library Administrator, School Board Member, or whatever. Someone selected to represent some number of citizens in some matters. If this is an acceptable sense for "official" then the meaning of "censorship" is when Government supervises the content of published materials (books, newspapers, radio, TV shows).

Accepted forms of censorship have been, for example, restriction of what words cannot be said on television or radio and images of what things cannot be shown on television. Although there is some discussion about these, and continual observation that the rules have changed over the years, they are generally accepted. The authority the government uses to do this is based on the fact that the broadcast medium for television (not cable or satellite) and radio (not satellite radio) is the public "airwaves" which are regulated by the government as a "public good" (look that up in an economics textbook). The moral basis used for the disallowed words and images are, at least indirectly, based on public opinion as expressed through elections. If we were to overwhelmingly elect politicians to office who think no content should be restricted, then I would expect the FCC rules would more quickly change to restrict no content. Maybe not immediately but that would be an Inertia of the Bureaucrats issue only.

So why the thoughts on censorship? This morning on the way to work I heard a discussion on the only local Talk Radio show in this area that had to do with some outcry about a planned Will and Grace TV show episode that was to include what was presumably a blasphemous treatment of the Crucifixion of Christ (I missed the description and picked up what I know from the subsequent discussion). The talk centered around whether it was right or not for "religious" groups to "pressure" the producers into removing a segment of a show that the groups thought was morally wrong.

What really set me off was the the radio show producer, who normally is silent, working the phones, but occasionally chimes in, did so with statements not once but several times labeling this as "censorship" and saying how wrong that is. TV shows, in his opinion, should be "allowed" to show whatever they want. I think I know how this guy would vote in the hypothetical elections mentioned above, but I digress. Other than I'm not a good toe-to-toe debater and I didn't have time to wait on hold, I would have called in and challenged his use of the word "censorship." The TV show example was NOT a case of anyone in government suppressing content. Nobody was "disallowing" the TV show to produce the content. It was an example of how market pressure comes to media producers and how they respond to that market pressure. He seemed to think that the religious group (or groups, I don't know who it was) "forced" the producers to cut the offensive scenes. HA! Not a chance. They CHOSE to cut the material. They weren't going to be sent to jail if they did not. Consider for a second how market pressure works.

Here's an easy one: If I don't like how a particular packaged food tastes, I don't buy more than the first one. Assuming I'm representative of many other consumers, they all buy one and never another as well. The product doesn't make enough money to pay for its own shelf space...stores stop ordering it from the manufacturer...and the manufacturer stops making it. End of offensive product. This is easy because as consumers we have direct, unequivocal feedback to the producer. We vote with our wallets and since we do not have a centrally planned economy (that's called Communism, by the way) but instead a Free Market economy, producers take their signals from the marketplace mostly on sales volume at price levels.

This one's harder: If I don't like the social policies of a particular company and I don't want those policies to propogate in our culture, what do I do? Assuming their internal policies are not illegal and there is no way we could get those policies made illegal, there is nothing the government can do. I can't afford to buy the company and change its policies.

The only way I can "get at" a company is through the Free Market economy. I can decide that I will not buy their products any longer because I don't want to add any of my money to their offensive internal practices. The problem is that these internal policies have nothing directly to do with their product and, in fact, their product may even be superior in the marketplace for what it does. How can this be effective? I'm just one consumer and my individual purchases from this company won't add up to the cost of the ink contained in a period at the end of one sentence in their company policy handbook.

So what I do is talk to my like-minded friends about this company's policies and they agree that they are offensive and we collectivelly stop buying their products and if I have enough like-minded friends, and we publicize what we're doing so they know it's going on, it's possible that the company will lose enough sales to correlate that with our protest and maybe they'll stop their internal practices. This, of course, is a sort of definition of a Boycott.

Did we censor them? Absolutely not. We just stopped buying their products and told them why we were doing that. They chose what to do based on the results.

Here's the hardest one of all: A TV show broadcasts material I consider offensive to my morals and I don't like the fact that it can not only enter my home without my permission (it is broadcast over the public airwaves) but I consider it a bad influence on others around me that may not be conscious of that bad influence. What do I do?

I'm not directly purchasing their product so I can't boycott with any effect. I certainly boycott in the form of not watching the show but since my TV does not have a Nielson box on it, nobody is going to know I'm NOT watching the show except me. I can go talk to all of my like-minded friends again, who hopefully are not thinking I've become a wacko political activist that they will have to consider not hanging around with any longer, and tell them about the offensive show. They can all agree and stop watching the show as well. But since they don't have Nielson boxes on their TV's either, we are only a smug, little group that doesn't watch a particular show. In fact, who has those Nielson boxes, anyway? But I digress again.

Now I have two recourses left to me, assuming that the material I consider offensive is not illegal to broadcast. First, I can find out who the major sponsors of the show are and boycott them, making sure they know why our group is doing it. And again, the effectiveness of the boycott depends on how big my group of friends is and how well the public image of those sponsors can hold up when compared to the offensive material they are paying to have broadcast.

My second avenue would be to have representatives from my group of friends contact the media producers directly and inform them that we are not only NOT watching their show but we are either actually boycotting their sponsors or planning to if they don't modify their offensive material. The effectiveness of this is, again, dependant on the same factors. If I have a small group of friends or if the offensive show is about Vampires and is sponsored by the Blood Bank then we may have no effect.

But, did I or my group of friends "censor" the show? Not at all. We are not a government official. We can't "censor" anything but our own speech. Any response by the producer of the material is chosen by them. They're still not going to jail either way.

Instead, we exercised Market Pressure in a market where the consumer has no direct methods for feeding back to the producer. Certainly, if a show is so bad that the mythical Nielson people don't watch it, it usually winds up being cancelled. The radio show producer thought that this was "proper" and OK. But since I don't have a Nielson box, these other routes are the only way I can make my voice heard to the producers.

Maybe I should apply to be a Nielson family.

Nah. I'll just keep not buying Levi's jeans until Pat Robertson says it's OK again.


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