Thursday, August 30, 2007

State Censorship and Corporate Media Self-Censorship

Justin Delacour writes an engaging media blog, Latin American News Review, in which he comments on news of Latin America and links to articles and essays that are written from perspectives not often found in large corporate media coverage of the region.

In a recent post, “Freedom from One-Sided Expression,” Delacour links to a series of articles and essays commenting on mainstream media coverage of the controversy surrounding Hugo Chavez and the non-renewal of a license for broadcasting for television station RCTV, a station associated with political opposition to Chavez’s government. One of the articles Delacour links to is “Why Can’t Foreign Lefties Learn to Be Objective Like Us?” by Christian Christensen.

The arguments of Christensen’s interesting essay can be summed up as follows I think. (Some of this is clear and explicit in the essay, and some is my interpretation of unstated premises beneath Christensen’s explicit statements – so please take a look at Christensen’s essay itself.)

1. There is a bias against “leftism” on the part of major corporate North American media outlets, whether concerning “leftist” governments or the possibility of “objectivity” on the part of “leftist” media. (Something not discussed so much by Christensen, but something I have encountered in some media coverage of the controversy is a converse assumption of objectivity on the part of media in opposition to “leftists.”)

2. Chavez is the leftist bogeyman de jour, and mainstream corporate news coverage presents a consistent bias against him and his government.

3. Mainstream North American media coverage is not as objective as it claims, but reflects the interests of the corporate conglomerates of which media outlets are a part, in the process practicing a form of self-censorship.

4. It is hypocritical for mainstream media commentators to decry things like state censorship of opposition-associated stations in places like Venezuela while engaging in a form of news censorship themselves.

I don’t so much find major grounds to disagree with what Christensen has said or implied as I do have a couple reactions. First, while I agree that corporate media self-censorship is a major concern (it makes it difficult to have an enlightened public engaged in civil society), and that the emphasis on Chavez’s state censorship is even hypocritical, the hypocritical nature of much North American coverage of Venezuela is no reason to not be concerned about Chavez and his government’s actions in some instances. (I want to be careful to say that Christensen doesn’t say that there’s no reason to be concerned about Chavez – it’s just not really a topic he addresses. The matter of Chavez and the non-renewal of RCTV’s license for public broadcasting is also complicated. Is it an instance of state censorship? In one sense, a license was simply not renewed, and the channel has apparently returned, though as a cable channel, which in Venezuela has reduced its potential audience. At the same time, the non-renewal of the license was clearly politically motivated.)

Finally, I think that both state censorship and corporate media self-censorship are causes for concern. Christensen doesn’t actively conflate the two, though I find it worthwhile to draw a larger distinction between the two practices. Not only are the actors different – states and corporations, but more importantly, these are different modes of channeling public discourse. When a state, any state, acts to shut down a media outlet or to proscriptively influence what can be said, this is a repressive act. Some of what could be said has been disallowed, and even if only one station or newspaper is actively targeted, there is a broader chilling effect on public discourse. The effects of corporate self-censorship might be just as or even more pervasive in some instances but works in a different way, through the production of a particular discourse. The effects on what someone without the time, inclination, or ability to seek out alternative perspectives is likely to hear and read are severe, but there’s no real repression in this instance. There’s no repression of blogs like Delacour’s or essays like Christensen's or even national news weeklies like The Nation which regularly present alternative perspectives (and which are readily available to anyone looking for them).

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