Saturday, September 15, 2007

Private Censorship

One of the issues touched on in the Kathy Griffin incident was the issue of private censorship. This aspect has gone largely unmentioned, but it is an important part of the ethics of this particular event.

Let us assume that I host a party. You are invited, with a number of other people. You know what criteria I used to select the guests, you have a good idea of who will show up, and you know what usually goes on at these types of events.

This party is meant to be a celebration of sorts.

Let us assume that this is my wedding reception. It is a secular affair, and I have asked my guests to stand up and say a few words. You know that many of the guests make statements that are grounded on their religious beliefs. You will hear party goers speaking about their faith and the good that religion has done for them. This is to be expected.

At this party, it would seem perfectly acceptable to say, "Since I do not believe in any God or diety, I cannot call upon them to watch over you. For this marriage to work you will need a little luck, a lot of hard work, and some help from your friends from time to time. With luck, this friend will always be there for you."

This would be on a par with what the other guests have been saying.

However, let us say that instead of this you prepare a speech that includes vulgar statements precisely because you know that these vulgarities will rile the people that you want to rile. You use them precisely because you know they will make certain other guests uncomfortable.

One issue is the appropriateness of this type of conduct. I want to be clear once again that I am not objecting to what Kathy Griffin said but to the conditions under which she said it – as an invited guest to somebody else’s party.

However, let us set this issue aside for a moment. Now the time has come for me to edit the tape that I have made at my party. I will be showing this type to family, friends, and even as a public broadcast (since this is a high-profile wedding). In making my tape, I have decided not to include your speech.

For this, I am being accused of censorship. Allegedly there is some moral principle at play that states that when you appear at my party and make some vulgar statement intending to make my other guests feel uncomfortable, that I am obligated to refrain from editing that out of my record of my event.

Ultimately, this is going to be a short post. I have argued with respect to morality that here, too, people are to be assumed innocent until proven guilty. It is the job of those who condemn a person for some action to prove that the condemnation is justified - it is never the job of the person being condemned to prove that he is innocent.

In fact, about the only defense a person can offer for condemnation is to challenge the accuser to justify his actions. If I am to be condemned for going to the grocery store this afternoon, I can say nothing in defense of that action other than that there is no reason to condemn it. So, if somebody wishes to condemn it, they must identify the reason.

I can see no argument for condemnation that applies to the act of editing one's own video of one's own event - even if one intends that event to be distributed for public viewing. Somebody making a documentary, writing a novel, creating a blog posting, can put in whatever, to them, fits his or her intentions regarding that product.

How can the charge of 'censorship' be justified when we are talking about an organization's private record of their own private event?

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi Alonzo, I have read your blog a long time and appreciate your knowledge and intelligence. This is the first time I've been compelled to comment. Censorship is censorship, period. Whether it be self-censorship, governmental, or otherwise, it is still censorship. That does not, however, imply that it is wrong. Do I like the fact that the Academy bowed to the pressure of one Catholic calling up and complaining? No. But the Academy does have the legal right to censor Kathy, whether I think it's ridiculous or not. I think it's offensive that so many people get up there and basically say, "Thank God for this award because he loved my performance better than Meryl Streep," but I'm not calling up and whining about it like the Catholics. Regardless of the ethics of the situation and whether the Academy should or should not have censored her, it is censorship so please don't try to say that it's not. Thank you for your time.

Sheldon said...

"it is censorship so please don't try to say that it's not. Thank you for your time."

Hey anonymous, the title of the post is "Private Censorship".
Enough said.

Alonzo,
I am glad you are continueing on this subject, because I was thinking about this some more.

I completely agree with your reasoning here.

When the Don Imus affair came up, Massimo Pigluicci appealed to the argument that people do not have a right to not be offended, and 1st ammendment rights of free speech.
http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2007/04/post-imus.html

I responded:
"However, calling for CBS to fire a bigot also falls under those 1st ammendment freedoms. CBS also has a right to ignore those people calling for the firing."

Or CBS has the right to go ahead fire Imus, whether for commercial reasons, or for not wanting to give a platform to a bigot.

This would seem to be in line with your reasoning, yes?

But now the twist. What about in the case of the lead up to the Iraq invasion, when all the mainstream TV media were cheerleading for war. MSNBC, fired and canceled Phil Donahue's show because he was presenting dissenting voices. An internal leaked memo explicitly stated these reasons.
http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=1825

Now of course MSNBC, being a private enterprise, had the legal right to put on or cancel any show they liked.

However, I would argue that morally they were very wrong in their actions. If MSNBC wishes to present itself as a legitimate news and information service, then they are obligated to present dissenting voices as well as the war cheerleaders.

Notice that some argued based on similar criteria: "In this time of war, when our troops are in harms way, it is innapropriate to question the rightness of our cause."

So, what do you think? Do you defend the actions of CBS, or MSNBC, based on the same criteria as the awards show censoring Griffin?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

But now the twist. What about in the case of the lead up to the Iraq invasion, when all the mainstream TV media were cheerleading for war. MSNBC, fired and canceled Phil Donahue's show because he was presenting dissenting voices.

Now of course MSNBC, being a private enterprise, had the legal right to put on or cancel any show they liked.

So, what do you think? Do you defend the actions of CBS, or MSNBC, based on the same criteria as the awards show censoring Griffin?


Actually, they do not. In exchange for the use of the airwaves, all broadcasters are legally required to devote a certain percentage of their broadcast time to 'public service'. One of the ways that this is filled is through the network news programs. These are not optional.

In addition, news broadcasts are submitted with at least an implicit (and often an explicit) promise not to hide information that the viewer may find useful or that would improve their understanding of a situation.

For these reasons, network news broadcasts have an obligation to provide information that I am not obligated to put in my wedding tape, or the TV Academy is not obligated to leave in its show.

Having said this, I do not hold that each alternative view has a right to be heard simply because it is an alternative view. In other words, I deny your statement that 'networks have an obligation to present dissenting voices'. They do not have an obligation to present a dissenting voice when stating that the Earth is round, for example. They are at liberty to leave these dissenting voices pretty much out of the picture.

However, the news is presented under an explicit contract not to use 'convenient things that the Administration wants everybody to believe' as their standard for making such a choice. What makes sense, and what the people want/need to know, are the only criteria that they may use.

If they are going to use a standard that allows them to manipulate the beliefs of their viewers with inaccurate information, they have an obligation to identify themselves as an organization that will do such a thing. "Move-On.org" does not operate under the same standards as "MSNBC Nightly News," which does not operate under the same standards as the TV Academy's private record of a private party.

Eneasz said...

If they are going to use a standard that allows them to manipulate the beliefs of their viewers with inaccurate information, they have an obligation to identify themselves as an organization that will do such a thing.

Sadly, this is not the case.

In February 2003, a Florida Court of Appeals unanimously agreed with an assertion by FOX News that there is no rule against distorting or falsifying the news in the United States.

It wasn't just FOX either, the court received supporting briefs from several major media players.

http://www.projectcensored.org/publications/2005/11.html if you're interested.

Gray Grey said...

"How can the charge of 'censorship' be justified when we are talking about an organization's private record of their own private event?"

But we aren't talking about a private record of a private event are we? The Emmy Awards are very much a public event broadcast on public television.

I think that the "suck" element of the speach was in poor taste, but I do think that someone has the right to say that a long-dead person played absolutely no part in the winning of a modern award.

Americans crow about freedom of speech, but that only applies to comments that honor the most stupid president ever, that avows unthinking patriotism and supports invasion of other countries on false pretexts, and that tosses God and Jesus into places where the nonexistent and long-dead do not belong.

FOX also bleeped Sally Field, of all people, for speaking up against war.

It was censorship and it was petty.

Mike said...

Why is censorship by powerful non-government, non-democratic institutions any less of a worry than censorship by the nominally democratic government?

The Emmys are not hardly a private house party. They're the extremely infulential and public expression of the television segment of the culture industry, which affects all our lives.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

The sense of 'private' that I had in mind is the sense of 'privately owned'. If I were to put a Nazi flag on my house where others can see it, it would still be my house. The fact that others can see it does not make it public.