Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Wal-Mart - The News Rollback People

Censorship is one of those eel-slippery words. Everyone thinks they know what it means, but when it comes down to specifics, there is confusion. The official definition is:

Main Entry: cenĂ‚·sorĂ‚·ship Pronunciation: 'sen(t)-s&r-"shipFunction: noun1 a : the institution, system, or practice of censoring b : the actions or practices of censors; especially : censorial control exercised repressively2 : the office, power, or term of a Roman censor3 : exclusion from consciousness by the psychic censor

and censoring is:

: to examine in order to suppress or delete anything considered objectionable

But there's where the trickiness comes in. What is objectionable, and why, and should it be suppressed/deleted in the first place?

When MTV demanded that Trent Reznor not play in front of a backdrop of President Bush, is that censorship? Maybe. I am not arguing if they had the right to do so - it was their program and they were paying for it, so they had every right to disallow something. However, I don't think too many people would feel performing in front of an unaltered backdrop of Bush is objectionable, so I'm not too sure it fits here. It's more of a "Be careful, this could be rebellious!" moment. I can understand that - although not condone it here, as I mentioned in a previous post.

When Wal-Mart decided to stop selling racy magazines, a la FHM and Maxim in its stores, was that censorship? Possibly closer. These magazines had engendered some complaints, as I recall, due to the come-hither poses on the covers. Again, they have every right to stock or not stock what they want, but when they choose not to stock something based on sexual content, that's closer to censorship - however understandable - than the MTV flap. To me. Although I don't get too mad about it, either - it's their call. So if it is, I can understand why.

Censorship, to me, has meant the banning/forbiddance of something that some people find objectionable that most others don't. Say, when some fundamentalists demand Harry Potter be taken off the shelves, or when Gerald Allen, Yahoo, decides books with gay characters shouldn't be in libraries. On the justified side, I can't think of a single person who would say that banning child pornography is censorship - they may agree it fits the definition, but they understand that call. It's right to suppress it, therefore it's not censorship.

The MTV example above, to me, isn't censorship either - it's a corporate call made in fear of upsetting someone somewhere. Even though it fits the definition and my own personal views, I don't see that as censorious. The Wal-Mart magazine call is censorship of a sort, but I can go along with it. So I admit, I have problems deciding which case is and which case isn't censorship. Like Potter Stewart said, "I know it when I see it."

Here is a case that most definitely IS censorship, in my opinion. I read about this from a Poynter Online e-mail; if you're interested in journalism I recommend their e-mails highly.

Put simply, a Wal-Mart in Pensacola has elected not to sell a local newspaper in its stores anymore in response to a negative story carried in that newspaper. There is no claim of error or lying, no accusations of a smear job, and no correction demanded to this article, mind you - Wal-Mart just didn't like what it said about them.

It mentioned that Wal-Mart, while having terrific low low prices, often underpays its employees to save costs. As a result, 10,000 kids of Wal-Mart employees are in a Georgia health-care program, and 31% of patients in a North Carolina were Wal-Mart employees on Medicaid. This has been mentioned before - in fact, these facts in the article came from a Thomas Friedman book, The World Is Flat, and were duly attributed in the article.

This made Bob Hart, an upper Wal-Mart manager, mad. So he called up the editor of the News Journal, Randy Hammer, to complain and say that he just didn't think Wal-Mart could carry a paper that would be so nasty. ("...to them" was the undercurrent there.) Unless the author of said article, Mark O'Brien, was fired, Wal-Mart would have all the News Journals pulled.

Mark O'Brien still works there. Wal-Mart won't carry their paper.

So, we have an organization that decided a paper which carried one negative story about them was just too objectionable to sell anymore. Although, apparently, the story had a sliding scale of offense: author still at paper = VERY OFFENSIVE. Author fired = hey, we can live with it after all. And as far as I know, no facts were argued about - this wasn't libel or a screed; they just didn't like what the facts had to say. They can't say they pulled the paper because the story was a lie. (Of course, last time I was there I saw plenty of "BIBLE SAYS DEVIL IN MANHATTAN" stories blaring forth from the tabloids, so apparently lies aren't exactly a blacklist offense either.)

"I know it when I see it."

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