On Thanksgiving, our local paper carried an AP story about Bobby Goldstein, the creator of a reality TV show called “Cheaters,” in which camera crews accompany people who want to find and confront their unfaithful partners. One hundred old episodes are being re-edited, excising language and sexual images that might upset the FCC, which — since Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” at the last Super Bowl — has been zealously fining broadcasters.
Here’s how Goldstein explained it: “If that makes Uncle George happy, well, I want to make him happy. It is a form of censorship, but I’m proud to pay whatever I have to pay to live in America.”
By all accounts, “Cheaters” (which I have never seen) is egregiously sleazy. Here’s the thing, though: “Goldstein said he realized that ‘Cheaters’ would have to change when dozens of ABC affiliates decided not to air the Academy Award-winning World War II drama ‘Saving Private Ryan’ because they worried the violence and profanity would lead to penalties.”
While I was cooking Thanksgiving dinner, my husband read to me from my favorite read-aloud periodical, \The New York Review of Books.\ We’re a little behind, so it was a piece in the September 23rd issue that caught our attention: “The Making of a Mess,” by venerable historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Schlesinger castigates our “supine press” for failing to notice or care “about President Bush’s fundamental shift to preventive war as the basis of US foreign policy.” He cites case after case of the nation’s most prestigious newspapers ignoring important developments that ought to trigger deep questioning of administration policies. For example, the \New York Times\:
“On June 16 of this year a group calling itself Diplomats and Military Commanders for Change held a press conference. Twenty-seven retired professional diplomats and officers condemned the Bush policy and called for regime change in Washington. The signers included Admiral William Crowe, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and ambassador to London; Arthur Hartman and Jack Matlock, former ambassadors to the Soviet Union; Donald McHenry, former ambassador to the United Nations; Stansfield Turner, former CIA director under Jimmy Carter; and other experienced and distinguished figures. The statement by professionals criticizing the government in wartime seems unprecedented in American history and ought to be taken with the utmost seriousness. But the Times, the fabled newspaper of record, ignored the press conference, did not run the statement or quote from it, and did not print the list of signatories.”
I am strongly impressed with the extent of dissent from Bush’s doctrines now being expressed in activism, in writing circulated via independent journals and the Internet — in living rooms and classrooms and places of worship around the nation. I am encouraged that efforts to stifle dissent have failed in the face of individual resilience and determination. But while all of us are out there speaking truth to power (or at least about power) in our own ways, a pincer campaign to control the mass media is succeeding. With government officials squeezing from one side and the religious right from the other, the people who run TV networks and major newspapers are realizing they would rather use the currency of free speech to “pay whatever [they] have to pay to live in America” than risk paying an FCC fine or being targeted by far-right media watchdogs.
As I have been saying for decades, in the United States, censorship is the only public function that is completely decentralized: instead of a politburo, we have a system of self-censorship that just won’t quit. Like the re-editing of “Cheaters” or the cancelling of “Saving Private Ryan,” it’s entirely voluntary — there’s pressure, but no outright coercion. It’s described succinctly in Proverbs 30:27: “The locusts have no king, yet they all march forth in formation.”
It’s all very well for people who are plugged into the alternative news networks; much of the news we need will find its way into our email in-boxes. But what about the great mass of people who learn the news, if they follow it at all, from broadcast TV and chain newspapers that hold themselves to even lower standards than the \Times\?
At Thanksgiving dinner with friends, we were talking about the writers and books that had exerted the greatest influence on each of us. I mentioned Paul Goodman. My friends hadn’t heard of this prolific polymath, whose commitment to asking the hardest questions (and thinking “out of the box” before that icky expression was invented) had a tremendous impact on my sixties cohort. His masterworks (\Growing Up Absurd\, \Communitas\, \Like a Conquered Province\, and many more) deserve to be read.
But the book I’m thinking of today is a slighter volume: \The Society I Live in is Mine\, subtitled “An American writer engaged in the day-to-day act of citizenship.” Goodman’s intro describes it as “a collection of angry letters on public morals and politics….The squawks of a Citizen.” Some things never change, it seems: the first letter is to the FCC, the second to the \New York Times\. I’m going to reread it today. I see Amazon has several used copies.
Since no one else will do it, It’s time for the citizens go to our keyboards. An upwelling of day-to-day acts of citizenship is needed to hold the major media accountable. Let’s squawk like Paul Goodman and save ourselves from the locusts!