(Dear Readers: I’d love to see you at my upcoming book launch in Berkeley at 2 pm on Sunday, 2 June.)
Last night, almost done reading one of my two new books, The Culture of Possibility: Art, Artists & The Future, my partner said this: “You’re a feather-ruffler, aren’t you?”
Well, sure. Speaking truth to—and about—power has been one of my lifelong habits. It’s too late to stop now even if I wanted to—which I don’t.
I thought there was a note of concern in my sweetheart’s voice when he dubbed me a “feather-ruffler.” But I reassured him that I’ve survived intact so far and intend to keep on. I’m used to concern being voiced both by people who care about me and those who dislike what I have to say. And I understand why: they are noticing which way the wind blows.
In the decades during which I’ve felt called to raise my voice in defense of liberty, justice, and equity, I’ve seen a quite remarkable expansion of the chilling effect, a mechanism whereby fear instills self-censorship until self-censorship becomes second nature, masquerading as mere prudence, as the expected thing. When I speak on this subject, one quip always gets a laugh (followed by a gulp). “We don’t need much overt censorship in the country,” I say, “by now, censorship is the most decentralized element of public policy. We do it to ourselves without even being asked.” (In The Culture of Possiblity, I write about the series of political inoculations that produced this symptom.)
So when a case of overt censorship comes into view, it’s big news. There’s big news in the latest New Yorker, with Jane Mayer’s account of how PBS, ITVS (the Independent Television Service, a funding and producing organization for independent public television productions), and other public broadcasting entities participated in squelching Carl Deal’s and Tia Lessin’s documentary, Citizen Koch. Brendan Fischer’s piece at the Center for Media and Democracy’s site is the most thorough account I’ve seen.
Since David Koch became the poster-boy for right-wing zillionaires buying public opinion—in the Koch brothers’ case, through massive lobbying for dirty energy and a vast funding campaign masquerading as a grassroots Tea Party movement, among other things—he has come under scrutiny. Mayer’s piece describes the sharp discomfort of public broadcasters and funders at a series of nonfiction films focusing on David Koch, who has also been a generous patron of establishment art and media organizations. Indeed, until recently, Koch sat on the board of WNET and was expected to give a great deal of money to its capital campaign.
By the time Citizen Koch turned up in ITVS’s pipeline, Koch had been deeply offended by the airing on Independent Lens of Alex Gibney’s Park Avenue: Money, Power and The American Dream, focusing on Koch and other ultra-rich residents of a single Manhattan highrise. Mayer’s article details the pains WNET officials took to warn, inoculate, and placate Koch before that broadcast; but to their credit, they let it go forward despite his protests. Ironically, throwing Citizen Koch under the bus didn’t help: Koch resigned from the WNET board a few days ago, taking his dangled donations with him.
Although I am not currently a denizen of the independent media world, I used to do a great deal of work for media makers and funders, including ITVS. I know something about that culture, which has a built-in chilling effect. U.S. public broadcasting has always been remarkably anemic and underfunded compared to the public television presence of nearly every other nation. Most of the cuts to an already-weak system have come since the Reagan years. They stem from right-wing opposition to any media presence that isn’t funded by commercials: worship the marketplace fervently enough and you get to thinking that even freedom of expression ought to be bought and sold. Today, only 12 percent of PBS’s funding comes from public sources, rendering a system that ought to be entirely free of commercial control into something rather like a commercial TV network that gets a little help from taxpayers.
After a thousand cuts and several decades as the target on which far-right ideologues practice their attack techniques, people in public broadcasting tend to be gunshy. On the one hand, it’s remarkable that under such circumstances, controversial material does get aired. I’ve seen public TV people go to bat for cutting-edge work even though they felt they were risking their own security. But I’ve also seen a lot of work get toned down through a vetting and editorial process that’s supposed to be about making the work good, not tame. Jane Mayer has painted an accurate picture of a system in which too many decisions are constrained by the need to placate the right or the rich, and too many of the officials whose role it is to make and implement those determinations have sunk so far into their own cover-story that they are able to assert without blushing that this isn’t censorship, just realism.
My own reputation for feather-ruffling emerges from precisely such situations, where I am able to utter truths that everyone in the room knows, but many remain silent, having been taught that there are terrible consequences to too much free speech.
Why should I fear? What can they do to me? I’m not wikileaking classified documents or otherwise committing civil disobedience in the name of freedom of information (whatever you think about that). I’m just sharing observations and opinions about issues that seem to me squarely in the public interest. Even though some people seem to have forgotten it, we still have the right to free speech in this country. It was hard-won by our forebears, and periodically in our history, it’s been rescued from the temporary grip of witchhunters.
The terrible thing about the chilling effect is that it is seldom based on a realistic assessment of consequences. Instead, as people like Koch throw their economic power around, they magnify their images and others’ imagination of the consequences of crossing them grows. People scare themselves. I don’t think public TV’s censorship will hurt Citizen Koch too much in the long run: in the digital age, it’s possible to seize a great deal of attention by promoting your work as “the film PBS didn’t want you to see.” But it will hurt PBS, ITVS, WNET and all of those whose duty is to guard free expression and whose behavior has put it in greater jeopardy.
K’naan’s version of Bob Dylan’s “With God On Our Side.”