| G. Michael Dobbs
Part of the fallout from the current division in this country has been an ongoing discussion about the First Amendment and censorship. As someone who is in the newspaper industry, I thought it would be appropriate to address it.
First, let’s take a look at what the First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
That’s pretty specific in what Congress can and can’t do. The difficulty is that too many people don’t understand the difference between what the Constitution defines and what is allowed by standards set by private businesses.
Privately-held media companies are allowed to have standards they can enforce about content. The difference here is that Congress can’t tell media outlets what to cover and what they can’t cover.
Censorship is about the repression of information – specifically about a government preventing information from being disseminated.
Has that happened in terms of President Trump? No.
The Constitution says nothing about self-censorship. For instance, the Hays Office censored movies for decades. A film could not be released in the conventional way if it had not passed the standards set by the Hays Office, which had been put in place as a preventative measure in the 1930s when there were calls for the government to step in to censor movies.
The comic book industry started self-censorship in the 1950s after there was an assertion – unfounded by the way – that comic books caused juvenile delinquency. That self-censorship lasted for decades as well.
Are parental warnings on music and video games censorship? No. Like current movie and TV ratings, they are designed for parents to make decisions about what content is acceptable for their children.
The Federal Communications Commission established what could be tolerated on TV and radio in terms of language, violence and sexual content. Their rulings have been based on the concept of shared public standards. In other countries, sexual content and profanity are not seen as issues as they are here.
By the way, it wasn’t until the 20th Century that American newspapers started to embrace the concept of objectivity in reporting. Up until then, newspapers frequently championed a particular political or social outlook that was reflected in its reporting, not just its editorials.
Reminder Publishing certainly has content standards. I allow any letter to the editor – including those that personally criticize me – to be published as long as it is no more than 500 words, doesn’t libel anyone and doesn’t incite violence.
If you want to take a stand on an issue, say thank you, write something nice or criticize an elected official, for example, say it in 500 words or less and I’ll give you the space. Send your letters to firstname.lastname@example.org. Oh yes, and you can’t be anonymous. You have to stand by your opinion publicly.
I can’t allow profanity in these pages nor can I can allow gratuitous sexual references. Neither fit our mission.
The gatekeepers at all media companies have to determine what content meets their standards, as well as what would satisfy their consumers. Is this censorship? No.
We get dozens of press releases weekly. Some see publication, some are the basis of stories and some are not used. I make these determinations, along with our two assistant managing editors.
One of my former friends – who stopped talking to me when he realized I had voted for Barack Obama – has been ranting on his Facebook page about the “censoring” of the president. In this case, he means the decision made by various social media platforms that have decided the inaccuracies posted and the statements that have incited violence do not meet their policies.
Twitter, Facebook, etc. are not censoring President Trump. The president of the United States can summon media coverage of almost anything and get it from some outlet. He can request time from the major TV networks to address the nation and has done so in the past, like every other president in recent memory.
He has the “bully pulpit,” as President Theodore Roosevelt said.
What he cannot do is to post the same kind of lies on social media as others do because he is the president of the United States. He is one of a handful of people on this planet whose statements can carry immediate consequences, affecting the lives of many.
No responsible media company wants to share messages that are deliberately false or incite violence.