Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Changing Face of Censorship

Censorship was a big subject again this year. With the internet still being a relatively new venue for expression, expect this to continue to be a hot button issue for years to come. Off the top of my head, I can think of the following stories from the past year about censorship: the blocking of Google in China and Iran, software being developed to circumvent that blocking software, NPR firing Juan Williams, Net Neutrality or Wikileaks. It is a great time to be alive if you love this subject like I do. I almost always come down on the side against censorship.

The Wikileaks story seems an awful lot like situation with the the Pentagon Papers in 1971. When the NY Times published leaked documents from the Pentagon almost 40 years ago, the reporters and leakers were thought of and portrayed to be heroes by many. They leaked confidential documents about the Vietnam War and most Americans responded positively to the leaker, Daniel Ellsberg and to the NY Times publishing of them. This is a sharp contrast to how Julian Assange is being received in regards to Wikileaks now. One has to wonder if the country is going backward on the censorship subject.

It is a good time to reflect on how far we have come. One good example of outrageous censorship in the past is 1950's television. April 16, 1959 CBS's Playhouse 90 did the first production ever of "Judgment at Nuremberg" in the form of a teleplay. Two years later it would be made into a major motion picture starring Spencer Tracy and Burt Lancaster. After the teleplay was filmed, the sponsor, American Gas Association, took offense to the many reference to the "gas" chambers. Since the film was about the holocaust and Nuremberg trials, they really couldn't change that. So as a compromise, they edited the word "gas" out of the film so that silence would replace it. So if someone in the film said "they were marched into the gas chambers," the film that played on television said, "they were marched into the ... chambers." I can't imagine this happening nowadays. Sponsors don't have that much power anymore. The explosion in media outlets might have a lot to do with that. Also, the public probably wouldn't let them get away with it.

Enough evidence exists that censorship almost always backfires. Rod Serling (one of my personal heroes) was infuriated over a lot of the changes he had to make on scripts. On his famous, Requiem for a Heavyweight, he had to remove the line "Got a match?" because Ronson Lighters was the sponsor. In 1956, he wrote a script called “Noon on Doomsday” for ABC's The United States Steel Hour based on the Emitt Till story, a 14 year old black boy in Mississippi who was recently killed by white supremacists for whistling at a white woman. ABC and the sponsor were flooded with thousands of letters and phone calls protesting about the script from members of the White Citizens Councils. Serling had to change his story from a black boy in Mississippi to a Jewish man in New England. He was so maddened by this experience he decided to start writing science fiction where you could easily hide controversial subjects in a Mars landscape or in a robot's gaze. So The Twilight Zone was born in anger and spite.

Watch two minutes of South Park ... that's all you need to do to see how far we have come in this situation. Writers and producers can pretty much do what they want on television these days. It is not perfect, obviously. You can't say "fuck" along with a slew of other words. We are more likely to censor due to politically correct reasons rather than for ... well ... the other side of the equation. Television networks no longer play the Seinfeld episode where Kramer accidentally burned a Puerto Rican flag. We are not perfect, but we are certainly better. As long as Julian Assange is not giving away launch codes or the positions of troops, I find him quite heroic. It is too bad the television media doesn't portray him that way.

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