"Circus dogs jump when the trainer cracks his whip," George Orwell wrote, "but the really well-trained dog is the one that turns his somersault when there is no whip." A half-century after Orwell's caustic gibe at compliant editors, self-censorship is one of the least discussed — and most routine — media constraints in the United States.
When a dictatorial government decides what can reach print or get on the airwaves, the heavy hand of the censor is apt to be obvious. But in a society where the First Amendment protects freedom of speech, the most significant limits may be obscured.
In contrast to dramatic storms of overt censorship, the usual climate of U.S. journalism is as unobtrusive as morning dew. The dominant seems normal, like a ubiquitous odor. "We scent the air of the office," the great American journalist George Seldes noted in 1931. "We realize that certain things are wanted, certain things unwanted."
Much has changed for reporters and editors since the 1930s. But today's media milieu hardly breeds intrepid journalism. At a time of merger mania in the news industry, journalists are aware that it's risky to directly challenge the corporate elephant fattening in the middle of the newsroom.
It is illustrative that the Today Show on NBC — a network owned by General Electric — surgically removed references to GE from a news report on a defective-bolts scandal a few years ago. And that the program's producers told a guest expert on consumer boycotts not to mention a major boycott targeting GE.
It's unlikely that anyone from GE's front office specifically ordered Today Show producers to protect the company's image. No one had to. That's how self-censorship works.
And no one needs to instruct the editor of a magazine dependent on cigarette-ad revenue not to launch a crusade against the tobacco industry.
Blatant instances of owner (or advertiser) pressure on journalists, while significant, are mere tips of icebergs that must be taken into account when navigating a journalistic career. Flagrant intrusion by media owners or sponsors is frowned upon these days; far more common, below the surface, are preemptive decisions often made in silence.
Self-censorship gains power as it becomes automatic. Former FCC commissioner Nicholas Johnson summarizes the process when he tells of "a reporter who first comes up with an investigative story idea, writes it up and submits it to the editor and is told the story is not going to run. He wonders why, but the next time, he is cautious enough to check with the editor first. He is told by the editor that it would be better not to write that story."
Johnson continues: "The third time he thinks of an investigative story idea but doesn't bother the editor with it because he knows it's silly. The fourth time he doesn't even think of the idea anymore."
In the mid-1990s, few other professionals rival journalists in claiming to be unfettered seekers of the truth. And in few jobs are the gaps between pretenses and realities more likely to be injurious to the entire society.
To be fair, journalists are no less courageous than people in other professions. But it's daunting, especially in tough economic times, to consider biting the hand that signs the paycheck.
Options are particularly sparse these days. The news business keeps contracting. Broadcast news departments have shrunk. While some newspapers fold, many others are paring staff.
Journalists who insist that they are hardly akin to Orwell's circus dogs — that they function without severe constraints — should try harder to prove such assertions in daily work. They might start by confronting media managers who treat news products like boxes of cereal.
Weeks after transferring from a top post at General Mills this summer, the new chief executive at Times Mirror Co., Mark Willes, lowered the corporate boom — closing New York Newsday and ordering big layoffs at the Los Angeles Times. Willes does not seem to be embarrassed when he compares managing newspapers to marketing Cheerios.
Many journalists are appalled at the merging of already-huge media conglomerates. But most journalists are inclined to mute their criticisms. People who work in glass suites can't throw many stones.
"The most sacred cow of the press," George Seldes observed long ago, "is the press itself." Now, perhaps, more than ever.