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The Media, Politics and Censorship

Every news organization has First Amendment rights. But speaking out is one thing, keeping others from being heard is another.
 
 
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The war in Iraq has become also a war of images. This week, we were troubled by pictures of tortured Iraqi prisoners. Last week, it was photographs of American soldiers who have given their lives there.

On Friday a week ago on Nightline, Ted Koppel read the names of the dead and showed their photographs. But their faces and names were blacked out on ABC stations owned by Sinclair Broadcasting. Sinclair accused Koppel of "...doing nothing more than making a political statement."

But what about Sinclair's own political agenda? With 62 stations, the company is the biggest of its kind in the country and has lobbied successfully in Washington for permission to grow even bigger. Its executives are generous contributors to the Republican Party.

After 9/11, there were reports that their on-air talent had been required to read statements affirming a station's 100% support for the President. And the company's Vice President for Corporate Communications, Mark Hyman, doubles as the on-air commentator on The Point, a daily commentary segment that airs in cities across the country via Sinclair's News Central channel. Hyman is known to regularly "stimulate public discourse" with statements like, "Clinton was too busy chasing skirts to chase terrorists."

Earlier this year, he was sent to Iraq to editorialize on the good things happening there.

That's Sinclair's prerogative, of course. Every news organization has First Amendment rights, just as I'm exercising mine right now. But speaking out is one thing, keeping others from being heard is another. Sinclair censored Koppel.

And when the Democratic National Committee wanted to buy time for a spot critical of the President, Sinclair's station in Madison, Wisconsin, said no.

Sinclair's not alone with cozy ties to Washington. Clear Channel, the biggest radio conglomerate in the country (with over twelve hundred stations), was a big winner in the deregulation frenzy triggered by Congress in 1996. Last year Clear Channel was a cheerleader for the invasion of Iraq with pro-war rallies.

Rupert Murdoch's a big Washington winner, too. Congress and the Republican-controlled Federal Communications Commission let him off the hook even though his News Corp. owned more stations than the rules allowed.

Murdoch also controls Fox News, another big cheerleader for American policy in Iraq, as well as the New York Post. For a week, the Post refused to publish photographs of those tortured Iraqi prisoners saying the pictures would "reflect poorly" on the troops risking their lives there.

Again, it's their right. Freedom of the press, it has been famously said, is guaranteed only to those who own one.

That's just the point. These media giants can be within their rights even while doing wrong. It's the system, dear Brutus, the system...a cartel, in effect, of big companies and big government scratching each other's back.

It wasn't supposed to be that way. The founders of our government didn't think it a good idea for the press and state to gang up on public opinion. So they added to the Constitution a Bill of Rights whose First Amendment was to be a kind of firewall between the politicians who hold power and the press that should hold power accountable. The very first American newspaper was a little three-page affair whose editor said he wanted to "cure the spirit of lying..." The government promptly shut him down on grounds he didn't have the required state license.

Nowadays, these mega-media conglomerates relieve government of the need for censorship by doing it themselves. So we're reminded once again that journalism's best moments have come not when journalists make common cause with the state but stand fearlessly independent of it. A free press remains everything to a free society.

Bill Moyers is host of the public affairs series NOW with Bill Moyers, which airs weekly on Friday nights on PBS (check local listings).