Gagged by Google

Media activists have a lot to put up with these days. Not only is there more to complain about than ever when it comes to the timidity and lap-doggishness of most journalists -- not to mention the shrinking spectrum of views that get aired -- but, in addition, there are the clichés one has to contend with. The one that peeves me most right now is the one about the glories of the Internet.

According to the oft-repeated mantra, those who have a problem with the networks, the cable channels, the newspapers and Clear Channel radio, have their own outlet now -- it's the World Wide Web.

I heard this argument most recently in Charlottesville at the University of Virginia from a co-panelist at a public forum, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA),Co-Chairman of the Congressional Internet Caucus.

"You've got the Internet, you've got the Internet." The Representative said it so often that finally I proposed a trade: let Disney, Viacom, GE and AOL/TIME Warner take the Internet, I suggested. We'll give it to them -- in exchange for the broadcast television networks, cable, publishing and Hollywood. The Congressman said it was an idea he hadn't heard before. Indeed.

The World Wide Web is a fabulous phenomenon. It's fantastic for getting news out that can be spread no other way, but is it the answer to the media-related prayers of social change activists? Hardly, as Anita Roddick found out this month.

Roddick is the founder of the Body Shop, the notable socially-responsible health-and-beauty store chain. She resigned as co-chair of the company this February to dedicate herself to activism full-time. Roddick has lots to say (she recently edited a book called "Take it Personally"; it's out now from Harper Collins) and she keeps a politically oriented "blog" (or Web log). Driving major traffic to one's site is almost impossible without advertising or good search engine placement, as bloggers know. Roddick advertised on the popular Google engine -- or did until they took exception to what she had to say.

It began when Roddick posted a short comment on her site about actor John Malkovich's public threat to shoot Scottish Member of Parliament George Galloway and Independent reporter Robert Fisk. (Malkovich railed against critics of Israel at a high-profile speech at Cambridge University.)

"John Malkovich often plays disturbed and dangerous men in his films," wrote Roddick, "maybe he's not acting. His threat to shoot Robert Fisk for his honest reportage on Israel is but further evidence that Malkovich is a vomitous worm."

"Vomitous worm" didn't go down well with Google. Shortly after Roddick made the comment, she got word that the advertising staff at the search engine were suspending her ad campaign. "They said that my ad violated their editorial policy against 'sites that advocate against groups or individuals,'" writes Roddick.

Apparently Google saw no irony in the text of the ad they pulled. It read: "AnitaRoddick.com: Uncensored."

By this logic, points out Roddick, "no one could advertise who maligned any human being, be it Stalin, Hitler or even Bin Laden." She could have added "George W. Bush" to the list.

It gets worse. When Roddick's website editor spoke to the Google team about their policy, they told her they do not accept ads for sites with any political content that could be perceived as "anti" anything. It'd be funny, and it's ridiculous on its face, but Roddick's ads have in fact, been pulled.

"I am virtually invisible," says Roddick. Actually, the former CEO's visibility is hard to suppress, but the lesson should sober up bloggers everywhere.

Big media are happy to sell their critics the crumbs that fall from the corporate table. Blog away, be happy, they tell the activists. But far from a free-speech paradise, the Internet is fast becoming the next corporate-controlled universe, going the way of cable TV or publishing. As long as censors operate as gatekeepers, dissenters can speak all they like -- but they won't be heard.

Journalist Laura Flanders is the host of Working Assets Radio and author of "Real Majority, Media Minority: The Cost of Sidelining Women in Reporting." You can contact her at laura@lauraflanders.com

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