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Posted: June 08, 2001

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Perspective

 
Boston Globe's double-standard: What do you expect from a business?

 
by Stephen Gowans
When objections were raised to newspapers agreeing to place David Horowitz's ad questioning slavery reparations, the Boston Globe fired back with this: "Far more dangerous than offensive ideas is their censorship, because censorship knows no ideology and will eventually muzzle the views of the minorities as well."
Yet, when Forest Ethics, an environmental group, tried to place an ad criticizing the office supply chain, Staples, for using paper made from old-growth forests, the Boston Globe turned down the ad.
 
To date, the paper's ombudsman, Jack Thomas, has refused to explain why the Boston Globe applies a double-standard, despite receiving hundreds of messages from activists demanding an explanation.
 
I have no doubt that the paper believes it's sincere in its commitment to free-speech, but equally, I have no doubt that that commitment is junior to the paper's raison d'etre -- making a profit. Where the principle of freedom from censorship collides with the imperative of maintaining the goodwill of major advertising accounts, imperative prevails. At least, in the Forest Ethics case, it certainly appears that the Globe was prepared to accept a little censorship as a small price to pay to avoid offending a major Boston-based firm, notwithstanding the newspaper's rhetorical commitment to the free expression of offensive ideas.
 
While undesirable, there's nothing unusual, or even, in a business-governed society, wrong with this. That the Globe would put business considerations first is to be expected of any normally run business. As a privately-run newspaper that exists to make a profit, the Boston Globe is not a philanthropic organization, dedicated to fostering the free and full expression of ideas. Profit-making is job one.
 
But newspapers are different, aren't they? They're businesses, but not businesses. They're in the business of making money, sure, but they're also pursuing a higher calling of keeping the public informed, unconstrained by censorship and worry over who might be offended by what is reported or advertised. Or so the myth goes.
 
And while this deceit is carefully nourished, newspapers -- at least the profitable ones -- rake in cash, bending over backwards not to offend anyone who can fork over loads of it. And they bend over backwards to drive down costs, too, letting official sources, like the White House, State Department and Pentagon press staffs, and the handsomely appointed PR offices of major corporations, write press releases for them on what the White House, State Department, Pentagon, and major corporations are doing. That way the inconvenience of maintaining large staffs to ferret out news -- staffs whose salaries could be shareholders' dividends -- is minimized.
 
The press turns on this double-standard. It celebrates its independence, but thrives on its subordination to whatever allows it to make money.
 
Free and independent, proclaims the Western press, about itself. Not like the nasty state-run media outlets of official enemy countries. But not independent of Staples or advertisers or PR firms or press relations offices. And not independent of those who own and control the press, none of whom are poor or left-wing or on the margins. And most of all not independent of the imperative of turning a profit.
 
This illusion is at the core of Jack Thomas's silence. Newspapers aren't going to puncture the myth that they have so assiduously nourished -- the myth of being businesses that aren't businesses, of docilely following wherever the truth, and not commercial considerations, or the White House or the State Department or corporate PR departments or the views of their establishment owners, lead them.
 
Thomas is taking pains in his silence not to damage the roots of this carefully cultivated flower, as any business person should. Who wants to buy a newspaper whose commercial imperatives ensure lapses in impartiality and tolerance of censorship, when there are other newspapers whose editors intone their impartiality and wax eloquent about their high moral commitment to freedom from censorship?
 
As a newspaper, the Boston Globe is a good business.
 
But the paper could follow some much needed business advise: Don't let editors mount high moral horses. Not when the horse's legs are lame.
As for the rest of us, some different advise. Newspapers are good at being businesses. They'd be good at being newspapers, if they weren't businesses, a project those committed to democracy and the free and full expression of ideas, including offensive ones, might devote themselves to.
Jack Thomas knows that. But he's not going to say it. He's a businessman.

Mr. Steve Gowans is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.

Source: 
 
by courtesy & 2001 Steve Gowans

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