- 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
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
Jack Thomas knows that. But he's not going
to say it. He's a businessman.