April 2007

Imus's demise - what can be learned from it?

Imus's demise - what can be learned from it?

The decision by MSNBC and CBS to drop "Imus in the Morning" has led to much comment on the case and a fair amount about the nature of US society and broadcasting but not to debate on the nature of censorship in the US nor of whether the existing system provides the best balance in the public interest and what can be learned from what happened.

In this case it seems that the deciding factors as so often were not any corporate view of right or wrong - in any case US law in general seems to dictate that a corporation's prime duty is to maximize profit not to have any ethical values for their own sake - but the effect on the bottom line of advertisers pulling out.

If the market is to rule this is clearly the way things will be done but it is reasonably a matter of concern that the power to decide should be held by a group of advertisers who are effectively accountable to no-one in the short term; on the other hand is there a better way?

Censorship exists to a degree in all societies.

In any discussion of how to strike a balance between various freedoms we think it has to be first admitted that all societies censor to a degree and then move on to consideration of what factors should be taken into account and the weighting to be given to them.

Commercially there is no need for such discussion: It is a matter for advertisers to consider whether their association with a particular show or station is to their overall benefit and for a broadcaster to balance the costs of producing the show with the returns it generates from advertisers or sponsors.

In a democracy, however, it seems to us that there are wider issues to be taken into account and the commercial model can easily allow determined small groups to exert pressures out of all proportion to their actual support.

Some of the factors that lead to censorship.

(In no particular order):
Embarrassment: This seems the most potent factor in much censorship. It would certainly account for the disproportionate outcry over the display of part of Janet Jackson's breast.

Consequences of a revelation: Also fairly potent because those with much to lose have a strong self-interest in stifling open debate.

Public safety: Not all that common a true motive but there may be genuine reasons to stifle release of information for a limited period. Often this reason is used to prevent discussion that could show an embarrassing lack of justification for an action or policy.

Desire for unquestioned and enhanced power: A very significant factor in authoritarian and totalitarian societies

Protection of the privacy of individuals.

Preventing dissemination of information seen as harmful by those in power.

Preventing open discussion of ideas that challenge widely held conceptions.

Most of the above it seems to us are not usually strong enough arguments to rationally tip the balance against dissemination of information or ideas and indeed in many cases there is virulence in the censorship precisely because deeply held beliefs cannot be justified by those who hold them.

So should there be formal censorship?

In some cases it seems to us that there is a case to be made: For example in the case of an investigation of corruption it may well make sense that information should be kept out of the public domain until the investigation is completed since premature release could jeopardize an investigation that needs to be carried out in the wider public interest. That jeopardy, of course, ends once the investigation is completed so the restraint need only be- and in our view - should only be temporary and there should therefore be rules set out in advance concerning the limits of the restraints.

The situation becomes more complex when the issues are ones of taste - or the absence thereof. On the one hand it is difficult to defend the crass, hurtful and puerile remarks that led to Imus's demise - or the crass parallel drawn by producer Bernard McGuirk with what happened to him and the comments of Pastor Neimoller about the actions of the Nazis.

On the other hand it equally seems a foolish over-reaction to attempt to prohibit the utterance of tasteless or crass remarks.
In general we therefore conclude that formal censorship is almost always to be avoided and where applied require rigorous justification in the public interest.

What methods should we use to curb bigoted or hurtful remarks?

In the end we think these boil down to a combination of the nature of a society and a little moral backbone amongst its opinion formers.

In the case of Imus, we suspect that had rather more of his guests done a Clarence Page - Page raised the issues of racially bigoted remarks directly with Imus but was not invited back - the host might have tempered his subsequent remarks rather more and remained on air.

As it is there was a Hall of Fame of one and of shame of many - politicians, pundits and the audience who collaborated in allowing the situation to continue without check.

That situation continues with many hosts so maybe McGuirk had a point, even if the Neimoller parallel was badly chosen. His point, of course, was the danger of an increasing stifling of freedom of speech.

What a shame then that he had to make it in terms of crudity and crassness as a form of fun rather than in more profound ways.

What you think? Please E-mail your comments.

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