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Corporate censorship is censorship by corporations, the sanctioning of speech by spokespersons, employees, and business associates by threat of monetary loss, loss of employment, or loss of access to the marketplace.[1][2]

TV Guide debate[]

In 1969, FCC commissioner Nicholas Johnson and president of CBS News Richard Salant debated the scope and existence of corporate censorship in a series of articles published in TV Guide.


Johnson's view, put forward in an article entitled The Silent Screen[3] is that "Censorship is a serious problem" in the United States, and that he agrees with the statements by various network officials that television is subject to it, but disputes "just who is doing most of the censoring". He states that most television censorship is corporate censorship, not government censorship. One of the several examples that he gives in support of this argument is that of WBAI in New York, which the FCC declined to censure for the publication a poem that was alleged to be anti-Semitic. He argues that "[m]any broadcasters are fighting, not for free speech, but for profitable speech. In the WBAI case, for example, one of the industry's leading spokesmen, Broadcasting magazine, actually urged that WBAI be punished by the FCC — and on the same editorial page professed outrage that stations might not have an unlimited right to broadcast profitable commercials for cigarettes which may result in illness or death."

Johnson[3] quotes examples of corporate censorship reported by Stan Opotowsky in TV — The Big Picture[4]: "Ford deleted a shot [of] the New York skyline because it showed the Chrysler building [...] A breakfast-food sponsor deleted the line 'She eats too much' from a play because, as far as the breakfast-food company was concerned, nobody could ever eat too much." He quotes Bryce Rucker writing in The First Freedom[5] that "Networks generally have underplayed or ignored events and statements unfavorable to food processors and soap manufacturers". He notes that "corporate tampering with the product of honest and capable journalists and creative writers and performers can be quite serious". He points to a 1969-09-03 report by Variety that ABC "had tailored some of its documentaries to fit the corporate desires of Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Company", and cites examples given by Bill Greeley in a a 1970-02-04 Variety article of "shrunken or vanished" documentaries at CBS, which have been "shelved, turned down, or killed".

He also gives several examples of television network officials who have resigned over issues of corporate censorship: Fred Friendly resigning from CBS News because on 1966-02-10 it did not televise the Senate hearings on the Vietnam war; the head of the National Association of Broadcasters Code Authority resigning "in disgust over the hypocrisy exhibited by the NAB's stand on cigarette advertisements".[3]

He points out several commonalities in a long list of incidents that he cites:[3]

  • the involvement of human death, disease, dismemberment, or degradation;
  • the existence of great profit for manufacturers, advertisers, and broadcasters; and
  • the deliberate withholding of needed information from the public.

Johnson[3] states that "many pressures produce such censorship", some deliberate and some by default, but that "all have come, not from government, but from private corporations with something to sell". He notes an exchange in the letters page of the New York Times between Charles Tower, chairman of the National Association of Broadcasters Television Board and a reader, with Tower saying "There is a world of difference between the deletion of program material by Government command and the deletion by a private party [such as a broad-caster] [...] Deletion by Government command is censorship [...] Deletion of material by private parties [...] is not censorship." but his respondent rebutting this with "Mr. Tower's distinction [...] is spurious. The essence of censorship is the suppression of a particular point of view [...] over the channels of the mass media, and the question of who does the censoring is one of form only.". Johnson concurs with the latter view, stating that the outcome is the same.


Salants's view, put forward in an article entitled He Has Exercised His Right — To Be Wrong[6] was that Johnson was "totally completely, 100 percent wrong — on all counts", providing many examples of CBS' coverage of the things enumerated by Johnson, saying "In the 11 years I was a CBS corporate officer and in the six years that I have been president of CBS News, to my knowledge there is no issue, no topic, no story which CBS News has ever been forbidden, or instructed directly or indirectly, to cover or not to cover, by corporate management.".


Corporate censorship in the music industry involves the censorship of musicians' artistic works by the refusal to market or to distribute them. One example given by Jay is that of Ice T altering the lyrics of "Cop Killer" as a result of pressure being applied to Time Warner by William Bennett and various religious and advocacy groups.[1]

Halleck[7] opines that describing the corporate censorship of independent artists, which she notes is often less overt in form, as self-censorship "smacks of blaming the victim." She describes such self-censorship as being simply a survival strategem, the tailoring of an artist's choices to what is acceptable to those in power, based upon widespread knowledge of the acceptable themes and formats at instutitions such as (her examples) the Public Broadcasting System, the Whitney Biennial, the Museum of Modern Art, the Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibits gallery, or the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art.

News and entertainment publication[]

Croteau and Hoynes[8] discuss corporate censorship in the news publishing business, observing that it can occur as self-censorship. They note that it is "virtually impossible to document", because it is covert. Jonathan Alter states that "In a tight job market, the tendency is to avoid getting yourself or your boss in trouble. So an adjective gets dropped, a story skipped, a punch pulled … It's like that Sherlock Holmes story — the dog that didn't bark.Template:Fn Those clues are hard to find.". The head of the Media Access Project notes that such self-censorship is not misreporting or false reporting, but simply not reporting at all. The self-censorship is not the product of "dramatic conspiracies", according to Croteau and Hoynes, but simply the interaction of many small daily decisions. Journalists want to keep their jobs. Editors support the interests of the company. These many small actions and inactions accumulate to produce (in their words) "homogenized, corporate-friendly media".

Nichols and McChesney[9] opine that "the maniacal media baron as portrayed in James Bond films or profiles of Rupert Murdoch is far less a danger than the cautious and compromised editor who seeks to 'balance' a responsibility to readers or viewers with a duty to serve his boss and the advertisers". They state that "even among journalists who entered the field for the noblest of reasons" there is a tendency to avoid any controversial journalism that might embroil the news company in a battle with a powerful corporation or a government agency. They observe that although such conflicts "have always been the stuff of great journalism" they are "very bad business", and that "in the current climate business trumps journalism just about every time".

Croteau and Hoynes[8] report that such corporate censorship in journalism is commonplace, reporting the results of studies revealing that more than 40% of journalists and news executives stating that they had deliberately engaged in such censorship by avoiding newsworthy stories or softening the tones of stories. More than a third of the respondents stated that news organizations would ignore news that might hurt their financial interests. A similar fraction stated that they self-censored in order to further, or not endanger, their careers.

Halleck[7] states that journalists are well aware of where self-censorship is required, and what they have to say or not say in their stories in order to keep their jobs. She gives Sydney Schanberg as a high profile example of a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who breached corporate censorship when reporting on corruption in New York City relating to the West Way project. In his column in the New York Times he asked why the Times was not investigating the issues, and was subsequently laid off. Halleck notes that the negative feedback that enforces corporate censorship is usually not as well documented as in the case of Schanberg, nor as clear-cut. Corporations may change the assignments of problem journalists, accept fewer stories from them, downgrade their office space, or deny them raises.

Self-censorship is not the only form of corporate censorship in the news and entertainment businesses. Croteau and Hoynes[8] also describe managers censoring their employees, subdivisions of conglomerates applying pressure upon one another, and pressure applied upon corporations by external entities such as advertisers. They note that many incidents of corporate censorship are "unlikely to become public", but give the following (and several other) case studies of incidents of corporate censorship that have become part of the public record:

  • The decision by the Walt Disney Company to prevent Miramax from releasing Fahrenheit 911 in 2004. (See Fahrenheit 9/11 controversy.) Croteau and Hoynes observe that this was a business decision, and state that "even when such business decisions are not politically motivated, then can have substantial political consequences".
  • The decision in 1998 by Harper Collins to drop plans for publishing East and West, the memoirs of Chris Patten, out of concern for the effect that it might have on the relationship between Star TV and the Chinese government. (Milner, who also cites this decision as an example, places them both alongside the decision by Harper Collins to not publicise Michael Moore's Stupid White Men and observes that Patten, as a member of the U.K. Conservative Party, demonstrates that corporate censorship is not confined to left-wing writers such as Moore.)[10]
  • The removal of a cartoon clip from a March 1998 edition of Saturday Night Live that satirized the concentration of media ownership, the song accompanying which stated that "Disney, Fox, Westinghouse, and good ol' GE" own "networks from CBS to CNBC" and "can use them to say whatever they please and put down the opinions of anyone who disagrees". Croteau and Hoynes observe that this satirical treatment of corporate censorship was itself subject to that very same censorship. The clip was removed from the program for all subsequent repeats. They note that the executive producer of SNL stated that he didn't think that the cartoon "worked comedically", but also note that others at NBC told reporters that the president of NBC and officials of General Electric, owner of NBC, "had been upset".

An example given by Henry[11] of censorship by a corporation rather than by a government is the censorship in May 2004 by The Sinclair Broadcasting Group of an issue of ABC News' Nightline entitled "The Fallen" wherein Ted Koppel recited the names and showed the faces of all Americans killed in action in Iraq. Sinclair, a strong proponent of the U.S. actions in Iraq, prohibited the six ABC affiliates that it owned from broadcasting the show, on the grounds that the program was "motivated by a political agenda designed to undermine the efforts of the United States in Iraq". (See Sinclair Broadcast Group#Nightline controversy and Nightline#Reading of the names.)

Milner[10] also notes, in addition, the list of songs circulated by Clear Channel Communications, and the 2003 ban on the Dixie Chicks (see Clear Channel Communications#Banning music and political ramifications and Dixie Chicks#Political controversy), stating his inference that "these relatively public actions are merely the tip of a veritable iceberg of corporate censorship", and arguing that publishers are "by no means passive conduits for the transmission of cultural products from producers to consumers" but are influenced to take an active rôle in that transmission by motives of profit, ideology, values, or even reasons of state.

Media conglomeration[]

One of the incidents of corporate censorship that Croteau and Hoynes find to be "the most disturbing" in their view[8] is the news reporting in the U.S. of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which made fundamental changes to the limitations on ownership of media conglomerates within the U.S. and which was heavily lobbied for by media interests, and yet which was subject to, in Croteau and Hoynes words, "remarkably little coverage" by U.S. news media. They report one study that found that in the 9 months between the introduction of the bill into Congress and its passage in February 1996, there were only 12 major stories, comprising 19.5 minutes of air time, about the Act on the three major U.S. television networks, with much of this coverage focussing upon television content ratings and the V-chip and "largely ignor[ing]" the major changes to the media ownership rules. Croteau and Hoynes observe that history repeated itself with the 2003 review by the FCC of the media ownership rules, with a study by American Journalism Review concluding that the plan to alter the ownership regulations in favour of "a handful of large companies" was "barely mentioned" by most newspapers and broadcast outlets that were owned by those companies.

Croteau and Hoynes[8] state that this "inadequate" coverage of the legislation and FCC actions suggests a built-in conflict of interest for news media — one that is not just limited to television and radio news media, given that many newspapers are also owned by the same corporations that own the television and radio stations. Reporting fully the views of critics of the legislation would have been counter to the economic interests of the news media companies which benefited directly from the legislation, lobbied in its favour, and even helped to draft it. This conflict of interest was observed by John McCain during debate of the Telecommunications Act in the U.S. Senate, who stated that "You will not see this story on any television or hear it on any radio broadcast because it directly affects them.". Sohn[12] similarly observed, in a 1998 critique of the deregulation by the Telecommunications Act, that increased concentration of media ownership "often leads to a type of corporate censorship by which information affecting the large media company's economic interest is kept from the public's eyes and ears".

Nichols and McChesney[9] similarly observe that the exclusion of Ralph Nader from the three presidential debates in the 2000 presidential race by television networks guaranteed that the debates would not address controversial issues of media conglomeration. They note with irony that this was seemingly against the self-interests of the television stations, since it served to also reduce public interest in the televised presidential debates by rendering them, in their view, "duller than dirt agreeathons" that viewers would not be interested in watching.


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Further reading[]

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