Corporate censorship

Corporate censorship

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 Nicholas Johnson, United States Federal Communications Commission(FCC) commissioner, and then 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 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.".


It is a regular occurrence for players to be fined for cursing at referees and making obscene gestures.[1]


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 stratagem, 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 institutions such as (her examples) the Public Broadcasting Service, 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.[9] 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[10] 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%[11] 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.)[12]
  • 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[13] 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[12] 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#September_11.2C_2001 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[14] 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[10] 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.


The constitutional and other legal protections that prohibit or limit government censorship of the Internet in some countries do not generally apply to private corporations. Corporations may voluntarily choose to limit the content they make available or allow others to make available on the Internet.[15] Or corporations may be encouraged by government pressure or required by law or court order to remove or limit Internet access to content that is judged to be obscene (including child pornography), harmful to children, defamatory, pose a threat to national security, promote illegal activities such as gambling, prostitution, theft of intellectual property, hate speech, and inciting violence.[16][17]

Corporations that provide Internet access for their employees, customers, students, or members will sometimes limit this access in an attempt to ensure it is used only for the purposes of the corporation. This can include content-control software to limit access to entertainment content in business and educational settings and limiting high-bandwidth services in settings where bandwidth is at a premium. Some institutions also block outside e-mail services as a precaution, usually initiated out of concerns for local network security or concerns that e-mail might be used intentionally or unintentionally to allow trade secrets or other confidential information to escape.

Some websites that allow user-contributed content may practice self-censorship by adopting policies on how the web site may be used and by banning or requiring pre-approval of editorial contributions from users that do not follow the policies for the site.

In 2007, Verizon attempted to block the abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America from using their text messaging services to speak to their supporters. Verizon claims it was in order to enforce a policy that doesn’t allow their customers to use their service to communicate “controversial” or “unsavory” messages.[18] Comcast, AT&T and many other ISP's have also been accused of regulating internet traffic and bandwidth.

In February 2008, the Bank Julius Baer vs. Wikileaks lawsuit prompted the United States District Court for the Northern District of California to issue a permanent injunction against the website Wikileaks' domain name registrar. The result was that Wikileaks could not be accessed through its web address. This elicited accusations of censorship and resulted in the Electronic Frontier Foundation stepping up to defend Wikileaks. After a later hearing, the injunction was lifted.[19]

On 1 December 2010 cut off WikiLeaks 24 hours after being contacted by the staff of Joe Lieberman, Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security.[20] In a statement Lieberman said:[21]

[Amazon's] decision to cut off WikiLeaks now is the right decision and should set the standard for other companies WikiLeaks is using to distribute its illegally seized material. I call on any other company or organization that is hosting WikiLeaks to immediately terminate its relationship with them.

Constitutional lawyers say that this is not a first amendment issue because Amazon, as a private company, is free to make its own decisions. Kevin Bankston, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, agreed that this is not a violation of the first amendment, but said it was nevertheless disappointing. "This certainly implicates first amendment rights to the extent that web hosts may, based on direct or informal pressure, limit the materials the American public has a first amendment right to access".[22]

eNom, a private domain name registrar and Web hosting company operating in the U.S., disables domain names which appear on a U.S. Treasury Department blacklist.[23][24]

In January 2007 Eli Lilly and Company obtained a restraining order from a U.S. District Court that forbade activists in the psychiatric survivors movement from posting links on their websites to ostensibly leaked documents which purportedly showed that Eli Lilly and Company intentionally withheld information as to the lethal side-effects of Zyprexa. The Electronic Frontier Foundation appealed this as prior restraint on the right to link to and post documents, saying that citizen-journalists should have the same First Amendment rights as major media outlets.[25] It was later held that the judgment was unenforcable, though First Amendment claims were rejected.[26]

Schools and libraries may use Internet filters to block material deemed inappropriate for the school or library setting or inappropriate for children, including pornography, advertising, chat, gaming, social networking, and online forum sites.[27][28][29][30]

Public and private K-12 schools and libraries in the U.S. that accept funds from the federal E-rate program or LSTA grants for Internet access or internal connections are required by CIPA to have an "Internet safety policy and technology protection measures in place".[31]

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, in January 2011 twenty-five U.S. states had Internet filtering laws that apply to publicly funded schools or libraries and five states require Internet service providers to make a product or service available to subscribers to control use of the Internet.[32]

Some corporations practice greater levels of self-censorship in international versions of their online services.[33][34] This is most notably the case in these corporations' dealings in China.

See also: Censorship by Google, Yahoo! in China, Criticism of Microsoft censorship in China, and MySpace in China


  1. ^ a b c Timothy Jay (2000). Why We Curse: A Neuro-psycho-social Theory of Speech. John Benjamins Publishing Company. pp. 208–209. ISBN 1556197586. 
  2. ^ David Goldberg, Stefaan G. Verhulst, Tony Prosser (1998). Regulating the Changing Media: A Comparative Study. Oxford University Press. pp. 207. ISBN 0198267819. 
  3. ^ a b c d e Nicholas Johnson (1969-07-05). "The Silent Screen". TV Guide.  — reprinted and augmented in Nicholas Johnson (1970). How to Talk Back to Your Television Set. New York: Bantam Books. pp. 71–88. 
  4. ^ Stan Opotowsky (1961). TV: the Big Picture. New York: EP Dutton and Co. Inc.. 
  5. ^ Bryce W. Rucker (1968). The First Freedom. Southern Illinois University Press. 
  6. ^ Richard Salant (1969-09-20). "He Has Exercised His Right — To Be Wrong". TV Guide: pp. 10–19. 
  7. ^ a b DeeDee Halleck (2002). "Smashing the myths of the information industry: Creating alternatives". Hand-Held Visions: Uses of Community Media. Fordham Univ Press. pp. 135. ISBN 0823221016. 
  8. ^ a b c d e David Croteau and William Hoynes (2006). The Business of Media: Corporate Media and the Public Interest. Pine Forge Press. pp. 169–184. ISBN 1412913152. 
  9. ^ Arthur Conan Doyle (1892). Silver Blaze. The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. 
  10. ^ a b John Nichols and Robert Waterman McChesney (2002). Our Media, Not Theirs: The Democratic Struggle Against Corporate Media. Seven Stories Press. pp. 59. ISBN 1583225498. 
  11. ^ Self Censorship: How Often and Why
  12. ^ a b Andrew Milner (2004). Literature, Culture And Society. Routledge. pp. 154–155. ISBN 0415307856. 
  13. ^ Neil Henry (2007). American Carnival: Journalism Under Siege in an Age of New Media. University of California Press. pp. 107–108. ISBN 0520243420. 
  14. ^ Gigi B. Sohn (1998). "Why Government is the Solution, not the Problem: In pursuit of a free market for telecommunications services". In Tom W. Bell and Solveig Singleton. The Regulators' Revenge: The Future of Telecommunications Deregulation. Cato Institute. pp. 129–130. ISBN 188257768X. 
  15. ^ "The Move to the Middle: The Enduring Threat of 'Harmful' Speech to the End-to-End Principle", John Palfrey, Jr. and Robert Rogoyski, Washington University Journal of Law and Policy, vol. 21 (2006), pp.31–65
  16. ^ "Cybersieves", Derek E. Bambauer, Duke Law Journal, vol. 59 (2009)
  17. ^ "ONI Regional Overview: North America", OpenNet Initiative, 30 March 2010
  18. ^ Verizon Blocks Messages of Abortion Rights Group, Adam Liptak, New York Times, 27 September 2007
  19. ^ "Bank Julius Baer & Co v. Wikileaks". Electronic Frontier Foundation. Retrieved 2008-03-10. 
  20. ^ "WikiLeaks website pulled by Amazon after US political pressure", Ewen MacAskill, The Guardian, 2 December 2010
  21. ^ "Amazon Severs Ties with Wikileaks", Joe Lieberman's U.S. Senate web site, 1 December 2010
  22. ^ "How Lieberman Got Amazon To Drop WikiLeaks", Talking Points Memo, 1 December 2010
  23. ^ Adam Liptak (4 March 2008). "A Wave of the Watch List, and Speech Disappears". The New York Times. 
  24. ^ "Alphabetical Listing of Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons". Office of Foreign Assets Control, U.S. Department of the Treasury. Retrieved 25 February 2009. 
  25. ^ Eli Lilly Zyprexa Litigation, Electronic Frontier Foundation
  26. ^ "Eli Lilly Loses Effort to Censor Zyprexa Documents Off the Internet", press release, Electronic Frontier Foundation, 13 February 2007
  27. ^ "Internet Use in Libraries", Fact Sheet Number 26, American Library Association, July 2010
  28. ^ "Internet filtering as a form of soft censorship ", Mitch Wagner, Computerworld Tool Talk blog, 19 March 2010
  29. ^ "How Internet censorship harms schools", Mitch Wagner, Computerworld Tool Talk blog, 26 March 2010
  30. ^ "Study Released on Internet Blocking in Schools", press release, Online Policy Group and Electronic Frontier Foundation, 23 June 2003
  31. ^ "Children's Internet Protection Act", Consumer Publications, Federal Communications Commission, updated/reviewed 22 April 2011
  32. ^ "Children and the Internet: Laws Relating to Filtering, Blocking and Usage Policies in Schools and Libraries", National Conference of State Legislatures, 13 January 2011
  33. ^ "Policing Content in the Quasi-Public Sphere", Jillian C. York, Robert Faris, and Ron Deibert, OpenNet Initiative, 19 September 2010
  34. ^ "Geolocation filtering", OpenNet Initiative Bulletin 007, 27 October 2004

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