Commentary: Self Censorship Is Still Censorship

In the past few weeks, we've seen it again and again: A division of a media giant adjusts its agenda to appease its corporate parent. Of course, units of conglomerates compromise to further broad corporate objectives all the time. But media companies are different. They cloak themselves in the First Amendment to be free to deliver the most compelling message possible to consumers--whether it's creatively motivated entertainment or news programming. To kill worthwhile content to serve a corporate agenda smacks of hypocrisy. But as media giants digest their huge acquisitions of recent years, it will become more and more common for the juicy content of one division to fall victim to the best interests of another. The only antidote is for the public to complain noisily when it finds out about it.

In many cases, the principle is far more important than the actual programming in question. Take harmless fare such as Comedy Central's planned Escape from a Wonderful Life, a spoof of the holiday classic It's a Wonderful Life. The satire was scuttled after Viacom Inc.'s Republic Pictures, which owns the film's copyright, threatened to sue Comedy Central, which is 50% owned by Viacom. Initially, Comedy Central vowed to fight back in court--until it learned that Republic was "a sister division" of Viacom. Says Comedy Channel senior vice-president Tony Fox: "We feel silly for not realizing that, but in today's media world, it's easy to do." The project was killed.

MUST-CARRY. Time Warner Inc.'s TNT cable channel drew much attention over the fate of two TNT movies, both based on acclaimed books: Bastard Out of Carolina, a story of a girl's violent childhood, and Strange Justice, an examination of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings. Not coincidentally, the U.S. Supreme Court--and Justice Thomas--is currently deliberating the outcome of Turner vs. the Federal Communications Commission. The case will determine the future of "must-carry" rules, which require cable systems to carry broadcast channels such as Turner's WTBS. Without must-carry, WTBS isn't an extremely valuable cable superstation--it's obscure UHF Channel 17 in Atlanta. TNT says that Bastard was killed because its content was too graphic for the TNT audience. Strange Justice had never been given a firm production date and may eventually get made, says a TNT spokeswoman. "It's an evergreen property."

Sure, these stories occasionally have a happy ending--when the public outcry gets loud enough. Viacom's Showtime pay-cable channel will air Bastard Out of Carolina on Dec. 15, its ads trumpeting "the movie no other network would show you." And despite pressure from the Chinese government to abandon U.S. distribution of Kundun, a Martin Scorsese film about the Dalai Lama, Walt Disney Co. said on Nov. 27, after days of public scrutiny, that it would stand by the film.

UNFLATTERING. But no one knows how frequently smaller stories get killed. In April, CNN reported a story for Moneyline with Lou Dobbs. The scoop: The Internal Revenue Service and the Labor Dept. were investigating Time Warner's possibly illegal use of contract workers at its Time Inc. division. The probe, for which the government has since subpoenaed witnesses, cast Time in an unflattering light. One issue raised in the reporting of the story was that the probe could affect Time Warner's then-pending merger with Turner Broadcasting, parent of CNN.

But CNN never aired the piece, and people who participated with its preparation say they were never told why but suspect corporate interference. Lou Dobbs, who now works for Time Warner as executive vice-president of CNN, says he killed the story because "I didn't think it was a news story. Whether CNN is owned by Turner Broadcasting or Time Warner, no one has attempted to interfere with my judgment on a news story."

How to keep conflict from depriving people of information they need? As the Federal Trade Commission scrutinizes media mergers in the future, it should treat these dangers as a priority, not an afterthought, as it may have done when it green-lit Time Warner's acquisition of Turner. For the existing media giants, the only check on self-censorship is loud and energetic vigilance, not only by the public but also by the professionals these companies employ.

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