How We Censor the News

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Photo by Brent McDonald

Once upon a time, there was a little radio station in a bustling university town. The station’s small staff labored mightily to provide daily fare for a growing audience. The year was 1939, and the future of the station seemed bright indeed.
“Recent improvements have more than doubled the potential audience of the station,” trumpeted a local newspaper. “A feature of the current schedule is the presentation of several courses dealing in…Astronomy, American Literature, Bacteriology in Every Day Life, Comparative Literature, Contemporary Affairs, Farm Feeding, Farm Management, Home Heating and Cooling, Kitchen Chemistry, Public Speaking, Textiles, Weather and Climate, and three in History.”
Alas, one day harsh words were spoken into a microphone at the radio station, words of criticism and controversy. We don’t have a recording of the fateful broadcast, but as reported by the Daily Illini on October 19, 1939: “Col. Lindbergh, Sen. Lundeen, and Father Coughlin were lashed yesterday in a radio speech by R. R. Barlow, professor of journalism. Speaking over the University radio station WILL, Mr. Barlow cited these prominent men as exemplary of the many insidious propaganda sources in America causing a swing of sentiment toward Germany and her ideology.”
These words found their way to the desk of Mr. James M. Cleary, a wise and powerful member of the University’s Board of Trustees. Mr. Cleary saw his duty and acted at once. He fired off a memo to University President A. C. Willard.“(T)he direct quotations from him were quite as opinionated, quite as controversial, quite as much matters of opinion rather than of fact, as are the statements of the men he criticized,” the Trustee declaimed. “This will probably be inevitable in future talks if members of the faculty are to be given the privilege of expressing their opinions over WILL as to current local politics, current state politics, current national politics, and current international politics. I believe that such discussions are entirely unnecessary, unfair, and dangerous to the welfare of the University.”
In keeping with university tradition, the matter was referred to a committee. Following a series of letters, meetings, and misgivings, the Advisory Committee on the Radio Station proposed a revision to the Statement of General Policy governing all broadcasts on WILL. The proposal was cleared by Cleary, and approved by the full University of Illinois Board of Trustees on December 18, 1939. The salient chapter and verse became known as Term Number 7 of the Statement of General Policy:

As approved by the Board of Trustees:
7. Subjects of a controversial nature will be presented only after approval of speakers and program by the President of the University. Within a reasonable time after such controversial program, opportunity will be given for the presentation of other viewpoints, if requested by their proponents.
I. Interpretation
(1) In general, subjects will be held controversial when they represent issues of current interest on which public opinion is sharply divided or sensitive.
(2) The following subjects are recognized to be controversial and their discussion over the Station will not be permitted:
(a) Partisan political issues.
(b) Sectarian religious questions
(c) Questions involving equality or relationship of races.

University archives contain numerous letters to and from WILL Director Josef Wright and University President Willard negotiating clearance of “controversial” programs. Our trusty Trustee Mr. James M. Cleary, who once served as Director of the commercial radio station WGN, must have been well pleased.


Censorship can take many forms. The most obvious kind actively suppresses certain information or points of view. Much more subtle, are the failures of producers like me to listen to the stories and perspectives of people and interests throughout our community, and to make sure they are reflected in what we broadcast on WILL. I’ll confess right now that those of us who produce public radio are guilty of this kind of censorship on a daily basis.
What is at stake? How many wars are being waged? What is the state of our environmental health? How many children are hungry and alone? How will a half-billion dollars in state budget cuts affect health care in Illinois? What happened to Russia’s weapons-grade fissile material? How many questions like this are there?
Since 1987 it has been my job to identify and dissect such questions, and to find knowledgeable people to discuss them. Fortunately there are plenty of both, because the deadlines for airtime never cease. Weekly we produce about 20 hours of live interviews, several lengthy in-depth news features, and dozens of newscasts. We also make choices about what to air from National Public Radio, Public Radio International, the BBC, the CBC, Illinois Public Radio, Pacifica, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, and other independent producers and cooperatives. How do we make these choices? I’m good with questions. Answers are more difficult.


I had been trying to get a commitment from a certain U.S. Senate candidate to spend an hour on Focus 580. It’s really an hour of being interviewed by prospective voters and constituents, the people he may represent in Washington for the next 6 years. It’s about public dialogue on vital issues, and really nothing less than democracy itself, and so I believe as I argue with the candidate’s press secretary. “Tell you what,” he says. “We can give you 15 minutes of the candidate’s time, uninterrupted.” No way, I say, because we’re offering all the candidates the same thing: one hour to talk about the issues. Any less would shortchange the audience and the candidate too. We need enough time to cover as many issues as possible. “That’s okay,” says the flack. “The candidate only needs 15 minutes to cover everything he has to say.”


Weekly editorial meetings are often a waste of time. We talk about who will cover what air shift, our continuing struggles with broken technology, and what we’re working on at the moment. The meetings serve as a ritual to mark the passage of yet another week, the pages falling from the calendar like so many leaves from a tree. Is this the autumn of life in public broadcasting? We have all been here before, same time next week! Our editorial meetings fulfill the purpose of similar meetings everywhere, giving their attendees a shared sense of grievance at having to attend them.
Most of the real discussions about programming and balance occur at work throughout the day. Decisions are made every moment. Each begins with a conversation. We expect that every member of the community has a share in that conversation. We remind you incessantly to call, on the air and off, send letters, e-mail, respond, compliment, argue. We hope you pay attention to what we broadcast and put on our web site, but we also want you to read books, newspapers, even watch TV, talk with your friends, join a group, form a consensus, engage in dissent, do all the things necessary to keep pushing for democracy and civilization. We absolutely must discuss subjects of a controversial nature, especially “partisan political issues, sectarian religious questions, and questions involving equality or relationship of races.” It’s not easy for any of us.


Does anyone remember the war in Panama? It was during the first Bush administration, that of George the Elder, who in a past life as CIA director had maintained good relations with our asset in Panama City, Manuel Noriega. In that conflict National Public Radio kept referring to “Panamanian Strongman Manuel Noriega.” What the hell is a Strongman? Manuel Noriega, “the Panamanian Strongman,” the newscaster intoned. Some may think the phrase simply convenient, nothing to think about twice. Others would point out that if NPR will help redefine our former ally as a drug-running thug, a “strongman,” the propaganda war is already won.
Critics of public broadcasting on the right continue to charge that NPR represents only the anti-American loony left. We were not supposed to ask questions about American conduct of the invasion of Panama. Amid the celebration of American military superiority, did anyone notice how many innocent Panamanians died? No mainstream news organization would even touch the question, “Why are we really in Panama?” Independent filmmaker Barbara Trent did, however, and won an Academy Award for her documentary “The Panama Deception.” (WILL interviewed Barbara Trent twice on the subject.)
The U.S. invasion of Panama was the first full dress rehearsal for the new style of media management during war operations. Reporters are denied direct access to the theater, but given enough images and sound bites to satisfy the requirements of their editors. CNN loves video from the nose of a smart bomb. The technique was further refined during the Persian Gulf War, and deployed effectively once again in Afghanistan. And since September 11, with the success of the ‘war on terrorism’ at stake, no one can even question the process.


Critics of public broadcasting, NPR, and WILL abound on the left as well. And I really think that’s as it should be. Our aim is to reflect a diversity of views, not one view that we somehow claim is the correct one. As a society we need to discuss difficult subjects, and it won’t be comfortable but it’s our only hope for resolving them. If you hear something on WILL that makes you mad, just wait until tomorrow. We’ll probably make you even madder.
Several years ago, during the first Intifada, Focus 580 aired a series of discussions about Israel and the Palestinians. Some people in the community didn’t like some of the interviews, and threatened to withdraw their support and that of their friends from the station. As the producer, all I can do is try to provide balance and depth by covering a variety of angles with credible guests. I drew up a list of all the interviews we had done over the past year on the Middle East, and those we had scheduled for the weeks ahead. After viewing the list, all agreed that we had probably angered both sides about equally. The complaint was withdrawn.
Another controversial issue, another irate caller. This one says he’s listened to WILL for years and years, and has enjoyed untold hours and learned many things. But an interview we aired yesterday bothered him so much that he will never support WILL again. Whose loss is that?


The point of this piece was supposed to be how WILL makes programming decisions given the needs of our local community, and the balance of national programming from NPR. I could write a PR piece that says how great we are, but the reality is that we fail daily. We try hard constantly. But the need is too great, there are too many vital issues to discuss, and the trends we think are important today may be superseded by more important trends next week. Each of us has only one small vantage point from which to try and make sense of everything. That’s why we need all of us, because each can see something the rest of us miss.
So I’ll leave you with this: The only way WILL can be great as a community media resource is through participation by the entire community. This means that if you know something important – a fact, an issue, an event, or a trend – let us know it, too. If you think we’re missing an important perspective, we count on you to tell us. The good news is that we no longer have to follow Term No. 7 of the Statement of General Policy. The bad news is that you have producers like me, with my own limited perspective on the world, making the programming decisions. I’ll try as hard as I can if you help.

Jack Brighton is the producer of Focus 580 on WILL-AM radio. He has been at WILL since 1987.

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