Albion Monitor /Commentary

Mass Mediations

Smoke, Mirrors, and Censorship

by Mark Lowenthal

As assistant director of the media-watch group Project Censored, I encounter regular criticism from mainstream media representatives who claim that the underlying thesis of our work -- that there exists, in the United States, a problem of news media self-censorship -- is entirely without merit or validity. To hear these folks tell it, the concept of news media self-censorship is a theory that, on the legitimacy scale, falls somewhere between backward-masking of satanic messages and the Loch Ness Monster.

"Where are the examples?," they frequently challenge. And as we at Project Censored continually point out, this is a difficult problem to document -- precisely because there are so few "smoking gun" instances. As one can easily imagine, it's infinitely easier to analyze and document news stories that appear, as opposed to stories that don't. Indeed, the decision to avoid a story or issue is almost never put down in memo form -- which is also what makes this form of censorship so insidious.

ABC backs away from hard-hitting documentary film about the tobacco industry

Funny you should ask....

As it happens, however, a particularly egregious "smoking gun" case of self-censorship did come to light recently -- one which has been met with a deafening -- and disturbing -- silence from mainstream news organizations across the country.

As reported by Jim Ledbetter in the Village Voice, ABC has quietly pulled the plug on a hard-hitting documentary film about the tobacco industry ("Up In Smoke," 9/12/95, p. 15).

According to Ledbetter, the ABC News show, Turning Point, commissioned the documentary back in 1993, hiring the Emmy Award-winning team of Frank and Martin Koughan to do an overview of the many questionable standards and practices of the tobacco industry.

After viewing a copy which had been smuggled out of ABC, Ledbetter described the finished product as "a tough, well-narrated takeout on the business responsible for the nation's largest health problem."

According to filmmaker Martin Koughan, the film was "passed on and approved by ABC's editorial and law departments" and was scheduled to run in late March or early April 1994.

Things seemed to change, however, on March 24, when tobacco giant Philip Morris slapped Capital Cities/ABC with a much-reported $10 billion libel suit over two stories on the company's alleged "nicotine spiking" of cigarettes that had been broadcast by another ABC News show, Day One.

According to Koughan, it was on that very same Wednesday of March 24 that he received a call from Turning Point senior producer Betsy West, informing him that he was going to have to "rework" the film.

"What happened next," notes the Voice's Ledbetter in his account of the mini-saga, "is in dispute."

"Koughan says he suggested a meeting the following week, and that West suggested three months later. Koughan says ABC never showed up for a planned session to discuss revisions; West says Koughan was 'absolutely uncooperative in making the story better' and claims that ABC executives had never signed off on the show."

If the film is so "redundant" and "boring," why did ABC maintain all rights?

The net result of this apparent clash over "creative differences" was that Koughan was told that ABC would not be using the film. Most interesting, however, were the terms of the settlement agreement -- which had ABC paying Koughan's production company for the full cost of the production -- while also retaining all rights to the film.

"Thus," as Ledbetter observes, "although ABC has spent some $500,000 on the project, the network has no plans to air it, nor can it be broadcast anywhere else."

In their defense, ABC vice president Paul Friedman maintains that the decision had absolutely nothing to do with the Philip Morris lawsuit, and that Koughan's documentary was simply "boring" and redundant, claiming that the story "didn't break any new ground."

As one of the very few who have actually seen the film, Ledbetter disputes Friedman's claim, noting that the film contains at least two previously unreported angles to the story; the first, concerning previously unreported federal trade policies, and the second, focusing on the tobacco industry's move toward transferring operations out of the U.S. -- to the unregulated (and dramatically cheaper) comfort of overseas production.

According to Ledbetter, senior producer West maintained during an interview, that both angles had been previously covered by CNN or other ABC News shows. When pressed on her assertion, however, says Ledbetter, "neither she nor I could find any record of that."

Question: Even if, for the sake of argument, you buy ABC's opaque excuse, since when has redundancy stopped any network news division from beating any number of lesser "news" stories (i.e. OJ, Tonya and Nancy, Susan Smith...) so far into the ground that the practice has given rise to such media-cultural oddities as "instant books" and made-for-television "docu-dramas" (whatever those are supposed to be).

This assertion is also doubly ridiculous considering the fact that ABC spent about half a million dollars on the story. Again, how many stories with that kind of price tag are rejected for being "boring?"

And why, if the film is so "redundant" and "boring," did ABC maintain all rights to it? Presumably they could have recouped some of the production costs if another broadcaster agreed to air the film. Based on ABC's negative assessment, the airing of the documentary by another outlet could hardly be considered a competitive threat.

A lack of media outrage or even tepid acknowledgment of the story

Sleeping Watchdogs

In the wake of this sordid episode, perhaps the only thing more disturbing than the incident itself, has been the almost total lack of media outrage or even tepid acknowledgment of the story.

And while ABC's subsequent cave-in to Philip Morris over the tobacco company's aforementioned libel suit (a suit most media lawyers predicted ABC would win) was well covered when announced last August, little was made of the killing of the Turning Point documentary.

Indeed, the only mention of the story at all was in a piece by the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz, which mentioned the episode as an afterthought in the last three sentences of his 1,334-word account of the ABC/Philip Morris settlement.

So will ABC pursue the new angles explored in their shelved documentary? "Absolutely not," stated (now) executive producer West in an interview with Ledbetter. "We tried to do tobacco, we tried our best, but we threw up our hands."

And what of competing news outlets? Has Ledbetter's phone been ringing of the hook since the publication of his Village Voice story? "No, not really," said Ledbetter during a brief interview. "Jonathan Alter from Newsweek expressed some interest in it, but that was pretty much it."

In light of such a rare, documented case of prior restraint, such lack of media interest should be of grave concern to any who take press freedoms -- and responsibilities -- seriously.

When blatant self-censorship is no longer considered "newsworthy," we should be compelled to re-examine the meaning of the word -- and the motivations of those who have re-defined it.

Albion Monitor October 30, 1995 (

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