The Censorship Question

“In any event, the proper question isn’t what a journalist thinks is relevant but what his or her audience thinks is relevant. Denying people information they would find useful because you think they shouldn’t find it useful is censorship, not journalism.” – Michael Kinsley
To get ready for the $1.65 billion sale to Google back in October, YouTube started “cleaning up” its site. One of the videos it deleted was an entry from Michelle Malkin titled “First They Came,” about authors, politicians, and film makers who have been targeted by Islamic terrorists.

Because Malkin is considered to be a right-wing fundraiser, the video entry was interpreted by critics as political. YouTube bought into the criticism and dumped the video, which led to protests from the other side. The protesters claimed that YouTube had loads of videos promoting the terrorist point of view.

Which brought New York Times columnist Tom Zeller Jr. to the question: How do you police these things? They are, after all, set up as mechanisms for people to post just about anything they want.

In his article for the paper, Zeller quoted Jeffrey Rutenbeck, Dean of Communication and Creative Media Division at Champlain College in Burlington, VT, who said that attempts to censor Internet sites “almost always raises awareness of an issue. And this provides a great conversational landscape.” Rutenbeck pointed out that other efforts to censor sites have backfired when the communities withered after censorship was implemented. “A lot of communities just died a slow death … because they became so intolerant of anything that could offend anyone in the group.”

He said he thought YouTube might face the same problem if it enforces its policy of removing any video that is “unlawful, obscene, defamatory, libelous, threatening, pornographic, harassing, hateful, racially or ethnically offensive, or encourages conduct that would be considered a criminal offense, give rise to civil liability, violate any law, or is otherwise inappropriate.”

I have – as you can imagine – my own thoughts on this issue. But before I tell you what they are, I thought you’d like to hear from some people who have a great deal of experience in this area.

ETR’s Position

MaryEllen Tribby, who runs ETR, says that she tries to maintain a balance between respectfulness and the desire to provoke thoughtful responses with all communications with readers – a balance the ETR editorial team strives to maintain in our ETR e-zine.

“Some writers bring up subject matter that hits a nerve with our readers,” Suzanne Richardson, ETR’s Managing Editor, told me. “But we feel it’s important to expose our readers to all sorts of different perspectives, even if those viewpoints cause discomfort among some of them.

“That doesn’t extend to using overly crude language, racist, sexist, or otherwise offensive remarks,” she said. “That gets edited out.”

“As publishers,” says MaryEllen, “our goal is to provide useful and unique research and information. A legitimate writer should be able to do this without making inflammatory remarks.

“However, it is also our job to educate and enlighten our readers by raising awareness and creating controversy. This is why the Internet is such a useful tool. Not only can our readers talk back to us via Speak Out (ETR’s reader forum), they can talk to each other. That makes us (as publishers) more accountable for our messages. We need to believe in our ideas so that if a reader disagrees with something said on our reader forum, we should be able to counter the point – but never delete the posting.”

AWAI’s Position

Katie Yeakle, who runs AWAI, has a similar policy. She pretty much lets AWAI members say whatever they want when they post comments on the AWAI member forum, but draws the line at commercialism under the guise of free speech.

“We don’t like people selling their products to our people without our permission,” she says. “AWAI also has a policy against malicious, racist, and sexist copy, and anything overtly offensive or in bad taste.”

How do readers react to this sort of policing?

“It makes some of them angry,” Katie admits. “But here’s how I see it: If you’ve worked hard to build your own business and create a community, if you’ve invested time and energy and money in growing your company, you wouldn’t necessarily want to let someone else piggyback on your success. With a public forum, people have access to an audience they wouldn’t otherwise have. If they are allowed to advertise their own products or services to this group, they haven’t really earned the results.

“We do have traditional ways for other companies to gain access to our file. If someone has a product, I’m happy to review and promote it if I think it’s a good product. But people sometimes try to use a public forum as a way to circumvent industry-accepted advertising rates. And that doesn’t fall under the realm of free speech.”

Katie argues that there is a difference between huge public forums like The New York Times, Google, and YouTube and the smaller, more private forum a business’s customers have access to. Organizations with a broad, universal reach may need to have different rules about what they censor and what they allow. A video about terrorism would be completely out of place on the ETR forum, for instance, while it seems perfectly natural on YouTube.

“When you have a public forum that you’ve invited people to,” Katie says, “you must have agreed-upon standards for appropriate discourse. And, as a business owner, you have the right to curtail people who fail to conform to those standards.”

Which Tack Should You Take With Your Site?

In some cases, curbing what people say is not about racy remarks or commercial pitches. Forum operators must also decide whether to take steps to keep the posts on topic. In a chat setting, it is common for comments to go off on tangents that are totally unrelated to the forum’s focus. For example, a chat on real estate could degenerate into a discussion of the latest celebrity gossip. And, before you know it, the latest paparazzi shot of Britney Spears pops up.

How sites handle this sort of thing varies. Some forums have an active moderator to keep things on track, while others trust that conscientious posters eager to remain on topic will steer the conversation back where it belongs. Still others feel that whatever posts are made in a forum are the prerogative of whoever is online at that moment, regardless of their adherence to the stated topic.

My view is that you should maintain a consistent standard with the information you publish, but not censor reader feedback on your blog or reader forum – neither the nasty racist/sexist/vulgar stuff nor the bogus commercial stuff.

Controversy creates interest, and idiotic, malicious, and outrageous reader responses to your ideas and advice will only make your site more provocative.

I’d even allow commercial plugs on the reader-response portions of your site. For one thing, they are very hard to control (especially the good ones). Plus, any time you spend policing them is time you could be spending on creating new commercial copy for yourself.

Your readers are smart enough to figure out what is coming from you and what is coming from other readers. They will sort the wheat from the chaff.

As I said, the bad stuff will only make your site more interesting. Let it be.

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]