Quiet Censorship: By Gray Brechin

Tuesday August 17, 2004

Editors, Daily Planet: 

Thank you for publishing Sarah Norr’s excellent article on the San Francisco Chronicle’s quiet purge of its liberal staffers, most recently demoting letters page editor William Pates after a media watchdog group revealed that he ha d given $400 to the Kerry campaign although, as Norr points out, George Hearst gave $30,000 to Republican candidates without losing his job as chair of Hearst Corporation. Americans are today far more ignorant of how those who own the mass media determine what they know than when Upton Sinclair published his classic The Brass Check over 80 years ago. 

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has seen the documentary Outfoxed that those who claim loudest to be journalistically fair and balanced can afford to be quite the opposite since they own the pulpit. Shaping public thought depends more on those views excluded than on those that are openly expressed. Former Republican hatchet man David Brock explains the means by which political discourse has been de liberately shunted to the extreme right by limiting liberal and excluding left voices altogether in his recent book The Republican Noise Machine. 

In my own book, Imperial San Francisco, I analyzed the ways in which three local dynasties used leading news papers to aggrandize their own fortunes and power—the Hearsts’ San Francisco Examiner, the deYoungs’ San Francisco Chronicle, and the Spreckels’ San Francisco Call (the best of the lot, and killed by its colluding rivals in 1913.) As the Hearst Corporatio n was engaging in some fancy secret “horsetrading” to acquire the Chronicle and kill its old flagship Examiner, it promised to give the Bay Area a world-class newspaper, an action which would have been a historic first for that company. Though the Chron i s by no means as crummy a product as those newspapers to whose terrified editors William Randolph Hearst sent memos from San Simeon instructing how he wanted the news slanted—even as he was syndicating the likes of Hitler, Goering, and Mussolini—it’s beco ming obvious by the roster of those silenced and stories demoted that omission is becoming a subtle tool there, as when a humane voice like Stephanie Salter’s is put on permanent leave while the likes of Debra Saunders and Ken Garcia continue to vent thei r diseased spleens like the old Hearst pit bull Westbrook Pegler, or when news of environmental catastrophe is relegated to blurbs at the back of Saturday’s sports page while junk like the Peterson murder case consumes front page acreage month after month. 

I’ve been in the field long enough to know that journalists with mortgages and health care needs soon get the message from on high by watching the fate of their colleagues, thereby learning to write the kind of “fair and balanced” material that Hearst and Rupert Murdoch expect of their employees. Ursula K. LeGuin called this form of self-censorship the Stalin in the soul, which increasingly overcasts the Chronicle and those of us who depend upon it for our news.