Daily Archives: January 11, 2007

PBS: Publicly Broadcasting Self-Censorship?

Certainly by now you’ve read about the Google Sex Blog Fiasco. If you haven’t, briefly, it involved a problem with Google’s search algorithm that caused certain blogs and web sites not to show up — or to show up rather low on the search results lists — even when one was searching for them by name. Many of the affected bloggers and web site operators wrote about it, and for further details you can check out their own stories. Violet Blue wrote about it here. Chelsea Girl wrote about it here. Tony Comstock wrote about it here. Susan Mernit wrote about it here.

Now comes Mark Glaser, of the PBS blog MEDIASHIFT, to write about how a company like Google can affect the blogosphere, and he specifically focuses on the sex blog fiasco. He open his piece with a long quote from Chelsea Girl’s “love letter to Google” and — guess what — he doesn’t make a link to the original post (something that is a simple part of blogger etiquette.)

Chelsea Girl and Tony Comstock (who also produces excellent porn using real couples who seem to actually be having fun together) wrote in separate entries today about the MEDIASHIFT story. Chelsea Girl reports

In a private email, Glaser admitted to me that he wanted to link all of us, but his editor at PBS wouldn’t allow it. The editor would allow him to write about us, to quote us, and to mention our blog names, but not to provide PBS readers a direct link to our sites, thereby enacting a strange parallel to the Google disappearance.

Linking to the sources discussed in a news or commentary piece is not just about blogger etiquette. It is important because it provides readers a chance to easily access and evaluate the material for themselves. In this case, in a story about the problems of Google’s search results, the failure to link the blogs and their directly is all the worse because, as Chelsea Girl points out above, it mirrors the problem it claims to be reporting. (Also, the chance of a reader finding the correct link via a Google search would already have been much lower if Google hadn’t appeared to have fixed the problem by now. As it is, no real damage was probably done to readers’ ability to find the material. They’d just have to take an extra step to do so.)

But I think there is also damage done to PBS’s reputation as a provider of information in the public interest. And I fear that this is indicative of the creeping conservative bias that has been coming over the Corporation for Public Broadcasting over the past several years.

Why would PBS editors refuse to allow links the blogs and articles directly? It appears they thought them too sexual, and thus too controversial. After all, they linked to some of the web sites that reported the problems, but not to any of the blogs or web sites that both reported and were affected by the problems. And while they allowed extended quotes from those blogs, they would not allow links to them.

Clearly PBS thought the story interesting enough to devote space to. Yet, if this is news, if it is worth the commentary space that PBS spent on them — and I certainly believe that it is — then why obstruct readers’ ability to see the material itself?

The short answer is that, while sex sells, sex scares people. The slightly longer answer is that the dominant culture brokers in the United States, while titillated by sexual scandals and ever ready to consume sexual entertainment, are deeply ambivalent about sex. It is, still, somehow, controversial to say out loud, in public, “I like sex.” And it is even more controversial to support sexual expression on the Internet, given the public panic about sexual predation.

I generally shy away from terms that end in “phobia” to describe systems of social oppression or inequality. They smack of personal neurosis instead of systematic bias. I prefer terms that end in “ism” because they are used more often to describe exactly that systematic and institutional level of bias. (I prefer “heterosexism” to “homophobia” for example.) But John Ince has been using the terms “erotophobia” and “antisexualism” to describe this deeply entrenched public disavowal of our sexual desires. And I suspect in a case like this, there is indeed a fear that operates on the personal level that supports the systematic biases that operate on the institutional level.

The editors in question probably do have a distinct personal fear of even appearing to legitimate sexual material on the web. And then they have institutionally-grounded fears, too, of losing revenue, losing advertisers, and losing respect. The irony, of course, is that they contribute to these very fears by giving in to them. And they also appear to advocate self censorship and irresponsible journalism by refusing to link to their sources.

And all of this because the material in question is sexually explicit in nature.

Tony Comstock ends his blog entry on the matter with the following:

P.S. Should anyone care to contact PBS ombudsman Michael Getler, you can do so here. Tell ‘im Tony says “hi”.

I hope you’ll tell him I say “hi,” too.

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Filed under culture, News and politics, public discourse, sex, sexuality