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.


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

4 responses to “PBS: Publicly Broadcasting Self-Censorship?

  1. Well said. Way better said than what I said.

    Color me pleased as punch that you’re on my team.

    chelsea girl

  2. I’ve just been brought up to speed on this issue and followed the story here from CG’s site. I have to both agree and disagree with your assesment of what has happened. As a blogger and a staunch supporter of the right to free and open speech, obviously I agree that the core of what you say would be nice and that would be a better world, if sex was indeed viewed in the way we all feel it should be.

    However, that isn’t the world we live in and PBS, like many other corporations both private and public, live by rules and guidelines that we, as bloggers, do not. I suspect that the decision to not include links had nothing to do with a fear of sex per se, but over an increasingly complex set of legal issues that are becoming more and more difficult for companies, especially media companies, to comply with.

    For example, PBS is an open resource – to with anyone can access the information – and yet they would be or could be held responsible for access of that information, should a child click on a link and suddenly be confronted with material of a sexual nature. This is a litigious society we live in and that possibility is all to real. As a parent myself, I wouldn’t want that to happen in an uncontrolled environment. Having said that the Editor in question probably had very little choice in the matter, as allowing links to these sites would open a Pandora’s box of possible legal ramifications that it would be best for all concerned to avoid. In the same position I would have choosen the same decision.

    It is alright for us bloggers to get upset and demand change, that’s how change happens, but it is also important for us to understand the reality of a situation like this to better affect that change.

    My two cents anyway.

  3. Certainly the law is complex and people are concerned about how clearly they stay within it. But fear of litigiousness, in this instance, is, per se, fear of sex. That fear of sex is where the litigiousness comes from.

    Of course PBS is an open forum and invites readership of all sorts. The New York Times is a similarly open forum inviting young readers and mature readers alike. And with some regularity, right in the front section (today on p. A10), they run an ad for the “Better Sex” video series, which claims to show “REAL couples (not actors) demonstrating the joys of REAL lovemaking.” Apparently the video is so good that “Couples who watch together not only LEARN from what they see, but often report that the videos themselves are an ‘instant aphrodisiac.'” (Emphasis in the original.)

    I’m not criticizing this advertisement. I want people to have better sex, and I certainly want them to have access to material that helps them do so. I’m pleased that the Times runs this ad. I also note that the ad itself contains — in tiny print — a statement and a signature line indicating that whoever places the order certifies being over 18.

    If that signature line alone is enough to make a news outlet like the Times feel comfortable running an ad, I don’t see why a similar caveat could not have been used by PBS. It would have been a simple matter to print a small line at the top of the story cautioning readers that some links — and those links could have been named, or spotlighted in some way — lead to sexually explicit material that should only be viewed by people 18 and older.

    For that matter, PBS didn’t mind linking to stories that did link to the blogs in question. The BoingBoing story that Mark Glaser linked to contained links to Tiny Nibbles, Tony Comstock and Eros Blog. I would imagine the editors felt comfortable assuring themselves that BoingBoing would bear any liability for what was on their site. Why not attribute the same liability to Chelsea Girl or Tony Comstock themselves.

    Then, too, most readers of the MEDIASHIFT blog are not underage, I imagine. And those that are might be assumed to be mature enough to handle the information they’d find at the blogs in question. Not only that, certainly they’d be clever enough to find the blogs on their own.

    The editors’ position, or the company policy, reinforces cultural fears of sex, and “moral panics” about exposure of teens to sex-related information.

    What, really, would have been the harm, had a 15 year old reader of MEDIASHIFT clicked on a link that led to Tony Comstock’s blog or Chelsea Girl’s “pretty dumb things”?

  4. Judy Catch22

    It was interesting reading your reply above — I find myself agreeing with Artful Dodger’s philosophy in part. You seem to equate many protests or restrictions in total access info as indicitive of widespead “”moral panics” about exposing teens and earlier our “fear of sex”. That leaves no space for people who feel that overexposure and overemphasis may not be the panacea for teens or preteens nor will it lend itself to their healthy preteen or teen sexual enlightenment.