The censors are us

A classic line from Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” is when Charles Foster Kane declares, “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper. ” Destruction follows.

In the cautionary tale of “Citizen Kane,” it’s clear that those who own news outlets should not tamper with the news.

There’s a lot of “Citizen Kane”-like drama at MSNBC these days, with the news network becoming a news story.

NBC/MSNBC owner GE has decided censorship is part of holding the purse strings. Apparently it’s kind of fun to run both a public airway network (NBC), a cable network (MSNBC) and the largest Spanish-language network (Univision, which isn’t involved in this cat fight).

Ownership seems especially fun when you get to censor the politics of your newspeople.

For weeks now, Keith Olbermann has been trouncing Fox’s Bill O’Reilly on all things right-wing, but particularly on healthcare reform. That’s what Olbermann does: He takes on the right. No one hired him thinking he didn’t have left-of-center politics.

Meanwhile, O’Reilly blusters his right-wing way through his show and, whenever possible, as a guest on the shows of others.

This feud is hardly new: Olbermann has been raking O’Reilly over the coals for the past three years on everything from the Iraq War to the Bush doctrine to torture, and O’Reilly has given as good as he’s gotten.

And the feud hasn’t decreased either’s ratings. O’Reilly still has the top-rated talk/news show on TV and Olbermann’s ratings are quite good too.

Nevertheless, GE thinks the discourse has become “uncivil,” to quote GE exec Gary Sheffer.

Sheffer has been speaking out on the conflict lately to the New York Times, Washington Post, New York Post and Newsweek.

Sheffer was quoted in the Times on July 31 saying, “We all recognize that a certain level of civility needed to be introduced into the public discussion.”

“We?” It can only be presumed that Sheffer was using the royal “we” in reference to GE, because neither Olbermann nor O’Reilly nor the viewers were part of this “we.”

What’s more, Olbermann was so incensed by the story in the Times, he made the writer, Brian Stelter, his “Worst Person” in his Aug. 1 newscast, saying he never agreed to any deal and that he’d told Stelter that.

Why does any of this matter? Because this isn’t Iran or Saudi Arabia or China, where the powers-that-be decide to silence the media and — poof! — the media disappears.

GE is a corporate entity. Owning three news outlets (problematic in itself) should not mean dictating the news. One of the reasons Olbermann is always taking on O’Reilly is that Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News has about the same level of credibility as Murdoch’s “News of the World,” in which alien babies and Elvis sightings regularly grace the front pages.

But the debate over GE is more insidious than just a he-said (Sheffer), he-said (Olbermann), he-reported (Stelter). Rather, this is about what is being said and why it should be censored.

Fox, after all, is not suggesting that O’Reilly stop his attacks on Olbermann, Obama or anything remotely left of center. In fact, that’s why O’Reilly is there — to do just that.

If GE is attempting to censor Olbermann for calling out O’Reilly for his incitements, that should be of concern to everyone. Because while it might be fun for a corporate entity to run a news organization, it’s not fun for those of us relying on a free press when a corporation decides to censor news that doesn’t meet its own particular politics or corporate agenda.

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.