Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Friday, October 12, 2001


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I can't believe the five major television networks have agreed, as announced yesterday, to "abridge" all future videotaped statements by Osama bin Laden or his followers by removing "language the government considers inflammatory."

I know this is a time for extreme measures to preserve national security, and that arrangements like this are not new. Certainly reporters who come upon classified information showing where the next bombing raids will take place in Afghanistan know better than to broadcast those locations on the evening news.

But videotapes of bin Laden like the one we saw Sunday? Prepared text that had been created days earlier in response to U.S. bombing attacks?

This kind of statement from the enemy is of course treacherous, manipulative, hate-mongering and inciteful. As propaganda, it's supposed to be. And if we don't see it - all of it - we won't know every reason why this country is at war.

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and White House press secretary Ari Fleischer gave two justifications for censoring future bin Laden videotapes:

1) "Terrorists could be using the broadcasts to send coded messages to other terrorists," Fleischer said. By creating the videotape from a secret location, the thinking goes, Osama bin Laden could be taking advantage of Western technology in the same way his terrorists utilized Western airplanes on 9/11.

As it happened, on Sunday, CNN asked an expert on bin Laden if "coded messages" might be hidden in the videotaped remarks. The answer was immediate (I'm paraphrasing but this is pretty close) - "No, no, no, no. Bin Laden has his own methods of communication, and they're very sophisticated."

That answer seems so obvious it's no wonder the TV network representatives said they didn't put much stock in the threat of "coded messages." They said it was the second reason that motivated them to make this deal with the government.

2) "The tapes enabled Mr. bin Laden to vent propaganda intended to incite hatred and potentially kill more Americans," according to the New York Times. It's not Al Qaeda followers in Afghanistan who need inflaming, we are told. Rice's concern is that "the messages would reach any remaining terrorist cells in the United States and would also inflame Muslim populations in such places as Malaysia and the Philippines."

Well, does that make sense to you? The terrorist cells in the U.S. certainly didn't need any inflaming before 9/11. As to overseas Muslims, wouldn't films of U.S. bombing the evacuated camps of bin Laden and the Taliban be enraging enough?

What was missing from the announcement of this agreement was exactly how an "abridgement" of the next Osama bin Laden videotape would take place. Will the government get the tape directly from the news service Al Jazeera, cleanse it of language it considers "inflammatory," and hand it out to ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN and Fox?

Or will the 5 networks get on the phone, perhaps in conference with Condoleezza Rice, as they did in making this agreement in the first place, and decide which portions the public shouldn't see?

At that point, two things will happen. Tapes of "everything Osama bin Laden REALLY said" would become hot properties on the Internet, and before you could say MP3, the world would know, anyway.

The next thing (and perhaps this is the real reason behind the videotape "abridgement" idea), is that TV networks would get used to making these accommodations about things the White House doesn't want us to know.

Since the TV execs agreed so quickly (after 20 minutes in a conference call with Rice, for heaven's sake) for reasons that at least one of them said were "patriotic," it seems likely that the government is hoping for other agreements down the line.

Let's consider what this kind of "patriotism" means. Each time an agreement is made, the American public's right to know is diminished, and eventually we'll be left to wonder if we can trust what TV news anchors and reporters tell us ever again.



National Review Online columnist Ann Coulter has now joined the ranks of writers and broadcasters whose remarks about the catastrophe of September 11 and its impact have resulted in firing, resignation, apology or censorship.

In Coulter's case, as Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post writes, her "response to the terrorist attacks was something of a jaw dropper."

Coulter, whose column for NRO has been distributed by Universal Press Syndicate to 50 newspapers and several websites, caused a huge flap when she wrote that "we should invade [terrorist] countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity."

She also wrote a follow-up piece, which NRO refused to run, about the use of domestic passports to check on "any suspicious-looking swarthy males." You gotta hand it to Coulter - at least she was consistent.

Coulter then went on the talk show circuit to criticize National Review editors for being "girly boys" who had "no spine . . . Every once in a while [the editors] will throw one of their people to the wolves to get good press in left-wing publications." Yes, you remember - William F. Buckley certainly craves approval from publications like The People's World.

But here's the problem: National Review Online editor Jonah Goldberg told the Post that "we got a lot of complaints from sponsors and a lot of complaints from readers left, right and center. We've decided for editorial reasons we think are sound that we're no longer going to run Ann Coulter's syndicated column."

Hm. "Editorial reasons"?. Sounds more like like pressure from advertisers and readers. Heaven knows Coulter's behavior has been bizarre. At one point she even bad-mouthed NRO for paying her only $5 a month ("would that it were so!" sighed Goldberg).

The point is, if NRO editors like Goldberg didn't like the column "for editorial reasons," they shouldn't have run it in the first place.

This is my worry about people like columnist Dan Guthrie, who got fired after eight years at the Grants Pass (Oregon) Daily Courier (see #271), Bill Maher, who was required by ABC to make an apology for his remarks on "Politically Incorrect" (see #270) and other occasions when complaints from sponsors, readers and viewers have resulted in firings and censorship.

Our concept of a free press depends on editors and producers standing by writers of columns that have been edited, and hosts of shows that have been successful because of their outspoken nature. If you put the clamps on after you've published or broadcast a controversial piece, you lose the kind of credibility that takes years to develop - credibility that Guthrie and Maher once brought to their employers.

In Coulter's case, it does seem that the pulling of her crazy second column before publication was made "for editorial reasons," and would have been grounds enough for terminating the relationship. In fact, it was odd that NRO, with its editorial formality and trademark caution, let Coulter's first column go through.

Well, sure enough, Goldberg went on record later to admit that running the first column, "to be honest, was a mistake. It stemmed from the fact that this was a supposedly pre-edited syndicated column, coming in when NRO was operating with one phone line and in general chaos."

Whew. This kind of thing is important to know. (You can read Goldberg's complete remarks at http://www.nationalreview.com/nr_comment/nr_comment100301.shtml.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

I have been a reader of "Holt Uncensored" since the first issue, and I love what you are doing. One suggestion: I would find it very helpful if you would define what "censorship" means, or at least what you interpret it to mean.


Holt responds: I used to think censorship simply meant "the suppressing or deleting [of] parts deemed objectionable on moral, political, military, or other grounds," as the Random House Webster's College Dictionary puts it. But since reading "Places I Never Meant to Be" by Judy Blume (see #267), perhaps the most censored writer in the United States, I've come to agree with the definition she quotes from The Concise Columbia Encyclopedia: "[The] official restriction of any expression believed to threaten the political social, or moral order." Here the idea of a threat to the status quo seems especially important in these perilous times.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Thanks for your newsletter, I have found many things there that I was otherwise unaware of. Now, I hope to respond in kind. Last night I read an old interview with Osama Bin Laden which was published in 1996 in a magazine called Nida'ul Islam. It is an interesting read. Last night's site is gone today, but you may find an interesting perspective at Nida'ul Islam's website:

Also, Gersh Kuntzman's column, "Un-American Activities," in Newsweek at


Louis Schultz

Holt responds: Kuntzman's column takes on firings and cases of censorship in the media following "a sudden shift in the very notion of patriotism. Now, if you aren’t waving a flag, cheering every focus-group-tested word out of President Bush’s mouth or supporting the use of force, you’re a threat. You’re anti-American. You must be silenced." He adds that "the examples are legion," and boy, has he compiled a list that takes the breath away.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

OK, for something truly politically incorrect and un-Pat-Holtish, how about this from Paul Bowles, who spent most of his life living among and writing about Arabs:

"I don't think we're likely to get to know the Moslems very well, and I suspect if we should we'd find them less sympathetic than we do at present. And I believe the same applies to their getting to know us. At the moment they admire us for our technique; I don't think they could find more than that compatible. Their culture is essentially barbarous, their mentality that of a purely predatory people. It seems to me that their political aspirations, while emotionally understandable, are absurd, and any realization of them will have a disastrous effect on the rest of the world." (New York Times Book Review, March 9, 1952)

Steve Heilig

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Okay, I've had enough. I've enjoyed your lively commentary on the book business, but whenever you veer off into political commentary, you only manage to vividly demonstrate your extreme political bias. In this business, I am quite used to being subjected to classic liberal dogma at every opportunity, but it might be nice, for once, to give it a rest during a period of deep national crisis. It is unfortunate that you can't let go of your political views long enough to objectively cover the industry about which you really do know quite a lot. There are hundreds of political writers who are infinitely better-qualified to analyze the news. When I want that, I know where to get it, and it is not from this column.

I look forward to more industry news in the future.


Dear Holt Uncensored:

I want to thank you for a job tremendously well done in your analysis and recommendations regarding media coverage of our new war. In this turbulent time, I have come to count on your newsletter as my best source of information through which I can sift to find my own truth. I especially appreciate your attitude and forthrightness. You're completely out there with what you believe, but just as willing to acknowledge your mistakes or misstatements-- a great example of free speech and powerful communication. In fact, I'm beginning to wonder if you've missed your calling and instead of books, you should be a media critic and thorn in the side of those who seem to think our government is an autocracy.

Suzanne Gold

Dear Holt Uncensored:

That's the problem with baseball bats [see LETTERS #271] - they are a blunt weapon and do very little good unless you are playing baseball. And we're not playing baseball.

We can't fall apart when Bill Maher gets his hands slapped if we're glad when "doctor" Laura (she of the wrong degree and a whole program based on the dreaded and sinful "rumor") gets her hands slapped. You sink your own argument with that kind of thinking.

If Maher is intimidated, then he's intimidated by his own volition. He isn't silenced unless he chooses to be, though he might miss out on tons of money and lots of visibility. He isn't guaranteed tons of money and visibility; a TV show is not a right.

Otherwise, you are arguing that Sears MUST be silenced or must sponsor and be affiliated with programs with which it disagrees, which means that freedom has ceased. And we all lose.

Sure, it is "Politically Incorrect," but the last time I tuned it was bad jokes about Gore and Bush, and that's probably when Sears signed on. "Doc" Laura's sponsors signed on when she was talking about ethics, not calling gay people "deviants" and "perverts." Should the sponsors be required to stay on? Of course not. Would we applaud sponsors that stayed the course with her? Not I.

It has nothing to do with splitting hairs or parsing arguments; it has everything to do with freedom.

Jeff Burdick

Holt responds: I was kidding around about Dr. Laura, but I see I should be a little more circumspect in times like these. I do think it's important to note that she has been talking about gays as "perverts" and "deviants" for years on her radio show. I don't think sponsors care as much about "ethics" or other content as they do about image and ratings, and of course that's their right. As to Maher, to me the point is that after the boom was lowered, he's been self-censoring his remarks on a show whose premise is the opposite. It's ironic and it's scary - other TV shows surely got the message and have (silently) followed suit.

Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.

"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
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