Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


Member Area

by Pat Holt

Friday, July 25, 2003


[Send a link to this column to a friend]




Whew! Wednesday's overwhelming vote in the House of Representatives against the Federal Communications Commission's pro-bigness decision (see #366) was sure a relief, wasn't it?

The vote brings the country back to the already untenable, but at least familiar, mess of FCC regulations that still allow a single company to own television stations reaching 35 percent of the country's households. (The FCC had voted to raise that percentage to 45 percent.) And man, that is big enough.

The House vote against too much power comes a few days after the frightening story about Random House CEO Peter Olson appeared in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine.

You want power? Goodness, Olson, followed around the BookExpoAmerica convention in Los Angeles by NYT reporter Lynn Hirschberg, kept pointing out former colleagues and chortling, "I fired him," and "I fired *him*." Many of the "hundreds of people" he recognized at BEA "I fired personally," Olson added happily. "There are so many people here that I've fired that we could have a reunion."

Yes, the heads were rolling retroactively in the aisles. And so was the baloney. "I'm pretty near unscarable," said Sonny Mehta, whose empire within Random House includes Alfred A. Knopf and the paperback imprint, Vintage. "But I was absolutely taken aback when [Random House editor-in-chief] Ann Godoff was fired [also by Olson]. It was completely unexpected. I have the greatest respect for her. She has real taste. But taste is not what Peter [Olson] is about."

Such an innocent, that Sonny. Apparently he forgot that his division took the paperback profits away from Godoff's division, which then fell below its profit quota, eventually causing Godoff to be fired. Oh, well.

Olson also sounded like he had the power to throw his parent company's (Bertelsmann's) money around: Of Houghton Mifflin: "I'd love to buy them," he said. Later he announced to his company "that he was still interested in acquiring AOL Time Warner's book division" - Warner Books and Little, Brown. (The deal, "only a handshake away," fell through.)

You might think the headline to this article was "Media Titan Surveys His Empire," but no, that headline appeared the *last* time a NY Times reporter followed the company's top guy around a book convention (see #192).

In that article (10/27/00), Bertelsmann CEO Thomas Middelhoff (Olson's boss at the time), walked into the Frankfurt Book Fair as Random house employees "hurried to their stations to prepare for a visit from the chief."

Such was the power Middelhoff wielded that he gazed around the giant exhibit floor, which is something like five football fields crammed with publishers' booths from all over the world, and said, "You know, it really is my fair. It is the Bertelsmann book fair."

Middelhoff is the guy who rented Radio City Music Hall to chat intimately with the 4000 people who worked for Random House (see #199). "Do you love your job?" he shouted to the packed hall. "Because I love my job - I would die for Bertelsmann!" He threw his jacket into the crowd like a rock star. Thank heaven for his sake - considering the bitter remarks of Random House workers who filed out later - he didn't try throwing himself into the mosh pit.

Middelhoff was called by the Times "the most powerful man in international book publishing," but soon enough he was forced out, and now Olson has become "the most powerful man in book publishing," Hirschberg wrote in the Times Magazine story last Sunday.

It's scary when big corporations get so big that their CEOs talk about dominating the world, which Bertelsmann heads have been doing for years. But it's even more frightening when the CEOs take on the personality of something ranging between a savior and a dictator. Employees as well as "objective" and "detached" reporters, apparently, must learn to depend on these CEOs' largess, their arbitrary whims, their need for attention and obeisance.

What bothers me most about both the Olson and the FCC story is "the trend toward market consolidation across all media," as Hirschberg put it. "Olson is expected to show constant growth," just as FCC head Michael Powell seems to believe he's expected to allow larger and larger corporations to control more and more media.

It has always been a puzzlement to me why, in a democracy where independent thought is treasured (it is, too!), and where many different voices are always roiling to address many different issues for many different audiences, media monopolies keep increasing - and media exposure of the powerful few, the "media titans" keeps expanding.

The only good news, I think, is that millions of Americans were so outraged over the FCC decision that they contacted their Congressional representatives and demanded action against it.

Their reaction is reminiscent of the last time the American public raised hell over a similar issue. That was 1998-9, when Barnes & Noble announced its intention to buy Ingram, the largest book wholesaler in the country, whose many clients included just about every competitor of Barnes & Noble ever had. (It was no coincidence that previous to this announcement, Bertelsmann had picked up 49% of Barnes & Noble's online sales outlet, barnesandnoble.com, now called bn.com.)

So once again, constant vigilance is the key. If not, why, we might return to the time of the famous Random House sales conference in 1999, when Peter Olson conducted a company-wide discussion entitled: "Is bigness necessarily [or] inherently bad in book publishing and in bookselling?"

And guess what? The employees at Random House and all its 3,684 (slight exaggeration) imprints decided that bigness is good! Thank heaven the companies most recently in Olson's sights have so far avoided the Bertelsmann grasp.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

There's a bizarre twist to your story on Internet filters. We've recently installed a spam filter (Spam Inspector from Giant Company Software) in an attempt to stem the tsunami of invitations we receive to purchase herbal viagra. It's pretty good, too - cutting down the 50-100 junk mailings in my inbox every day to a mere trickle.

The downside is that - because of your article mentioning the erstwhile Beaver College in Pennsylvania - Spam Inspector has now decided that Holt Uncensored is itself spam, and the latest issue was dumped in the Quarantine folder, whence it was rescued and read.

Trivial, you might think, but the implications give pause for thought. Many of these spam filters use individual events such as this to constantly update a central database of spam-mongers, which is used to provide rules-based intelligence for all subscribers to the software (quite possibly hundreds of thousands of people).

Just one issue of Holt Uncensored could therefore - if you were rash enough to use all the "wrong" words - be rapidly classified as spam, and be automatically removed from subscribers' inboxes or, more seriously, be intercepted and removed at server level. Holt *UN*censored? I'm beginning to wonder...

Peter Cox

Holt responds: Trivial? Moi?

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I'm incensed that the word "beaver" is now blocked by filters because I'm a Canadian and the beaver is our national symbol and on our nickel! The beaver is the smartest rodent, with excellent family values and a strong work ethic. The beaver is also, in the words of a popular beer commercial, "A proud and noble animal!" I wonder if the Canadian Prime Minister knows about this. It could be yet another nail in the coffin between the all ready shaky relationships between the two countries. And yet another reason besides ongoing soft lumber trade tariffs and the war in Iraq for Canadians not to trust the American government. Thanks for pointing this out.

Devorah Stone

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I wonder if people who rant against Internet filtering in public libraries ever actually use computers there. I often found myself, in an upscale neighborhood in Washington, DC, sitting next to an obviously disturbed man constantly viewing images of female anatomy for all to see. I'm no prude, but since the users of public computers tend to be male, it creates an intimidating atmosphere for women.

On the other hand I was once outraged when using a paid computer at a copy shop in the Castro [predominantly gay district of San Francisco], of all places, when I couldn't pull up the site of a gay political group because it seemed that the word "gay" was "forbidden."

Even so, I for one will trade occasional inconvenience to be in an atmosphere that's not exploitative, intimidating, and potentially harassing for women. While I realize not having filters leaves me free to view porn also if I wanted to, here's the rub: I and most other women don't do so. Maybe you underestimate the number of disturbed people who virtually live in libraries and make it difficult for occasional users.

Librarians should know better. For years they've seemed outraged at having to monitor computers, or have anything to do with them, period. It's about time they took some responsibility for the kind of technological change we've all had to deal with.

Looks to me like just another example of San Francisco limousine liberalism. Don't forget it was Sen. Feinstein who introduced legislation putting the V-chip in televisions.

The Washington, D.C., public library last year installed computers under glass in recessed desks, which alleviated the problem of lack of privacy in viewing. It had been a bit jarring to walk into a small branch and have to view someone's private parts displayed prominently for all to see. As someone who's had to wait in line to conduct business via the Net, I'd rather see the porn viewers banished. Let them do it at home in private.

Isn't this a bit like the panhandling question? You don't want to abridge free speech, but people have a right to be free of harassment, too. People have a right to say they're hungry or need help but not to intrude on the right of others to be left alone.

S. DeWine

Holt responds: Your letter reminds me of the first time I gave a lecture at the main library. In the otherwise quiet audience, two men - one drunk, one apparently deranged - interrupted loudly from time to time. The librarians looked on silently, waiting for me to figure it out. Afterward, one librarian said, "Welcome to the *public* library," meaning that in this space, everybody gets a say, whether it sounds rational to others. Before the emergence of computers, I remember feeling embarrassed in the General Reading Room that certain - to me, again, apparently deranged - men found a page in the dictionary or other book somehow arousing. If they made a scene, the librarians calmed them down or in extreme cases got them to leave. But otherwise, the whole atmosphere of the place seemed to say that whatever these patrons thought or read was none of anyone's business. and thank heaven. I would hate to think my own excitement discovering Herbert Marcuse - during what my mother called "your radical pinko period" - was being monitored, or that I might be asked to leave because of it. Granted, today it's easy to feel offended if one is using a computer in plain view of somebody who's visiting a porn site, so perhaps you're right - recessed screens (that no one but the user can see) may be the answer. But to ask anyone - especially a librarian - to place restraints on Constitutionally protected freedoms seems dangerous to me. Surely *any* screen is going to make *someone* uncomfortable at *any* time. Until recessed screens are the norm, perhaps the answer is to rivet them eyes on the computer you stood in line for.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

In #371 you wrote:

But now a more insidious danger has emerged with the "humorous and twisted recent case" of tiny Beaver College in Pennsylvania. Founded in 1853 in the town of Beaver, the college, which has since moved across state near Philadelphia, has long been the subject of "ridicule in the form of derogatory remarks pertaining to...sexual vulgarities," according to its president, Bette Landman.


With the entrance of filters, which decide what is dirty and what is not, the word "beaver" suddenly became one of those "blocked" words that Internet users with filter systems on their computers would not see. This meant that high school students online, searching for prospective colleges in their school or public library, could never consider Beaver College. It had simply been erased from the Internet.

So that was the last straw. Facing a drop in enrollment, Beaver College, after 75 years of building a respected academic reputation, decided to change its name to Arcadia College.

However, according to my chronological compendium of censorship movements, Beaver College made that decision in (or before) July of 2001. The name change did derive from the giggling of immature snickerpusses, but it was not a summary decision. The school apparently held a number of surveys before deciding.

This link will take you to the entry, although I do not have the original source: http://www.angelfire.com/scifi/dreamweaver/bannedbks/chrono4.html#160701b

There is, of course, no doubt that the censorship from filters will have a negative impact on institutions with names similar to Beaver College. There is at least one story about a library censoring itself when it activated its filter because its name was verboten. This impact is likely, in my not so humble opinion, to widen the digital divide. This, because it will be those who cannot afford computers of their own who will be seeking access to filtered out sites. Hence: a side issue of filtering is that it will ensure that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Especially in light of the fact that software filter producers were among those demanding filtering and they stand to pad out their profit margins very prettily, I'm sure. Seems to me there is some kind of conflict of interest in that.

Michael Nellis

Holt responds: You're right, the name change took place before the passage of the Children's Internet Protection Act, but it also occurred because the existence of filters that blocked the name "Beaver" from the computer search of many high school graduates looking for colleges to consider.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

You wrote: "Here's an interesting story from the New York Times called 'Book Buyers Stay Busy but Forsake Bookstores': http://www.nytimes.com/2003/06/30/business/media/30BOOK.html?ex=1057994437&ei=1&en=69319e8260992ef8

You can't get the story at this link without paying the Times $2.95.

Michael Rosenthal

Holt responds: Thanks for mentioning this - it's important that readers know when payment is required, which I'll try to mention from now on.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Your readers/writers might be interested in my piece in the July/August issue of Poets and Writers on why book review editors choose the books they do and the state of the industry today....It includes interviews with Steve Wasserman in Los Angeles, Marie Arena of the Washington Post, Elizabeth Taylor at the Chicago Tribune, Theresa Weaver at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kirkus Reviews, PW, Heidi Julavits at The Believer, Rebecca Wollf of The Constant Critic and others. It's online now at


Jane Ciabattari

Host responds: Wow! What a great survey of book review editors across the country, their procedures, their standards, their (some of them) payment schedules and most of all their dedication to matching the best reviewers with the best books.

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
You can send comments or suggestions to

To subscribe, send a blank email to:


To unsubscribe, send a blank email to: