Throwing away a freely distributed newspaper en masse because you object to its content is sabotage, a serious crime that not only violates property and business, but goes to the heart of what America is supposed to be about-and it's an even greater crime, a Constitutional crime, when a powerful congressman calls on his constituents to dump a newspaper. It's as though he called on his constituents to burn down a church just because its teachings outraged the locals.
As you can see, the Press's "Pope's Upcoming Death" piece caused a scandal that made even the eXile's near-death experience last summer with the Kremlin and Texas Republican Henry Bonilla seem like salted semichki by comparison.
So who won this test of America's alleged checks and balances between the commitment to a free press and government power, checks and balances so widely praised by Bush and all of his mandarins in the Washington press corps? As "duh!" as this rhetorical question is, nearly all Americans would instinctively roll their eyes and say to themselves, "There's no way that our government would censor this kind of crap. They don't censor anything, they wouldn't get away with it." And yet it just happened to my own friend and editor.
Now, let's go back to Bush's press conference in Bratislava a couple weeks ago, back to the planted Russian journalist's question: "Why don't you talk a lot about violations of the rights of journalists in the United States, about the fact that some journalists have been fired": It doesn't sound so crazy anymore, not to me. Not when the two senators, a congressman and the mayor's representative attack a newspaper, and a few days later, the editor is fired.
Here is Bush's longer response, which is almost terrifying for its candid explanation of the American method of censorship:
"People do get fired in [the] American press. They don't get fired by government, however. They get fired by their editors or they get fired by their producers, or they get fired by the owners of a particular outlet or network."
You see? It's a matter of formalities, not substance. Firing journalists is fine! Why, there ain't nothing wrong with that. You just gotta do the firing by slightly less direct means, that's the trick.
Bush is so candid about the American way of censorship that it's almost impossible to attack it, because its very power lies in the fact that it seems to him, and to most Americans, as something self evident. Arguing with this line of reasoning is like arguing with someone over religion.
Here is that reasoning: If a journalist gets fired directly by the government, it's censorship. But owners are business people, and business people fire employees for business reasons. So when a media owner fires a journalist, it's a businessman exercising his right to run his business, even if the pressure to fire his employee came from the mayor and the state's senators.
It's all clear as day! It doesn't matter that the cause-outraging powerful officials-and its effect-the firing of the responsible editor - are the same in the US as in Russia and constitute censorship in each instance. What matters is the formality, who pulled the trap door.
Last September, Izvestia editor Raf Shakirov was fired for printing large front page photos of the Beslan massacre, which the Kremlin found outrageous. Western politicians and media were horrified and alarmed at Shakirov's sacking; it became one of the main pieces of evidence used by Putin's detractors during last autumn's re-branding-Putin campaign, where the Russian leader went from being "the kind of tough bastard we need in these dangerous times" to "the democracy-crushing crypto-Soviet" brand image he's now stuck with today.
I've gone back and looked at those Shakirov articles to see how exactly he was fired, and I was surprised by how my own mind was molded by our propaganda. There was never a censorship smoking gun, an actual Kremlin official who made the phone call. Shakirov said he was fired by his owners, oligarch Vladimir Potanin, who didn't want to piss off the Kremlin. Yet all the news accounts I looked back at quoted a single unnamed Izvestia source as saying there was a specific call from the Kremlin to Izvestia. Can you imagine American newspapers relying on an unnamed source within The New York Press to push a story that the White House called the Press owners and demanded Koyen be fired? It would never fly.