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• • • Censorship Page Index • • •
  1. Entry page
  2. Religion, Harry Potter, and the Taliban
  3. The Vatican weighs in on Harry Potter
  4. 'Forbidden fruit' concept in censorship
  5. Banning 'Bridge to Terabithia'
  6. Censoring Red Riding Hood's grandma
  7. Censoring Thomas Merton, Judy Blume, — even Bill Martin Jr.
  8. The Great Textbook War
  1. Book-lynching in Indianapolis High School
  2. Saving us from 'Private Ryan'
  3. Censorship and hysteria: McCarthyism, Walter Cronkite, and a smear victim
  4. Picking the censors: William Bennett, Bill O'Reilly, or Murdoch's Fox Network?
  5. Test and textbook censors
  6. Capt. Underpants and Junie B. Jones
  7. When is it 'inappropriate'?

 

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By Jim Trelease
© 2001, 2007 Jim Trelease / updated: 3/30/11

Saving Us from 'Private Ryan'

"T"ypical of the "camel's nose" syndrome was the furor on Veteran's day 2004 when sixty-six ABC affiliate stations refused the telecast of Stephen Spielberg's Academy Award-winning "Saving Private Ryan." And why did they refuse to broadcast this ode to World War II heroism? Because they feared its gut-wrenching but accurate violence, as well as its obscenity-laced but accurate dialogue would incur the the wrath of the FCC. Though the film had been telecast nation-wide in 2001 and 2002, the outrage and fines associated with the Janet Jackson and Bono affairs frightened the affiliates into dropping the film.

   So America spent the daytime hours of November 11, 2004 honoring the heroics of the war's soldiers but feared showing at night the truth that illuminated how they actually fought and died. There's a strange set of double standards at work there, all brought on by the fear of "censors," a fear that brought about its own form of censorship.

   It would, of course, be a different thing if the boycott had been based on veterans' groups or historians criticizing inaccuracies in the script, but that wasn't the case. Only the American Family Association fought as a group to ban the film, somehow equating the valor and anguish of America's "greatest generation" on D-Day at Omaha Beach with the raunchiest of generations—Janet Jackson and Co. Talk about strange equations.

   One cannot help but wonder if beneath this censor's cloak there didn't exist an ulterior motive, that is, at least a modicum of fear that realistic war images would somehow impede military recruiting efforts for the war in the Middle East, just what the government feared photos of returning coffins would do. The latter fear resulted in a policy of "no coffin photos" for the first time in U.S. military history. Granted, the government offered the same excuse for this censorship as the American Family Association—the protection of family privacy/family values. The end result was a portrayal of war minus its savagery, minus its horrors, minus the pain that accompanies any kind of killing. In other words, censorship offered a John Wayne-version of warfare—war without guilt and nary a hair out of place.

Censorship and hysteria

   Back in the 1940s and 50s, a wave of anti-communist hysteria shook the American landscape from top to bottom. Politicians like Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy fed on the hysteria to cultivate nascent or stalled careers. In their minds the two most insidious campgrounds for "Reds" were government and the arts. In the latter, the Red-baiters feared communist sympathizers and propagandists would use film and theater scripts to worm their way into the American psyche and twist democratic morals. Decades of history in the Soviet Union attested to the reality of such imaginings.

  The first two years' worth of scripts for CBS' acclaimed series "You Are There" were written by three blacklisted writers.

But as often happens when politicians embark on a public witch-hunt, things quickly went out of control. Youthful indiscretions and flirtations with the Communist party were brought out in public testimony. Never mind that the short-lived relationship ended 25 years ago and that the writer has been a God-fearing loyal American in the years since. Once a Red, always the possibility of being Red again. Friends, fearing for their careers and families, were first encouraged, then threatened or blackmailed into testifying against more famous friends. It became one of the darkest chapters in American history. And while there may have been some noble intentions at the start, it degenerated into an ego-driven witch-hunt to control the American creative spirit.

   But good minds eventually outwit ill minds. Today's censors — bent on cleansing from the American scene everything except what they themselves believe in — might consider what befell the efforts at censorship during the McCarthy era. As the government compiled its list of "blacklisted" writers who could no longer be employed to write for theater, radio, television, or the movies, the writers simply moved underground. And the industries' directors and producers, knowing that the hysteria was morally reprehensible, hired the blacklisted writers under assumed names. Many of the "Lassie" television scripts of the 1950s were penned by blacklisted writers. The first two years' worth of scripts for CBS' acclaimed education series "You Are There" were written by three blacklisted writers. Hosted by the likes the Walter Cronkite and Mike Wallace, the writers described the lives of Joan of Arc, Nathan Hale, Socrates, Galileo, and other historical figures. But between the lines, one could read the points they were making about the courage necessary to survive in contemporary America when the witch-hunts begin.

   Cronkite described the "secret hirings" at CBS during those years in an NPR essay entitled "Remembering You Are There," aired Oct. 27, 2003. (Online at www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1480691.)

A Christmas story from a 'smear' victim

   By popular demand, for many years National Public Radio has broadcast a 10-minute December segment called "John Henry Faulk's 'Christmas Story.'" Available online, it is a holiday tale for the ages.

   John Henry Faulk, who died in 1990, was a legendary humorist and storyteller whose reputation was smeared by McCarthyism during the 1950s, despite the fact his patriotism went far beyond what anyone would have expected of someone whose physical ailments exempted him from WW II service. He is a shining example of what can happen when humans set themselves up as "thought police." Here is how The Handbook of Texas Online (a joint project of The General Libraries at the University of Texas at Austin and the Texas State Historical Association) describes both Faulk and his smearing:

   "Early in World War II, the army refused to admit [Faulk] because of a bad eye. In 1942 he joined the United States Merchant Marine for a year of trans-Atlantic duty, followed by a year with the Red Cross in Cairo, Egypt. By 1944 relaxed standards allowed the army to admit him for limited duty as a medic; he served the rest of the war at Camp Swift, Texas. ... WCBS Radio debuted the "John Henry Faulk Show" on December 17, 1951. The program, which featured music, political humor, and listener participation, ran for six years. . . . . Faulk's radio career ended in 1957, a victim of the Cold War and the blacklisting of the 1950s. Inspired by Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, AWARE, Incorporated, a New York-based, for-profit, corporation, offered "clearance" services to major media advertisers and radio and television networks. For a fee, AWARE would investigate the backgrounds of entertainers for signs of Communist sympathy or affiliation. In 1955 Faulk earned the enmity of the blacklist organization when he and other members wrested control of their union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists from officers under the aegis of AWARE. In retaliation, AWARE branded Faulk a Communist. When he discovered that the AWARE bulletin prevented a radio station from making him an employment offer, Faulk sought redress. Several prominent radio personalities and CBS News vice president Edward R. Murrow supported Faulk's effort to end blacklisting. With financial backing from Murrow, Faulk engaged New York attorney Louis Nizer. Attorneys for AWARE, including McCarthy-committee counsel Roy Cohn, managed to stall the suit, which was originally filed in 1957, for five years. When the trial finally concluded in a New York courtroom, the jury had determined that Faulk should receive more compensation than he sought in his original petition. On June 28, 1962, the jury awarded him the largest libel judgment in history to that date—$3.5 million. An appeals court subsequently reduced the amount to $500,000. Legal fees and accumulated debts erased the balance of the award. . . . The city of Austin, Texas, named the downtown branch of the public library in his honor."

BACK     • Censor subject index     • NEXT— Who will pick the censors?

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