Thursday, September 30, 2010

Banned Books week: U.S. politics and censorship

In America politics and censorship have played a large role in determining what facts readers learn about events. Often government agencies claim issues of national security to keep sensitive and allegedly damaging information from being published, most recently as August 2010 in the case of Operation Dark Heart (see below). At one point the Defense Department threatened to buy up all copies of the book in order to prevent it from reaching bookstores; St. Martin's Press has agreed to a partial compromise -- but one that involves redacting (blacking out) classified text.

At the Banned Books site there is a long list of censored and banned titles, many of which were challenged by American government agencies. Writers using the Freedom of Information Act to obtain material have been questioned and refused access. Publishers have long fought such pre-publication censorship. In one case -- the Valerie Plame book -- the outed C.I.A. operative found a way around government censorship: she published the redacted text and amended an afterward by a second writer, who reveals the public record of all the redacted material.

"We believe attempts to censor ideas to which we have access--whether in books, magazines, plays, works of art, television, movies or song--are not simply isolated instances of harassment by diverse special-interest groups. Rather they are part of a growing pattern of increasing intolerance which is changing the fabric of America. . .Censorship cannot eliminate evil. It can only kill freedom. We believe Americns have the right to buy, stores have the right to sell, authors have the right to write and publishers have the right to publish Constitutionally-protected material. Period."

(Excerpt from a letter to 28 newspapers, signed by Ed Morrow, president, American Booksellers Assn. and Harry Hoffman, president, Walden Book Co., Inc., 1990).

Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House (2007) Written by Valerie Plame Wilson, who claims her cover was intentionally disclosed by the Bush administration. Portions of Fair Game are blacked-out and indicate, say the publishers, places where the CIA has demanded redactions. The extensive afterword by reporter Laura Rozen, drawn from interviews and the public record, is included to provide context to Plame Wilson's story.

Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago (1971) by Mike Royko. A Ridgefield, CT school board in 1972 banned this book from the high school reading list, claiming it "dowgrades police departments."

The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence (1974) by Victor Marchetti and John D. Marks. The CIA obtained a court injunction against this book's publication stating the author, a former CIA employee, violated his contract which states that he cannot write about the CIA without the agency's approval. First amendment activists opposed this ruling, "raising the question of whether a citizen can sign away his First Amendment rights." After prolonged litigation, the CIA succeeded in having 168 passages deleted.

Deadly Deceits (My 25 Years in the CIA) (1983) by Ralph McGheehee. The CIA delayed the publication of this book for three years, objecting to 397 passages, even though much of what the author wrote about was already public knowledge.

Freedom and Order (1966) by Henry Steele Commager. The U.S. Information Agency had this book banned from its overseas libraries because of its condemnation of American policies in Vietnam.

Operation Dark Heart (2010): On Friday, August 13, 2010, just as St. Martin’s Press was readying its initial shipment of Operation Dark Heart, the Department of Defense expressed concern that its publication could cause damage to U.S. national security. The publication of the initial edition was canceled. However, after consulting with the author, Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, St. Martin's Press agreed to incorporate some of the government’s changes, which includes redacting classified text, into a revised edition.

Pentagon Papers (1971) Commissioned by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, this 3,000 page history of U.S. involvement in Indochina, was banned from publication by court order. The New York Times was printing portions of it when the order came down. Later that year, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the decision and Bantam proceeded to publish a paperback edition.

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