Stupid Decisions

The author and the publisher could agree upon only one thing–neither of them wanted 50,000 copies of the author’s book to be in a 146,000 square foot warehouse in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

Michael Moore, the author, wanted the publisher to start distributing Stupid White Men and Other Excuses for the State of the Nation. ReganBooks, the publisher, wanted to pulp them. What ReganBooks tried to do to Moore’s book may be typical of what has happened to the industry that has often been accused of sacrificing much of its editorial integrity to the business and marketing sides, and continues to publish “safe” books that don’t attack establishment values.

Copies of Stupid White Men were ready for distribution when terrorists struck America on September 11, 2001. Moore, an anti-establishment social issues and media critic who is adept at using the media to promote his views, had first earned a national reputation with his playful film, Roger and Me, which looked at corporate greed. He followed that up with a best-seller Downsize This! (1996); a brief television series, TV Nation; and subsequent “reveal-all” about that series, Adventures in a TV Nation (1998). In October 2002, he would release Bowling for Columbine, a two hour documentary about America’s gun culture.

But now, in the days after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, ReganBooks thought Moore’s criticism of the Bush administration was not only irreverent but also inappropriate and unpatriotic. In one of publishing’s all-to-common intertangling alliances, ReganBooks is an imprint of megapublisher HarperCollins, which less than two years before stopping distribution of Stupid White Men had published George W. Bush’s political memoir, A Charge to Keep. HarperCollins itself is a part of News America, a major division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation conglomerate which also owns the FOX TV network. Roger Ailes, FOX’s news chair, was a senior advisor to former President George H. W. Bush. On Election Night 2000, John Ellis, first cousin of George W. Bush and Florida Gov. “Jeb” Bush, was a FOX news consultant and on-air political analyst; in addition to analyzing the election, Ellis relayed information in several private telephone conversations to his cousins.

Perhaps none of the alliances entered into ReganBook’s decisions about Stupid White Men. But, Moore told Publishers Weekly the company had wanted him to rewrite up to half of the book, and change the title and cover art. ReganBooks refuses to discuss what it said to Moore, or to answer numerous questions about why it didn’t want to release the book. Moore says he agreed to a title change and a revision of the cover design. He didn’t agree to lose his journalistic integrity.

In the book, Moore opened with an attack upon how George W. Bush had become President at the beginning of 2001, although Al Gore received over a half-million more votes in the popular election. He called Bush a “crook” and a “Thief-in-Chief” for having stolen the election by the Supreme Court’s 5-4 vote along political lines to uphold the official, but highly controversial, election results in problem-plagued Florida, a state in which Bush’s younger brother was governor and the secretary of state were co-chairs of the Bush for President committee. The Supreme Court decision several weeks after the election had given Bush just enough electoral votes for the victory. “We are now finally no better than a backwater banana republic,” Moore declared. In other chapters, Moore attacked racism, corporate business practices, those who presided over the recent economic, technological, and environmental decline, the media obsession with sex scandals, and even Bill Clinton whom he called one of the best Republican presidents the country ever had.

After a couple of months of discussions, Moore says ReganBooks told him it had decided to pulp the warehoused copies; the publisher would allow rights to revert to him after a year. As Moore knew, a year’s delay would have killed the essence of the book. He proposed to buy the 50,000 copies, then sell them himself; the publisher, says Moore, refused. ReganBooks refuses to say why it wouldn’t allow the author to buy the copies, or why it had planned to kill it.

“We had considered a number of options,” says corporate spokesperson Lisa Herling who refuses to say what those options were. Whatever they were, apparently the only viable one the publisher was comfortable with was a rewrite.

The book was almost dead.

The day after discussions apparently ended in early December, Moore spoke to the New Jersey Citizen Action Coalition, a friendly audience. What he hadn’t counted on was support from a source that is vigorous in First Amendment issues.

“This was all about a publisher censoring itself on a book because it may have been politically intimidated,” says Ann Sparanese, head of the Reference and Young Adult services for the Englewood (New Jersey) Public Library; she had been at the Coalition’s meeting as the delegate from the Bergen County Central Trade and Labor Council. Two days later, she e-mailed letters to members of the Social Responsibilities Roundtable of the American Library Association (ALA) and to the Progressive Librarians Guild. “My colleagues apparently picked up the ball and ran with it,” says Sparanese. The librarians began writing each other and the publisher. And, they did even more–they placed orders.

Within days, as Moore later told Publishers Weekly, ReganBooks was receiving “hundreds of letters a day from angry librarians. . . . That’s one group you don’t want to mess with.” The publisher had already sacrificed its editorial integrity when it thought dissent wasn’t “appropriate”–and that it would be subject to attacks for releasing the title, and would probably lose sales not only for Stupid White Men but possibly other titles as well. But, now there were those letters of support–and all those book orders. Now, that was something to reconsider!

About the same time the librarians were mounting their campaign, Jane Friedman, chief executive officer of HarperCollins, asked a question. Moore believes Friedman “was probably a bit of a hero in all this, saying ‘Why are we distancing ourselves from something we approved of and worked on?'”

In mid-December 2001, ReganBooks agreed to release Stupid White Men without changes. ReganBooks claims the librarians had minimal impact. “We did not receive a lot of comment from librarians, not a lot of feedback from outside,” Herling claims. She says the decision to publish was “made by a team of people”–she refused to identify who was on that team–“and certainly not because of feedback from outside.” Was Jane Friedman part of that team? “The team made the decision,” says the corporate spokesperson firmly.

In February 2002, Moore began a 12-city author tour, coupled with several appearances on national TV shows to promote the title. The controversy helped assure exposure and eventual sales. Within weeks, HarperCollins even featured Stupid White Men on its web site home page. Speaking to the ALA annual meeting in June 2002, Moore again forcefully noted that the librarians’ campaign was a major reason ReganBooks decided to release Stupid White Men, and directly stated that librarians are “the most important public servant in a democracy.” Within six months of distribution, there were more than 500,000 sales, making the book a surprise run-away best-seller.

What ReganBooks did to Stupid White Men isn’t censorship since the First Amendment applies only to governmental interference not to what private companies do. But, the government doesn’t need to worry about interfering when so many private companies, especially media conglomerates, seem willing to self-censor themselves out of greed or fear. “Americans are apt to quickly spot and automatically distrust government efforts to impose prior restraint,” wrote media analyst Norman Solomon in March 2000, “but what about the implicit constraints imposed by the hierarchies of enormous media corporations–and internalized by employees before overt conflicts develop?”

Self-censorship is the “most corrosive and insidious form of censorship,” said Aidan White, general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists. He attributed much of self-censorship to journalists “living and working in conditions of fear, poverty or employment insecurity.”

Self-censorship begins when writers submit articles, book manuscripts, and scripts to editors and producers who reject them or demand modifications. Often, there are good reasons. In the print media, it’s known as editing; in television and film, it’s known as “notes,” which could come from any of several dozen places, including executives whose only creative thought may have been to add non-dairy creamer to their cappuccino. Many times, rejection is based upon personal beliefs and news values of the editors, disguised by such comments as “We regret that your manuscript doesn’t meet our needs at the present time” or “This area doesn’t seem to work.” Whatever the reasons agents, editors, and producers have, after enough rejections or requests to delete or modify portions of a manuscript, writers learn what is and isn’t acceptable. Soon, writers become socialized to the system, adapting to the wishes of editors.

Self-censorship extends to lunches and dinner receptions, gyms and golf courses, where writers, agents, editors, and owners mix to discuss everything from other writers, agents, editors, and owners to the world economy. Those who travel in the “power circles” of their sources learn and internalize the norms, no matter how independent they believe they are; those who maintain their independence, or can’t afford to be a part of a power-elite, are forever knocking on doors that never open.

Self-censorship for editors and producers is the next level of self-restraint. Often, they impose standards they think their own editors, publishers, vice-presidents, and owners might impose, even if nothing was ever said. Vice-presidents and publishers don’t need to say anything–their subordinates figure it out. An author who proposes a book attacking book publishing conglomerates probably won’t get a warm response from either conglomerates or independents, some of whom may need conglomerates for distribution. Nor is it likely authors will investigate and report about perfidious publishers or supercilious book reviewers, all of whom could be useful to an author who sheds what dignity and integrity he or she may have left in order to become published and, thus, little more than a pawn in the industry.

One leading agent told an author one of the main reasons she couldn’t represent his next manuscript was because he wrote about some “dirty little secrets” in the publishing industry–among those “secrets” was a minor sub-plot about a leading character who didn’t want to go on author promotion tours, the backbone of many front-list titles. However, greed trumps publisher principles–if John Grisham, Stephen King, or Jackie Collins wrote a “secret,” publishers would undoubtedly defer to the anticipated income rather than any principles they may or may not have.

A reporter for a large Iowa newspaper says he was given permission and a budget to research repair practices among auto dealers and service stations, then had his article spiked when the publisher declared the two-part series wasn’t objective since he didn’t go to all of the repair shops in town; when the reporter said he could do that, the publisher decided there wasn’t enough money in the budget for the investigation of shady repair practices among some of the advertisers. The experiences of the book author and the newspaper reporter aren’t unique.

About one-third of journalists say that stories are avoided because of possible conflicts with the business interests of their employers or advertisers, according to a poll conducted in 2000 by the Pew Research Center and the Columbia Journalism Review. About one-third of local newspaper journalists also reported they “softened the tone” of a story to meet what they believed was the interest of their employer. Even if a medium is vigorous in pursuing the truth, even allowing freedom for “in-your-face” reporters and writers, a web of unwritten edicts restricts writing and publishing media analysis and commentary; it may be acceptable to attack others but don’t look inside our own houses, many editors and news directors silently tell their staffs.

For every Michael Moore book that gets accepted by a publisher, hundreds are rejected, often for reasons no writer ever hears but are whispered in the silence of corporate offices.

“[I]t’s not just the books under fire now that worry me,” says best-selling author Judy Blume whose books are often among those that are most challenged by self-proclaimed moralist-censors, “it is the books that will never be written. The books that will never be read. And all due to the fear of censorship.”

Michael Moore, still believing he is an independent journalist, is now under contract to the media conglomerate AOL Time Warner which, Publishers Weekly reports, paid $3 million for the rights to his next two books. ReganBooks, says Herling, “declined to review” Moore’s forthcoming manuscripts.

In a final irony to the story of Stupid White Men, the distribution center for HarperCollins is less than a half-mile from Brodart, one of the nation’s largest suppliers to libraries.

WALT BRASCH, a national award-winning reporter and editor, is professor of journalism at Bloomsburg University. He is the author of 13 books, including The Press and the State, and the current book, The Joy of Sax: America During the Bill Clinton Era. You may contact him through his web-site


Walter Brasch is an award-winning social issues journalist. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an analysis of the history, economics, and politics of fracking, as well as its environmental and health effects.