Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Black Out (as in “censorship”)

Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 1, 2011

When people talk about black outs, they can mean one of three things:  to cut or turn out the lights or electric power; to prevent or silence information or communication; or to become unconscious. 

Preventing or silencing information or communication, either in its entirety or in part, is derived from the 15th century word “blackening” which means to defame a person.  In other words, if someone was the subject of a negative commentary on his person, it was said that the speaker was “blackening” the subject’s reputation.

It’s only from a black out — keeping the “blackening” from being expressed to others — that the subject could maintain a pristine reputation, whether it was warrantedor not.

The Milwaukee Journal of May 21, 1984 ran a news bite with the headline, “Bucks Black Out USA Telecast” and continued with this additional information in the first paragraph:

The National Basketball Association playoff game between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Boston Celtics Monday night, scheduled to be televised by the USA Network, will be blacked out within a 35-mile radius of the City of Milwaukee.

On October 8, 1965 the Windsor Star ran a news story entitled, “Reds Black Out Moon Shot News” that reported on the Soviet space program.  It read in part:

The Soviets today placed a news black-out on the face of Luna 7 hours after the space rocket was to have reached the surface of the moon.  All indications were that the unmanned instrument probe failed to make a soft landing.

Oddly enough, a black out doesn’t always have to be caused by the media as shown by an article in the Palm Beach Post on September 25, 1950 entitled, “Smoke From Canadian Fires Black Out Much Of The North.”  The story addressed the thick layers of smoke coming from Canadian forest fires in northern Alberta and effecting the Great Lakes area with smoke that “brought the darkness of night to many cities in midday.”  The states most affected by the thickest smoke palls were Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, although the smoke had also spread as far south as Virginia and Iowa.  What is particularly interesting about this natural phenomena is that:

Some callers [to the Washington Weather Bureau] wondered whether the strange darkness had anything to do with atomic bombs.  Others thought tonight’s scheduled total eclipse of the moon had arrived sooner than expected.  Street lights were turned on early in many places.

Even back at the turn of the previous century, black outs occurred as read in a news story carried in the Poverty Bay Herald in New Zealand on August, 24, 1912 about Queen Mary and her son, the Prince of Wales (23 June 1894 – 28 May 1972). 

He is only permitted to read the London Times among the English papers, and his tutor is to carefully black out anything verging on the objectionable in the Paris Temps, the only French paper he is allowed to see.

The Prince of Wales — officially invested as such in a special ceremony at Caernarfon Castle on July 13, 1911 — became Edward VIII and abdicated the throne in order to marry American socialite Wallis Simpson.

iI should be noted here that the Prince of Wales was the eldest son of the Duke and Duchess of York, who later became King George V and Queen Mary, and his great-grandmother was Queen Victoria.  When the First World War (1914–18) broke out, Edward was the minimum age required for active service and he was keen on enlisting as well as keen on serving on the front lines.

Back on track with this idiom, during the 1760s and 1770s, a political reformer and polemicist, writing under the pseudonym of Junius, portrayed the press as “an essential restraint for bad men and impediment to bad measures.”  In fact, in his book “Dedication to the English Nation” he wrote in 1772:

The liberty of the press is the palladium of all the civil, political, and religious rights of an Englishman.

Speaking for the radicals, he stated that he was not causing dissension by way of “blackening the reputations of the nation’s leaders.”  Instead, he believed the press should have, along with others powers, the right and freedom to expose a politician’s every action.  He stated that press prosecutions did more damage than the questions and news accounts originally published by the press.  This is, in part, how incomplete, false or delayed news reports were referred to as black outs.

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One Response to “Black Out (as in “censorship”)”

  1. Slava said

    This form of censorship has another, much harsher name: redaction.

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