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Self-Censorship and Syphilis

In the part-animated, part-live-action commercial, we see Phil the Sore, who looks sort of like a lumpy red raspberry with hair, following two men going into a house together. Later, the men part, one dressed in a bathrobe and underwear. “Hey, we’re in,” Phil shouts, calling in a pack of other raspberries carrying boxes with such labels as “rash,” “blindness” and “brain damage” -- all symptoms of syphilis.

Tacky, verging on offensive? Certainly, though less so than a lot of prime-time TV fare. That’s why the refusal of five Los Angeles TV stations to air the anti-syphilis public service ad (some relented on late-night slots) seems another example of the self-censorship that broadcasters are imposing as the Federal Communications Commission cracks down on material it deems objectionable.

Last month, several ABC affiliates rejected the Oscar-winning “Saving Private Ryan” because it includes profanity. Since Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” at the Super Bowl in February, the FCC has handed down record fines against broadcasters that offend the agency’s sensibilities.

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Broadcasters are apparently interpreting this as a sign that they should beware anything potentially objectionable to the Christian right. Thus the astonishing violence of “Saving Private Ryan” wasn’t a problem, but its profanity was. A commercial from the United Church of Christ that dared to assert the church was open to homosexual congregants was rejected by the major networks. And then there’s Phil the Sore.

A spokesman for KCBS-TV Channel 2, whose network’s crime series “CSI” dramatized “the fringe world of sex changes and transgenders” last month, said the syphilis ad struck an “inappropriate” lighthearted tone about a “serious matter.” Yet multiple studies have shown that public health messages playfully encouraging people to protect themselves against disease are generally much more effective at changing behavior than stern, moralistic ones. A more likely explanation for the reluctance of KCBS and the other stations is that they didn’t want to risk incurring the wrath of the FCC.

The ad was commissioned by Los Angeles County health officials, who paid for it with funds from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention after figures from that agency showed the incidence of syphilis climbing 19% from 2000 to 2003 nationwide, with the largest increase taking place among gay or bisexual men with multiple partners. An online link to the ad can be found at www.latimes.com/syphilis.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell’s policies, initially aimed at encouraging broadcasters to respect community standards of decency, now may be threatening public health. Not to mention public discourse, which inevitably suffers in a nanny society in which acceptable content is determined by a group convinced that its “values” are handed down from on high.


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