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Private Ryan, Unsaved

Private Ryan couldn’t be saved after all, at least not in some of the nation’s major TV markets on Thursday night. Given the Federal Communications Commission’s ongoing jihad against indecency, ABC affiliates in Dallas, Atlanta, Phoenix and other cities yanked the Oscar-winning movie off the air. Never mind that the network had already aired the movie in 2001 and 2002. The nation is regressing.

It’s hard to think of a more fitting Veterans Day tribute than Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” which celebrates the heroism of U.S. soldiers who stormed the beaches in Normandy. Sure, the movie is violent and reveals that soldiers are known to use unpleasant language while under fire. But at a time when thousands of Americans are engaged in another conflict, reminding their compatriots back home that war is hell is not such a bad thing.

Moreover, the prudish desire to keep any profanity off the air, regardless of its context, is misguided. Broadcast television does not exist in a vacuum. Viewers are exposed to plenty of shocking fare on cable, not to mention video games. And ABC aired plenty of disclaimers, letting parents know that this was rough viewing. The ABC affiliates that refrained from airing the movie could have shown more valor, but they are as much a victim of the FCC’s arbitrary and capricious regulation as they are villains in this tale. Their fear of the jihad is understandable, and their surrender Thursday serves to highlight just how destructive the FCC’s crackdown on indecency has become.

The commission has been targeting the broadcast industry for the last year or so, prodded on by such Taliban-like zealots as the American Family Assn. and the Parents TV Council (which did issue a ruling exempting “Private Ryan” from its campaigns) and their allies in Congress. The FCC caved in to these groups in the aftermath of Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction,” fining CBS $550,000. The FCC has also gone after Howard Stern and reversed its own staff in assessing rock star Bono’s use of a word alluding to the act of procreation.

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The lack of clarity in the regulatory scheme is likely to encourage only more self-censorship. In the past, stations could count on staying out of trouble unless they willfully and repeatedly aired indecent material, however vaguely defined. Now, an isolated incident is enough to trigger a fine, and more important, a black mark against a broadcaster seeking a license renewal.

Rather unhelpfully, the commission has pledged to judge the airing of supposed profanity on a case-by-case basis. This, coupled with the FCC’s refusal to provide advance guarantees to affiliates that it wouldn’t take action if they aired “Saving Private Ryan,” makes it look as if the commission’s main priority is to tailor its response to whatever level of pressure it feels from self-appointed morality guardians. This is not only cowardly on the part of FCC Chairman Michael Powell and his fellow commissioners, it’s probably unconstitutional.


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