Now that the House of Representatives has overwhelmingly approved legislation to greatly increase the fines levied against broadcasters who violate decency standards, I assume we’re in for several months of bipartisan posturing among politicians maneuvering to position themselves as the true guardians of American morality and the true protectors of America’s children.
The bill will go next to the Senate, and then to a conference committee that would reconcile any language differences between the two versions. The final bill would go to President Bush for his review and signature -- which he would no doubt attach with a flourish worthy of Charlton Heston signing the Ten Commandments.
It’s noteworthy that the campaign to control what we can watch and listen to is being led by a conservative administration that purports to favor individual freedoms and that demands the government get out of people’s lives.
Gimme a break.
Ever since Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson conspired in the wardrobe malfunction that exposed part of her right breast for three seconds during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, politicians in power have been treating the incident as the moral equivalent of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. And they’ve responded with a fatwa of their own.
The bill now before the House would increase fines for broadcasters from a current maximum of $32,500 to a draconian $500,000 per occurrence and would require the Federal Communications Commission to consider revoking a station’s license if it violated decency standards three times.
And just what would be deemed a violation of the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2005? Well, the FCC defines “indecency” as “language or material that, in context, depicts or describes in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community broadcast standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory references.”
It would ultimately be up to the FCC to define those standards -- or, rather, to identify violations of the standards when commissioners thought they saw or heard them. After all, as Potter Stewart, former justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, famously said in an obscenity case 40 years ago, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced ... [b]ut I know it when I see it.”
One man’s indecency or obscenity is another man’s (or woman’s) entertainment, of course. But don’t expect the House or the Senate or -- hah! -- the president to make such distinctions. Just look at what’s happened since Nipplegate -- that brief moment when partial exposure of one singer’s mammary gland threatened the survival of Western civilization (and resulted in a $550,000 fine for CBS -- $27,500 for each of the 20 TV stations it owns).
The FCC has levied fines totaling more than $8 million against radio and television stations and networks for a whole range of “indecent” broadcast events in the last 12 months.
Self-censorship, triggered by fear, has often ensued.
Even PBS, created as a bastion of independent, alternative programming, is “finely attuned now to the whims of the administration,” as my colleague Lynn Smith quoted Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, saying this month in a story that examined the public network’s response to political pressure.
On the decency issue, that pressure -- and the inclination toward self-censorship -- remains greatest on the commercial networks, though. During the telecast of the most recent Super Bowl, GoDaddy.com, an online domain licensing site, broadcast a commercial featuring a buxom young woman in a tank top being questioned at mock “broadcast censorship hearings.” At one point, her strap snapped. She was able to prevent any Jackson-like exposure, and I thought the spot made for a moderately amusing sendup of the whole broadcast decency issue. But after discussing the commercial with NFL officials, GoDaddy decided not to risk a fine, and the commercial was yanked instead of being shown again later in the game as originally scheduled.
Even worse -- much worse -- more than 20 television stations canceled plans to broadcast the Oscar-winning “Saving Private Ryan” last Veterans Day, worried that federal regulators would declare indecent the lengthy, bloody D-day landing sequence that opens the film.
I’m much more opposed to violence in film and on television than I am to sex. But I’m mostly opposed to violence when it’s gratuitous. The violence in “Saving Private Ryan” is not gratuitous. It’s historical. And at a time when our country has combat troops in Iraq -- and is rattling sabers and missiles in possible preparation for yet another war (“Good morning, Tehran”) -- we’re all better off if we’re reminded of the horrors of war as often and as graphically as possible
In fact, a friend told me a few days ago that she and her husband watched a tape of “Saving Private Ryan” with their 11-year-old son last weekend, and at the end of the movie, their son said, “I can’t play war with my friends anymore.”
Now that’s what I call educational television.
Even Brent Bozell, whose Media Research Center and Parents Television Council are among the leading media scourges in the solar system, said the violence in “Saving Private Ryan” was “not meant to shock, nor is it gratuitous.” Like another often graphic World War II film, “Schindler’s List,” it was neither indecent nor inappropriate for television, Bozell said.
But in keeping with our society’s consistently misplaced values and misplaced anxieties, most of the fines for indecency have involved depictions or discussions of sex and/or execratory functions. “Saving Private Ryan” aside, violence is generally deemed suitable in the land of Jesse James, Al Capone, John Wayne and Donald H. Rumsfeld.
Sex? Obscenity? Bowel movements? They’re the real danger. The FCC went so far last year as to reverse its own staff’s decision on a 2-year-old case and rule that use of the F-word (no, not “football”) by U2’s Bono in a completely nonsexual context during the 2003 Golden Globes awards ceremony violated decency standards. (Bono’s offending sentence: “This is really, really [expletive] brilliant.”)
Freedom of choice
Fines and the ever-present threat of more fines have driven Howard Stern -- the uncrowned king of bedroom and bathroom humor -- to announce that he’s abandoning traditional broadcast outlets for (so far) unregulated satellite radio.
I don’t have satellite radio and I can’t stand Stern, so I welcome his departure from my radio dial. But I could always choose -- and always did choose, after a brief, initial sampling to see what all the fuss was about -- not to listen to him. That was -- and should be -- my choice. And yours.
I’m as appalled by the “growing coarseness” of our culture as is Michael Powell, the outgoing chairman of the FCC. But in a free society, we have the right -- some might even argue that we have the duty -- not to watch, listen to or buy those movies, radio and television programs, songs, books, magazines or anything else that we find offensive.
As parents -- and I’m the father of a 15-year-old boy who often tells his mother and me that we’re “way too strict” in such matters -- we definitely have the duty to exercise such caution and restraint. But we don’t need -- and I don’t want -- the government making these decisions for me.
As actor Richard Dreyfuss said last fall when PBS decided to avoid the risk of indecency fines by striking several potentially offensive words and phrases from “Cop Shop,” a two-part teleplay about New York police, these decisions should not be made by “grimly wrongheaded, un-American types who play pick-and-choose when they define our freedoms of speech and religion as it fits their particular political needs.”
Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction notwithstanding, the biggest boobs in broadcasting are the politicians campaigning for bigger FCC fines -- and the FCC commissioners who serve as their unthinking lackeys in an unconscionable jihad that’s more about moralizing than morality.
David Shaw can be reached at email@example.com.