Sworn to Decency

The FCC and Congress' crackdown on indecency in the media is working.

| Tue May 11, 2004 3:00 AM EDT

Janet Jackson’s breast-baring at this year's Super Bowl was, as all the world knows, the catalyst for a full-blown backlash against "indecency" in the media.

The fallout -- so to speak -- culminated in two recent rulings by the Federal Communications Commission that amount to a moralistic crackdown on broadcasters. In the first, NBC was rapped for indecency for having aired the now immortal moment when Bono, collecting an award for U2 at the 2003 Golden Globes, pronounced the result "f---ing brilliant." In the second, the FCC fined radio stations running a Howard Stern segment that contained -- brace yourselves -- sexual content. The House piled on by passing a bill in March that increased the fines on broadcasters who overstep the line of "deceny" from $27, 500 to $500,000 per violation, up to a cap of $3 million. The practical effect of this has been to cause many TV and radio stations to self-regulate as never before.

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Never one to take things quietly, Stern is unleashing an all-out campaign against the Bush administration and his old employer, Clear Channel Communications. Clear Channel was fined $500,000 on six radio stations for broadcasting a 20-minute segment of Howard Stern’s radio programs—after which the media giant promptly dropped Stern.

Many political analysts are suggesting that Stern's daily tirades against Bush may actually affect the election, by way of his millions of devoted listeners. Stern recently told listeners in reference to Al Franken’s "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right":

"If you read this book, you will never vote for George W. Bush. I think this guy is a religious fanatic and a Jesus freak, and he is just hell-bent on getting some sort of bizzaro agenda through -- like a country-club agenda -- so that his father will finally be proud of him ... I don't know much about Kerry, but I think I'm one of those 'Anybody but Bush' guys now. I don't think G.W. is going to win. What do you think about that?"

But even Stern is feeling the heat. He recently said, "No company can stand up to this kind of government pressure. I can't take the pressure that they're going to fine me personally every day."

At the head of the charge against indecency in the media is a group called Parents Television Council, whose mission is "to restore a sense of responsibility and decency to the entertainment industry."

It was this group's lobbying efforts that prompted the FCC to rule that Bono's exclamation violated indecency and profanity prohibitions. The Parents Television Council also boasts that following Janet Jackson's famous performance, a quarter of the 530,828 complaints that the FCC received came from its members or those informed of the performance by the group's email alert.

There's certainly a concern that the group is creating a false impression of the average American's priorities. The Los Angeles Times notes: "Troubled by the crackdown, some say the Parents Television Council is creating a skewed and unduly conservative impression of the public's taste in television." (The head of the FCC, Michael Powell, notes that the number of indecency complaints received by the FCC jumped from 14,000 in 2002 to nearly 540,000 in the first four months of this year.)

Many stations are now self-censoring shows for fear of getting slapped with punitive fines. From "Masterpiece Theater"(which has taken to editing out salty language) to Rush Limbaugh (a station in Indiana edited out words like "urinate," "damn," and "orgy") to classic rock stations (editing out "bitch" in Rolling Stones and Elton John songs), broadcasters are taking steps to bleep out anything that could possibly cause offense.

A petition by PBS and other stations filed last week with the FCC argued that this process of determining what might offend is both costly and time-consuming. The Association of Public Television Stations petition read, "For the first time, producers and broadcasters of public television programming have engaged in significant self-censorship out of fear of government penalty."

Another petition, filed last month by several media organizations, argued that the FCC’s Bono decision was too vague. The commission said in that decision it would now consider any use of the vulgarity in question to have a sexual connotation, regardless of the context. That directive, the petitioners wrote, had sent radio stations scurrying to remove or edit songs with profanities that involve "neither sexual nor excretory references."

As Ira Glass, host of This American Life writes in the New York Times Magazine, the FCC seems to have ditched the idea of "context":

"In the past, the F.C.C. would have considered context, the possible literary value or news value of apparently offensive material. And the agency still gives lip service to context in its current decisions. But when the commissioners declared in March that an expletive modifying the word ''brilliant'' (uttered by Bono at the Golden Globe Awards) was worthy of punishment, it made a more radical change in the rules than most people realize. Now context doesn't always matter. If a word on our show could increase a child's vocabulary, if some members of the public find something ''grossly offensive,'' the F.C.C. can issue fines."

Another beef broadcasters have with the FCC is that it imposes fines arbitrarily and inconsistently. For instance, the FCC has received more than 1,600 complaints from viewers who say they were stunned and offended by the graphic language and content in a recent "Oprah" show that focused on teenage sex. Jeff Jarvis writes for the Nation:

"Shouldn't the speech be separate from the speaker? Apparently not if you're Oprah Winfrey, whose show explained sexual colloquialisms just as bluntly as Stern did on the very day he was fined for it – though so far, she has not been fined. The problem with all this, says [Robert Corn-Revere, a First Amendment attorney] is that "you enable the government to tailor its penalties based on how much it likes or dislikes the speaker." Judging by the disproportionate fines – the vendetta – against Stern, that is exactly what has been happening."

Reed Hundt, who served as FCC chairman under President Clinton, told Salon that the FCC rules are so "obscure" that no one can understand them:

"I don't defend Howard Stern. But I am saying in the absence of any kind of clarity of rules it looks like a political exercise. Even Howard Stern deserves some element of fairness. Because for the first time in decades the FCC now has enough power to put stations and people out of business and can do it on a whim. And it's not true that once you unleash government in an arbitrary manner [to monitor speech], you can confine it to the topic of indecency."

And an important question to be asked, but somehow doesn’t seem to appear much in the debate, is this: what harm, exactly, does hearing profane words really do? Glass ponders the question:

"What's craziest about this new indecency witch hunt is that it's based on the premise that just one exposure to filthy words will damage a child. (I've yet to hear of a scientific study proving even that repeated exposure affects children.) Recently on my show, I asked one of the people who organizes write-in campaigns to the F.C.C., Brent Bozell, what harm it did anyone to see Janet Jackson's breast for a fleeting second, or to hear Stern use the phrase ''anal sex,'' and he said it destroyed the ''innocence of childhood.'' In our talk, Bozell used the phrase ''anal sex'' himself, presumably doing exactly as much harm to young people as Stern did on April 9, 2003."