Will TV Indecency Ban Become Censorship?
by FRAZIER MOORE
In the minds of many viewers, the current anti-indecency crusade isn't just out to make the airwaves safe for families and children. Another likely goal is to punish TV for its brazen smut-peddling.
With a four-letter word here and a "wardrobe malfunction" there, surely someone in power - the executives, the stars, the creators? - deserves a good thrashing. Viewers may not agree on what indecency is or how to fix it. But they want someone to answer for TV's sins.
No wonder politicians are climbing over one another to yank the chain of the media elite. Cracking down on TV content is the latest rage in the culture wars. And who wants to be seen as a war resister?
Apparently not Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., who recently advocated criminal prosecution for indecent material aired by broadcasters.
A less draconian proposal would expand the purview of the Federal Communications Commission beyond over-the-air broadcasting to add cable and satellite programming - which would place shows from such networks as MTV, FX and even HBO (with its F-word-riddled drama "Deadwood") under the thumb of the feds.
And don't forget a bill passed by the House [H.R. 310] that would hike existing indecency fines from $32,500 to as much as $500,000 per infraction.
"There's a herd mentality when the issue of indecent programming comes up," says Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. "You can say, 'Well, the networks deserve it.' But underneath it all is the First Amendment, and there are very few champions in Congress to warn us about the dangerous consequences of encouraging censorship."
At least one legislator, Rep. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has voiced such warnings. And striking back against indecency zealots, he has introduced a bill that would clarify the FCC's authority for policing content as being limited to broadcast television and radio - not cable, satellite or Internet fare. He calls it the Stamp Out Censorship Act.
"We don't need to have United States government commissars telling the American people what they can watch," says Sanders, who is concerned that already, even without new restrictive laws in force, spooked broadcasters are erring on the side of caution. In other words, censoring themselves.
He points to the 66 ABC affiliates that opted not to air the patriotic war film "Saving Private Ryan" last November because of fears that the FCC might rule certain swear words in the film to be indecent (it didn't). And last spring, some PBS stations removed the image of a nude lithograph from "Antiques Roadshow."
Not too much further down this slippery slope, Sanders warns, "you might find some people here in Congress and some right-wing fundamentalists arguing that, in the midst of the war on terrorism, attacks against the president of the United States border on indecency."
A poll released last week reported broad public support for curbing media indecency. But the Pew Research Center survey found something else: By 48 to 41 percent, respondents saw greater danger in the government imposing undue restrictions on the entertainment industry than from harmful material the industry might dispense.
Media scholar and activist Robert W. McChesney understands the public's concern over vulgar programming. But he has his own theory for the underlying cause of it: fewer and bigger media owners.
"Companies that produce the most vulgar fare," he says, "are News Corp. (owner of the Fox network), Viacom (owner of MTV and more than 185 Infinity Radio stations, as well as CBS, which aired Janet Jackson's Super Bowl flashdance) and Clear Channel (with more than 1,200 radio stations). What these companies have found is, once you gobble up a lot of media outlets, the least expensive way to generate an audience is through vulgarity.
"It's a commercially driven phenomenon," says McChesney, creator of a media reform Web site. "A solution to the problem would be more local ownership and more competition. Let the system work through the problem, without having any censorship."
Much to everyone's surprise, the public rose up against the FCC's efforts to oblige Big Media with eased limits on how many outlets a conglomerate could own. Thanks to citizens' outcry, portions of the rules passed by the FCC two years ago were overturned by Congress. Then a U.S. Court of Appeals tossed out most of the rest.
Says Sanders, "I think you're gonna see the same thing here: 'Please, don't tell me what I can watch, especially when I'm paying for the privilege of watching it."'
He looks for continued public pressure to buck the government-assisted trend toward bigger media conglomerates. And he expects more people to recognize that, however badly they may want to punish the media, censorship will backfire by punishing them worse.