Swearing by Free Speech


Two different incidents this week (written 2.18) speak volumes about the legacy of outgoing FCC chairman Michael Powell. The first, which will undoubtedly have far-reaching consequences for free speech in the broadcast media, was the House of Representatives passing the "Broadcast Decency Act" -- a bill calling for an increase of the basic FCC fine for "indecent" content from $32,500 to $500,000. The Senate is currently working on its own version of the bill, which calls for a minimum fine of $325,000.

As Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House telecommunications panel and author of the bill told the Los Angeles Times, "[O]ur kids will be better off for it." Be that as it may, NBC released a statement saying the bill "raises very serious constitutional and free speech issues. This approach of increased government regulation and censorship is fundamentally misguided."

Since assuming the chairmanship of the FCC in 2001, Powell has embarked on a policy of fining broadcasters for alleged indecent content that is unparalleled in the history of American media. Under his stewardship, FCC fines for material deemed offensive soared to nearly $8 million in 2004 -- up from a mere $48,000 in the year before he took the commission's reigns.

Like a true politician, Powell claims he was responding to public demand. In late 2004, he informed a Congressional committee that there has been a "dramatic rise in public concern and outrage about what is being broadcast into their homes." But that's not quite true. Although he FCC has indeed seen an explosion in complaints over supposed broadcast indecency -- reaching more than a million in 2004, up from 14,000 in 2002 and less than 400 a year prior to that -- as Mediaweek pointed out, over 99 percent of those complaints came from one group, the conservative Parents Television Council.

As a direct result of that group hijacking the compliant Powell's agenda, broadcasters have grown fearful of airing anything that might be construed as indecent. Adding to the confusion is Powell's lack of any discernable standard in handing out fines. In March 2004, the agency reversed itself on Bono's use of the f-word in his Grammy acceptance speech, originally allowing it, and then changing course and calling it a violation. It also, of course, slapped a $500,000 fine on CBS for the Janet Jackson "nipplegate" fiasco, and a whopping $1.2 million fine Fox for the reality series "Married By America." On the other hand, last month the FCC dismissed a series of complaints against "Friends," "The Simpsons" and "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me."

Similarly, while no ruling has been made, it has been reported that the agency is planning to dismiss complaints against 159 ABC affiliates that aired "Saving Private Ryan," complete with profanities, last November.

All this leads to the second story: As you've probably heard, PBS, long derided by conservatives as a left-wing mouthpiece, has tried to made amends by signing Tucker Carlson and his bow tie -- best known as Jon Stewart's punching bag -- to host a new show, and hiring staffers from the Wall Street Journal's resolutely right-wing editorial page to prepare a weekly "Editorial Report." That's not too surprising; this is the broadcasting system that recently blurred a nude image from a documentary on Auschwitz, and pulled an episode of the children's show "Postcards from Buster" in which Buster -- an animated bunny rabbit -- visits kids in Vermont who happen to have lesbian parents.

Now, fearful of FCC fines, PBS has decided to bleep the rough language used by real soldiers in an Iraq war documentary that is set to air on Tuesday, February 22. According to a Reuters report, "The public broadcaster is distributing both a 'clean' and a 'raw' version of next Tuesday's 'Frontline' documentary about the Iraq war, titled 'A Company of Soldiers.' The 90-minute documentary contains 13 expletives spoken by soldiers -- unless you end up watching a separate version with the words edited out, which will happen at some of PBS's 170 stations in more conservative parts of the country."

The film, which follows the U.S. Army's 8th Cavalry Regiment stationed in Baghdad, is so graphic that PBS has informed affiliates that it can't assume responsibility for any fines handed out in connection with broadcasting it. As the New York Times notes: "PBS had taken the unusual step of offering only the edited version of the film for direct retransmission. Stations that want the unedited version, which the producers say is the one that captures the realities of combat faced by soldiers in Iraq, will be required to pre-record it and to sign a waiver indemnifying PBS against damages or fines they might incur because of the broadcast." Sort of like an editor telling a reporter, "Okay, I'll print your piece, but if we get sued for libel, you're on your own."

It's disconcerting that in a time when the country is at war, with words such as "hero" and "sacrifice" being tossed about by politicians and talking heads alike, a broadcast system doesn't have the spine to offer the voters at home a glimpse, however brief, of what sacrifice actually looks -- and sounds -- like.

For that, we can thank not just the culture warriors on Capitol Hill -- they, after all, can't fine anyone yet -- but also Michael Powell, their willing handmaiden.

--Paul McLeary


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