A government thumb on the remote control

Sunday, August 29, 2004

If the driver in the car next to you at a stoplight tells you to turn off the radio program you’re listening to, you tell him to get lost. If the next-door neighbor tells you to turn off the TV show you’re watching, you tell her to mind her own business.

But when these champions of decency join a group of like-minded citizens, which puts pressure on elected leaders and the Federal Communications Commission to regulate what we can see and hear on radio and television, we tend to tune out, surrendering to the notion that government knows best.

That is a dangerous notion, especially if we keep in mind just how many ways there are for our elected and appointed leaders to restrict what broadcast audiences — that’s us — can see and hear.

It has been less than a year since a fraction-of-a-second glimpse of a fraction-of-a-fraction of Janet Jackson’s breast during the Super Bowl halftime program brought a nation to its knees in apparent shock and disbelief — and political candidates to their feet in thinly disguised joy at such a great issue to exploit during a campaign season.

Under pressure from Congress and special-interest groups, the FCC immediately launched an aggressive campaign to cleanse the airwaves of “indecency.”

But now the regulation fever has spread. The commission is exploring other ways to regulate broadcasters, all of which engage free-speech concerns. Broadcasters in every community have been asked to respond by mid-September to FCC proposals that could result in broadcasters’ editing or dropping programs with violence, changing their newscasts, “improving” their political coverage, and setting up an expensive process of retaining tape recordings of broadcasts to be used against them if someone files a complaint.

In addition, the FCC is looking closely at broadcast station ownership, pushed on by media reformers concerned about consolidation of the media.

“All of this adds up to an attempt by the FCC to further curtail the First Amendment rights of listeners and broadcasters by mandating what should or should not be programmed,” says Kathleen Kirby, a Washington, D.C., attorney who represents broadcasters.

The crackdown on indecency illustrates just how much some attempts to regulate broadcasters can affect our own rights.

To begin with, the FCC’s definition of indecency is so vague that it forces broadcasters, producers and entertainers to self-censor to avoid crossing a line they cannot see.

Enforcement can be capricious, unfair and uneven. A lone individual can lodge complaints that can mire a broadcaster in drawn-out proceedings and untold costs.

It may be good news to millions of fans, for example, that indecency complaints against “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Will and Grace” were dismissed earlier this month, but securing that official stamp of approval came at a cost to the media companies that put them on television.

The Howard Stern radio show, frequently the target of FCC complaints, wasn’t so lucky. In June, Clear Channel Communications paid out $1.75 million to settle complaints about on-air comments.

Earlier this month, Emmis Communications forked over $300,000 to resolve complaints about indecent comments by a Chicago shock jock — and to keep the FCC from reinstating complaints previously dismissed by the commission.

CBS could be forced to shell out as much as $550,000 in possible fines for the Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction.”

Beyond that, this power to regulate speech is very seductive. There is no real limit to the quest for limitations, as a variety of proposals in Congress and elsewhere since the Super Bowl incident attest.

Some would broaden the regulatory authority over broadcasting to include cable and satellite. They would extend the reach of regulation beyond indecency to violence in programs. They would add sports and news to entertainment programming as targets of regulation. They would replace live programming with delayed broadcasting.

Is there some popular groundswell of concern driving this campaign to regulate and restrict what we choose to see and hear? It doesn’t appear that way.

Most of us believe that adults in their own homes make the best decisions about what to watch or listen to — for themselves and their children. According to the First Amendment Center’s latest State of the First Amendment poll, about eight in 10 Americans say that parents, not government officials, should be primarily responsible for shielding children from sexual material they don’t want them to see and hear (81% for television and 77% for radio).

In the presence of such findings, and common sense, the call for increased regulation of the airwaves appears not only overwrought but exaggerated.

The vast majority of us consider ourselves decent human beings. But our definitions of decency in expression extend over a wide range. We don’t have to endorse indecency to favor freedom. Adult Americans should be allowed maximum freedom to choose what they and their families listen to and watch.

When a government agency, driven by whatever pressures or under its own volition, forces content and programming decisions on private broadcasters and their audiences, then that fine line between permissible regulation and unwarranted censorship is crossed.

That’s when we need to send a clear message to our elected leaders that not only is all politics local, but all censorship is personal.

Tags: ,