Getting a grip on our right to be offended

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Did you hear the one about the amateur comedians and the lawyer? It goes like this: These two guys are standing around and start cracking lawyer jokes. A lawyer nearby doesn’t think the jokes are funny so he gets them arrested and slapped in handcuffs. The punch line: The would-be comics have to appear in court next month to answer charges of disorderly conduct.

Not that funny? That’s because it actually happened last week at the federal courthouse in Hempstead, N.Y. The joke, it turns out, is on freedom of speech.

We Americans may have lost our sense of humor but we certainly have a firm grip on our highly developed sense of offense. The variety and pervasiveness of things that give offense make us cling more tenaciously to an assumed right to be easily and perpetually offended. So we’re putting an ever-shorter leash on expression.

Just look at television. Well, maybe not.

Not a day goes by that couch potatoes across the nation don’t feel compelled to rise up in rage over yet another offense to their sensibilities oozing from their radio or TV sets. Here are some examples of how being offended translates into action just from the first couple of weeks of 2005.

The National Organization for Women and other women’s advocates, incensed when a few radio stations promoted a letter-writing contest in which the winners receive free breast-enlargement surgery, have flooded the FCC with 3,400 complaints at last count.

A Cleveland man, watching an episode of “Fear Factor” during which participants were required to eat dead rats, vomited, became dizzy with disgust, bumped his head as he fled the scene of the TV assault, and then filed a $2.5 million suit against NBC.

For their part, broadcasters are reeling from record FCC fines for violating decency standards, whatever they might be, and worried about where the next complaint or lawsuit will come from. So they are courageously fighting back with a policy of pre-emptive surrender.

Fox network, for example, has developed a real problem with posteriors. In quick succession, network executives have put the kibosh on two separate instances of on-air bun-baring, one involving a cartoon character and the other an aging actor’s backside.

In the first instance, Fox blurred the butt of a character in the “Family Guy” cartoon, which first aired un-pixelated five years ago. In the second instance, executives declined to accept a cold-remedy commercial that flashed the behind of actor Mickey Rooney, much to the chagrin of the medical firm’s co-owner, who thought the ad should have been aired.

“There nothing sexual about the ad,” said Rider McDowell, co-owner of Airborne. “It’s tantamount to showing a baby’s bottom.” Make that an 84-year-old baby’s bottom.

Meanwhile, cable network HBO has donated three films to PBS to reach a wider audience with its programming. But the public broadcasting executives will have to excise from one film a brief glimpse of an unclothed woman and one utterance of the F-word and a similar expletive from another film in order to protect PBS stations from the ever-watchful FCC.

And the bosses at Citadel Broadcasting Corp., which owns and operates more than 200 radio properties, yanked the Howard Stern show from some of their stations after the shock jock repeatedly uttered two words deeply offensive to the terrestrial radio giant: “satellite radio.”

A few years ago, the Independent Journal newspaper in Marin, Calif., ran the following TV listing: “Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first woman she meets and then teams up with three complete strangers to kill again.”

Doesn’t sound like something you would want your child to watch, does it? By the way, the listing was for “The Wizard of Oz.”

We simply are not alike or of one mind when it comes to what may be fit and proper. Usually, there are as many reactions to programming as there are viewers or listeners. And if every one of those listeners or viewers is allowed to take his or her slice out of broadcast expression, there will be little left but pap and pabulum.

Certainly, we have the right to be offended and to take action when we are. But wouldn’t we be more like the freedom-loving society we’re supposed to be if we merely switched channels or hit the “off” button and trusted our neighbors to do the same?

The threat of arrest, FCC fines or lawsuits sets off a chain of self-censorship in which artists and authors fear broadcast executives who fear government officials who fear those who complain the most or loudest. That may make the broadcast medium, which hosts much of the continuing conversation Americans have among themselves, less “offensive,” but it also will make it less entertaining, less informative, less enlivening – and, yes, less free.

And that ain’t no joke.

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