While my general concerns about free speech are nearly as absolutist as Reason’s Jesse Walker, I see a very specific and definite distinction when it comes to the public airwaves. I do not think the FCC’s indecency rules are unreasonable, and if they are gong to have them, they should be enforced. As I have been saying, the public is owed the expectation that broadcasters will work within specific programming parameters that can be relied upon – that’s my only concern. I don’t even much care what those parameters are, but once they are established, working outside of them is a betrayal of public trust. That’s what the commotion is all about regarding the Super Bowl halftime show: the betrayal of trust, not the flash of a breast.
- The DJ who calls himself Bubba the Love Sponge has done many things he probably should be ashamed about, including broadcasting live the castration and slaughter of a pig. But he has never shied from asking questions most of us would prefer to shunt aside, such as “What would happen if Shaggy from Scooby Doo was a crackhead?” A full transcript of the answer is not available, but the Federal Communications Commission has helpfully provided us with a summary:
- The first skit begins when Shaggy tells Scooby Doo that he needs crack cocaine but has no money to buy it. Scooby Doo responds that Shaggy could “su(bleep)ck d(bleep)ick” to pay for the drugs.
In the next skit, the commission continues, “Fat Albert, a/k/a Phat Diddy Daddy, gets killed in a drive-by shooting after bragging that Jennifer Lopez had been “s(bleep)ing Diddy Daddy’s (bleep)ck the previous night.” A third skit, involving The Jetsons, drops the obsession with oral sex but not the obsession with penises; the fourth, starring Alvin and the Chipmunks, returns to fellatio country. Not content to summarize, the commission draws conclusions as well. The program, it notes, contains “graphic and explicit references to sexual and excretory organs.” What’s more, “the use of cartoon characters in such a sexually explicit manner during hours of the day when children are likely to be listening is shocking and makes this segment patently offensive,” especially since “young children would be particularly attentive listeners to this segment because of the character voices and the cartoon theme music used in the segment.” For that reason, it concludes, “this segment is apparently indecent.”
It may be the most expensive negative review in the history of bad comedy. On that and five other episodes of his show, the FCC announced January 27, Bubba (a.k.a. Todd Clem) committed 26 “apparent indecency violations.” To punish the four Clear Channel stations that aired the show, the agency proposed the highest possible fine for each incident – that’s $27,500 apiece – plus another $40,000 for not maintaining proper records. The total would be the largest fine in the commission’s history.
I’d say this qualifies as “indecent,” I agree with the special emphasis on the cartoon element particularly capturing the attention of children, and if the FCC DIDN’T act, it would disturb me very little to see someone walk into the studio and pummel Bubba in the organ used to disseminate this stupid pandering shit over the airwaves. I am in no way pleased with what Howard Stern hath wrought – I loathe what he and his even less talented imitators have done to morning radio.
- Last December Reps. Doug Ose (R-Calif.) and Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) introduced H.R. 3687, which would proscribe broadcast of “the words ‘shit’, ‘piss’, ‘fuck’, ‘cunt’, ‘asshole’, and the phrases ‘cock sucker’, ‘mother fucker’, and ‘ass hole’, compound use (including hyphenated compounds) of such words and phrases with each other or with other words or phrases, and other grammatical forms of such words and phrases (including verb, adjective, gerund, participle, and infinitive forms).” The bill was inspired by the one aberration in the FCC’s recent regulation of speech: the Enforcement Bureau’s October decision that it is permissible, under certain circumstances, to say “fucking” on TV [re Bono at last year's Golden Globes]. The chief effect of the ruling has not been to embolden the potty-mouthed but to galvanize the opposition, and Powell has asked the commission to reverse the new policy.
Now as far as I’m concerned all this is an open-and-shut issue of free speech, disturbing not just because it puts a Washington agency in charge of what you’re allowed to say and show on radio and television but because it has an obvious chilling effect on material that isn’t nearly as pathetic as Bubba the Love Sponge’s sophomoric jokes or Justin Timberlake’s dance routines.
Rules always have a “chilling effect” – should we have no rules for the airwaves? If we are going to have rules, who will enforce them other than the FCC?
- You needn’t like Clear Channel to recognize that an FCC which revokes licenses and imposes draconian fines isn’t going to refrain from penalizing college stations and low-power broadcasters. One of the opening shots in the new war on indecency was the $7,000 fine imposed on the Oregon community station KBOO in 2001. Its crime: playing a feminist rap called “Your Revolution,” which mocked the check-out-all-my-bitches school of hip hop in terms that were sometimes a little profane themselves. In that case the fine was eventually rescinded, but that’s hardly a reason to sleep easy – it took the FCC two years to reverse itself, and still it declared that it was a “very close case.” And this was David “It’s OK To Say ‘Fucking’” Solomon of the Enforcement Bureau speaking, not the more politically attuned appointees atop the commission.
And so we’re stuck with an FCC increasingly obsessed with controlling who can use the airwaves and what they’re allowed to say. If that sounds unobjectionable to you, just wait until it’s your ox that’s getting gored.
Again, very specific rules about what can be said and done when, would clarify this. Radio is different from TV, and there should be wide variation on what is permissible depending upon the time of day and the basic nature of the programming: no one expects NYPD Blue to be Sesame Street, but set the rules and penalties sufficient to ensure maximum compliance so that the public does not feel violated. That’s the issue here, and there is no one else to protect the public from said violation than the FCC. Walker’s Libertarianism does him a disservice here.