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The PTC Must Die!

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On a recent Thursday evening (after putting down my copy of A la recherche du temps perdu, of course) I settled in for an hour of ABC’s funny and smart new teen dramedy, Life as We Know It. Instead of my guilty pleasure, I was rudely greeted by an infomercial for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital starring Sarah Jessica Parker, best known for playing a haggard, materialistic shrew on Sex and the City.

I did a little research and found out that the show had been preempted, possibly due to complaints from a horrible little group calling themselves The Parents Television Council. It turns out I was lucky to get the St. Jude’s cancer special: in Utah the Dec. 2nd episode was replaced by the Billy Graham Crusade (allegedly a coincidence, but you can be the judge).

The PTC is actively campaigning to censor Life as We Know It, and MTV and Sex and the City are in their sights as well, but their real target is any show that they deem questionable (and that’s basically everything that’s not on PAX). Just what the heck is the PTC, you ask? You may have seen a news report recently about how one group is responsible for 99.8% of the indecency complaints filed with the FCC. Guess who?

Like the PMRC before it, the PTC is a prudish outfit that dresses up right-wing social engineering as concern for impressionable children. The group claims on its website that it is non-partisan; only concerned, as their motto (“Because Our Children are Watching”) suggests, with protecting the precious youth of America from the “gratuitous sex, foul language, and violence” that sully the airwaves.

Surely it will come as no surprise to learn that the PTC’s claims to political neutrality are blatantly false. The founder and president of the organization is a man by the name of L. Brent Bozell III. According to his bio on the PTC website, he is “one of the most outspoken and effective national leaders in the conservative movement today.” He is also the founder of the Media Research Center, a right-wing media ‘watchdog’ group founded in 1987 that is largely responsible for popularizing the theory that there is a liberal bias in the American media. The MRC’s long list of supporters reads like a who’s who of the lunatic right: Rush Limbaugh, Robert Novak, Brit Hume, Newt Gingrich, Phyllis Schlafly, Lucianne Goldberg, Jerry Falwell, a guy from the Wall Street Journal editorial board and so on.

But certainly the MRC is Bozell’s other job. It doesn’t have any bearing on the PTC, right? In theory, yes. In practice, not even close.

It appears that the PTC’s main claim to bipartisanship is the participation of octogenarian Steve Allen on its ‘celebrity’ advisory board. Other members include Billy Ray Cyrus, Naomi Judd, Michael Medved, Jane Seymour and Pat Boone, none of whom, to put it mildly, are known for their liberal views. Most of the advisers are less well-known, but their resumes are telling.

Dr. Robert Shaw is the author of a tome on the evils of permissive parenting, a richly ironic topic considering he would like the FCC to do the job he thinks parents are supposed to do in the first place. Dr. Shaw recently hawked his book on that bastion of liberalism, Fox News.

Gary Johnson is a producer for PAX-TV who, according to his PTC bio, has “co-written a movie based on the true story of Steve Saint, a missionary’s son who returns to Ecuador to continue the work of his father and his aunt to bring the word of god to what has been called the most violent group of people on the face of the earth.” This horribly-written sentence implies that Ecuadorians in general are the most violent people on the face of the earth. Steve Saint was actually trying to put an evangelical Christian stamp on a group of indians who make up a small part of the 5% of the population of Ecuador that is not Roman Catholic.

Holly McClure is a film critic and family values advocate who makes frequent appearances on Fox News and Pat Robertson’s The 700 Club. On her website one learns that she produced a behind the scenes documentary about the making of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and was involved in making special features for the DVD release. There is also this tantalizing tidbit: she wrote the forward to a book about the Passion in which she apparently “describes in detail the miracles that occurred during production [of the film].”

As if this wasn’t enough, there’s Dean Jones, star of The Love Bug and That Darn Cat who actually wrote an article for christianity.com called Censorship: A Defense (this is not a joke). There’s a handy link to this article right on the PTC website. Usually groups who are advocating censorship at least have the good sense to deny that this is what they’re up to. Apparently the PTC is proud of the fact.

An enlightening article in the Washington Post (free registration required) sheds some light on the PTC staff. Brent Bozell is described as a “well-connected conservative activist” who “is outspoken about his own values, which include vehement opposition to abortion and gay rights.” The PTC was originally started as an offshoot of the Media Research Center and the two organizations share an office space (but they’re totally separate, remember?).

The article profiles PTC “entertainment analyst” Aubree Rankin. She won’t discuss her political beliefs, but she “majored in politics at Grove City College, a conservative Christian institution in northwestern Pennsylvania whose Web site notes that it explicitly rejects ‘relativism and secularism.'”

We also meet PTC executive director Tim Winter who claimed “partial credit when President Bush won reelection last month. ‘It’s the culture, stupid,’ Winter said then. ‘Our mission was validated on Tuesday night.'” Truly the epitome of non-partisanship, no?

I don’t think any self-respecting person would disagree that there are things on TV that are not appropriate for children. The problem with groups like the PTC it that they want everything on TV to be suitable for kids. Rather than have parents take responsibility for their own children, the PTC wants to create a nanny state to do the job for them.

As dire as this all sounds, the PTC faces an uphill battle. They have powerful enemies, even from within the conservative camp, such as Rupert Murdoch, purveyor of all those sinful Fox programs. They also risk miscalculating the mood of the American people. After all, we love our trashy TV, and not just in the godless reaches of the Northeast and California. Desperate Housewives, a big no-no according to the PTC (who do you think registered all those complaints about the Nicolette Sheridan towel malfunction promo?), is wildly popular—marginally more so in the ‘Red States.’

Of course, a show as massive as Desperate Housewives can swat the PTC away like a pesky nuisance. It’s the shows like Life as We Know It that stand to lose when subjected to a PTC campaign. The best thing we can do is support good programming and resist the censors who want to bowdlerize American culture, one teen dramedy at a time. It also wouldn’t hurt to let our elected representatives know that we don’t want the religious right determining what we can and cannot watch. And I thought we were fighting a war against narrow-minded theocracy.

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  • Pete — Nice/timely post. Recently, I talked about the PTC here.

    Upwards of 99% of complaints to the FCC are made by the PTC. It’s dangerous when such a tiny yet vocal minority can have such an undue influence upon our government, especially where the Bill of Rights is concerned.

    Eric Berlin
    Dumpster Bust: Miracles from Mind Trash

  • Every radio and every television set I’ve ever seen has at least two important features that should be of great interest to the PTC and like-minded censors:

    They all have tuners that can be used to switch to another station, and they all have “off” switches.

    I am a fairly conservative and modest fellow. Simulated sex and violence don’t bother me much but I tend to find bad acting and bad writing deeply distasteful, and when I see or hear something that upsets me, I seem to be able to navigate away from it without causing myself undue harm.

    If only they knew! Bozell and his fellow-travellers need desperately to be educated about how to use their television sets. Poor bastards, strapped into their seats with their eyelids propped open with toothpicks, being forced to watch MTV hour after hour…

    In our era of 500+ channel cable systems, pizza-box-sized satellite dishes, and DVD/video rentals available with basically no effort other than clicking a mouse (e.g., Netflix), anyone who wants to feed themselves and their families a steady diet of inoffensive pap is mightily empowered to do so.

    Despite all this, they’d greatly prefer to infantilize the entertainment that many Americans clearly like to watch because it offends their delicate sensibilities.

    God save us from nannys and bluenoses.

    (By the way, Jeff Jarvis over at BuzzMachine has been filing Freedom of Information Act requests to find out details about the complaints that get sent to the FCC. Worth monitoring his progress if the issue concerns you.)

  • Barry — You bring up an excellent point, that taking away personal freedoms (such as the choice to change channels / monitor your children / throw your telly out the window, etc.) does not, in theory, jive with the traditional definition of conservatism.

  • Thanks for the timely and informative info. on the PTC for those who are yet unaware of it.

  • bhw

    It’s harder to restrict your kids’ access to radio than it is to tv. On a tv, besides the “off” switch and chanel changer, parents also have the V-chip. All shows are now given a rating so that parents can block shows they don’t want their kids to see, even without specifically knowing what any given show is specifically about.

    Cable TV also offers this option, as does TiVo. My daughter knows how to operate the TiVo remote, but she doesn’t know our code, so she can’t watch a live or recorded show that we have put the parental controls on.

    There is absolutely NO reason for any kind of censorhip on network tv any more because we have the technology to prevent kids from seeing anything we don’t want them to see.

    Radio is tougher to monitor. I honestly don’t know where to draw the line there. I lean toward total freedom, though.

  • bhw

    Eric, the definintion of conservatism has *never* matched its implementation. From day one, we’ve been a nation of Puritans, with at least one group of people wanting to dictate restrictions on what everyone else can say, do, see, or hear. The people who came over here for religious freedom wouldn’t have known freedom it it hit them in the face.

    The conservative line about personal responsibility, to me, has always been a bunch of hooey. It’s all about giving corporations no leashes while giving the citizenry a very short one.

  • Eric Olsen

    excellent research and article, Pete, thanks very much! I don’t agree there is no reason to have rules for broadcast television, but I think the rules we have are fair and anything that doesn’t violate them should be left alone.

    The counter to this has to be from a freedom of speech angle because these zealots have the “protect the children” emotional angle on their side. Perhaps they could enlist Michael Jackson as a spokesperson

  • BHW, just as a data point, I’m an economic conservative and foreign-policy hawk who believes in maximal personal freedom and choice, and there are millions more like me. Principled conservatism isn’t dead–or, at least, reports of its death are greatly exaggerated. And especially among younger conservatives, you’ll find a strong libertarian streak.

    Social conservatives currently enjoy an influence that is greatly disproportionate to their actual numbers, and frankly I think that they are getting overconfident and starting to overplay their hand. The pendulum is due for a corrective swing in the opposite direction.

  • bhw

    Praise Jesus and pass the freedom fries, Barry. I keep hearing people say there are lots of folks like you, but you’re definitely not in positions of influence or power in the Republican party right now.

    It will be interesting to see if the Republican party has some sort of a split down the road, with a more libertarian version splintering off from the social conservatives.

  • Eric Olsen

    Barry, I think there are more defense and economic conservatives than social conservatives, but the social conservatives are very active and passionate. I would say I’m a defense hawk and an economic moderate but a social liberal and I see myself right in the middle of the mainstream

  • I agree with Eric, Barry, and bhw. If I had to guess, I would say that the median point of political America would be a person who is a moderate conservative on economic matters and a moderate liberal on social matters (and likely a cautious multilateralist on foreign policy).

    I do see signs that the Republican Party is ready for a serious fracture, but I must admit that it may be wishful thinking on my part.

  • Eric Olsen

    the issue that could actually fracture it is abortion, which is why none but the most zealous really want any changes to the current situation

  • Eric B.

    If you are correct, and you might be, then the average American really is nothing like our current President. Please raise your voices in disagreement.

  • Padhraic

    Man these people campaigned against Buffy non stop back in the day. Angel too I believe.

    I believe they even went after The Wire.
    or perhaps not, I’m probably confused. I think they were mainly concerned with broadcast television.

    They probably hate Veronica Mars though.

  • The next group that goes after a Joss Whedon production is gonna have to deal with yours truly, pard.

  • I now make it a point to register a complaint with the FCC off of their sites form, when ANY religious programming comes on (as I wouldn’t want my children to see TV that tells them messages that are in direct contradiction to the beliefs I impose on them) Plus that Billy Graham said Hell like 10 times!!
    I’ve only managed to get a few hundred mails sent between me and friends, but lets see what happens when the thinking wheel squeaks too.

  • Crusader Rabbit

    Speaking of “That Darn Cat”, Disney allowed J. Edgar Hoover to censor parts of that film. Google it and find out! The Right is so dangerous, imposing huge fines for the utterance of a single “bad” word. They are nuts! It’s like the church lady is in charge of our government. In the past this would be laughed out of congress, but now we have a bunch of John Birch Society style kooks in office.