Posts from November 15, 2004

A BUZZMACHINE EXCLUSIVE! The shocking truth about the FCC: Censorship by the tyranny of the few


The shocking truth about the FCC: Censorship by the tyranny of the few

: With not much original reporting, I discovered that the latest big fine by the FCC against a TV network — a record $1.2 million against Fox for its “sexually suggestive” Married by America — was brought about by a mere three people who actually composed letters of complaint. Yes, just three people.

I filed a Freedom of Information Act request on Oct. 12 asking to see all of the 159 complaints the FCC cited in its complaint against Fox.

I just received the FCC’s reply with a copy of all the complaints — and a letter explaining that, well, there weren’t 159 after all. William H. Davenport, chief of the FCC’s Investigations and Hearings Divison, admits in his letter that because the complaints were sent to multiple individuals at the FCC, it turns out there actually were only 90 complaints. It gets better: The FCC confesses that they come from only 23 individuals.

It is shocking enough that what tens of millions of us are permitted to see by our government can be determined by 159 … or 90 … or 23.

But it gets even better: I examined the complaints and found that all but two of them were virtually identical. In other words, one person took the time to write a letter and 20 other people then photocopied or merely emailed it to the FCC many times. They all came from an automated complaint factory like the one I write about here. Only two letters were not the form letter.

So in the end, that means that a grand total of three citizens bothered to take the time to sit down and actually write a letter of complaint to the FCC. Millions of people watched the show. Three wrote letters of complaint.

And on the basis of that, the FCC decided to bring down the heavy hammer of government censorship and fine Fox an incredible $1.2 million for suggesting — not depicting but merely suggesting — sex on a show that had already been canceled because the marketplace didn’t like it anyway.

This is the respect the FCC gives to the American people and our First Amendment.


It is Constitutionally abhorrent that only three people can cause the government to abuse the First Amendment and attempt to censor and chill speech.

And the chill is real. Because of the FCC’s rulings and fines against Viacom for Janet Jackson… and Howard Stern… and Fox in this complaint… and Bono for his F word, 66 ABC stations refused to air “Saving Private Ryan.” The FCC’s rules are vague and its enforcement irresponsibly inconsistent and so the stations said they could not take the chance.

The FCC should be ashamed of itself. Congress should be ashamed of itself. Newspapers, TV stations, academics, and bloggers should be screaming at both over this violation of our most fundamental American right. Oh yes, a few newspaper editorialists belatedly bemoaned the freeze on our free speech, below, but only when the FCC had an impact on Saving Private Ryan, not Howard Stern or Bono. This isn’t about any one of them. It’s about the First Amendment. It’s about all of us.

Who is going to decide what we say and hear in America? The five of the FCC? The three of this religous coup? Or all of us?


: Note well that this is how the supposed army of “moral values” crusaders is inflated by media and government. Reading stories about the FCC’s actions, you’d think that millions are outraged by what’s on TV.

No, millions watch TV. Only three are outraged.

This is America’s “moral values” army: three strong.

It’s like a scene out of an old French Foreign Legion movie in which the tiny band of soldiers put helmets on sticks over the wall of the fort to make the stupid enemy think that they are facing not a handful but hundreds. Well, the FCC is that stupid enemy — and so are we. We swallow the notion that the “moral values” army huge and is winning elections and ruling America and demanding radical change in our own culture. Wake up: It’s three people with empty helmets sticking up over the wall thanks to email and Xerox.

: Note, too, that this is the most radical product of our culture of complaint, our society of offense, in which a few who don’t like something think they can — well, can — affect everyone else. The PC left does it; when was the last time you said “girl”? The religious right does it; they want to stop us from watching our TV shows and listening to our radio shows. Well, it’s time we fight back.

: As I note in this post, reporters should also investigate the FCC’s complaint against Viacom over Janet Jackson, in which the FCC says it found a conspiracy. What is their evidence? Inquiring minds want to know.

Reporters also should make FOIA requests for all the complaints against Stern and Bono and Jackson and see exactly how many citizens actually bothered to write letters and how many merely hit the “print” or “send” button.

You, too, can do this

: You, too, can report on government through Freedom of Information Act requests. It is incredibly easy. And it is your right.

All I did was go to this FOIA page on the FCC’s site and fill out a basic form. And look what came back to me: A story reporters didn’t bother getting when they wrote about this FCC action.


If an agency has to copy more than a certain number of pages (100 in this case) or spend more than a certain number of hours on a request (two here), they will charge you. But you have the opportunity to say how much you’re willing to pay when you file the request.

You can go to any government agency and to local government as well and file such requests. You want to know about your mayor’s expense account? You want to see how other agencies use your tax dollars? File an FOIA request.

The Freedom of Information Act isn’t meant for reporters. It’s meant for citizens … and now citizen journalists. So use it.

Argue with me IV

Argue with me IV

: Another set of Qs and As from the Corante interview. Please comment/argue there.

EM: Voice and transparency: you’ve cited these two characteristics as among the most important drivers in the media world of the future – can you expand on that, tying them together?

JJ: The organizing principle of the internet and weblogs — as well as of media and marketing — is trust. Trust is about a relationship. And relationships are human.

The problem with big media — not to mention politics, government, and marketing — is that they became institutions; they lost sight of their humanity as they tried to raise themselves up on pedestals away from the people. They could not admit to making mistakes. They could not enter into conversations.

Weblogs have shown a new way because they are distinctly human; they have a human voice; they are transparent. And they demand equivalent transparency of media: We want them to unhide their agendas and show their prejudices and process. Many in media resist. When this was the topic at a recent Aspen Institute gataway, some august media people in the room said, Judge us by our product, not our process. I disagreed.

But look at the success of FoxNews on one side of the political ledger and the international spread of The Guardian on the other. Look at the explosion of blogs: The “audience” wants perspective and viewpoint, voice and transparency.

Comment here

EM: What sort of adjustments do you expect legacy big media brands to make with regard to voice and transparency? What happens if they make no adjustments?

JJ: As a reporter, I was trained not to reveal my opinions. It was hard to become a columnist and become human. It was just as hard to become a blogger and become transparent. But I reveal my political opinions on my blog because I believe I owe my readers that much transparency, so they can judge the rest of what I say.

I believe established media must learn to do the same. But it will be difficult — often impossible — for big media organizations and for individual journalists to do that. It’s a violation of almost a century’s news culture.

Those who do adjust and learn to reveal their perspectives while also maintaining standards of professionalism will succeed (I hope). Those who hold to old rules and expectations will look more and more anachronistic and silly — and just plain dull. CNN is to FoxNews — that is to say, smaller — as big media is to citizens’ media and the many new competitors to come.

Comment here.