The outcry over indecency is a big lie

: I was interviewed by Betsy Karetnick at Howard 100 Radio, Stern’s own news operation on Sirius, about the FCC and indecency; it’s scheduled to be on tonight at 6. (I resisted the tempting opportunity to say “bullshit” and not be bleeped.)

The news: Adam Thierer of the Progress and Freedom Foundation released a study that shows how the FCC counts — and inflates — indecency complaints. A year ago, I exposed such inflation behind the FCC’s largest fine ever against the already-canceled Married by America: The FCC said 159 complained (that’s all?) then said the real number was 90 then admitted that only 23 people sent the complaints and it turned out that all but two came from the so-called Parents Television Council’s automated kvetch-machine. Now Thierer finds that the FCC counts indecency complaints like no other complaints it receives and among the scandals he reports: If you CC a complaint to five commissioners, they count that as five complaints. “The FCC’s figures confirm that the vast majority of complaints are duplicate emails that are generated against a relative handful of programs disfavored by activist groups.” And Theirer lists the programs they hate, which happen to be many of the programs America loves.

Further, Thierer reveals that much of what is behind an alleged explosion of complaints — and, the implication is, indecency — is a change in the FCC’s method of counting complaints:

Prior to the summer of 2003, the Commission aggregated together all such identically worded form letters or computer-generated electronic complaints and counted them as a single complaint. But at some point during the summer of 2003, the FCC quietly changed its methodology to count group complaints as individual complaints.

Those are the lies behind the supposed outcry against indecency in America. There is no damned outcry. It’s bullshit (there, I said it). It is manufactured by the PTC with the eager conspiracy of the FCC. Together, with Congress, they have set policy that is damaging the First Amendment and hastening the decline of mass media — and mass media corporations are, all in all, cowed and letting it happen. But what offends me most is that “news” media have reported this alleged trend as if it were true.

At last week’s FourSquare conference, filled with major media machers, I asked current FCC Chairman Kevin Martin about this. The conference is off-the-record and Martin didn’t say anything of note anyway, but I’ll tell you want I said: I reminded him that Stern had less than a month on the air because of the FCC’s actions, that Clear Channel’s bottom line has been hurt since they threw him off the air under FCC pressure, that Viacom had to blow up its business and admits it will see declines. I pointed to what we’d just heard in the room about how far ahead of us Japan and Korea are in technology infrastructure and innovation and how far behind of our goals we are with the communications infrastructure necessary for disasters and security. I said that creating more government regulation was an odd thing for a Republican to be doing. And I asked whether he shouldn’t be worrying about those things “and not wasting time on farts.” The room of moguls not only laughed. They applauded.

: Here is my Guardian column this week on Stern, the FCC, and the First Amendment.

  • Robert Feinman

    I don’t know indecency when I see it, but I do know bad taste and much of what Stern does is just plain bad taste. Of course so is much of broadcast TV. I’m not in favor of censoring any of it, but there should be some way to limit random exposure to it.

    The V-chip was supposed to do this for TV, but I’m sure those who have it installed don’t even know how to set it up. Afterall an entire industry of paying for downloadable TV episodes just started because no one knows how to program a VCR or Tivo.

    I’m not sure whether chasing Stern to satellite was a good thing or not, I understand the value of a “free” free press, but since nobody was able to offer another solution that’s what happened.

    The fact that the FCC manufactures phoney statistics should not be surprising given that is standard operating procedure for just about every agency in the Bush admin. Remember the cost of the new Medicare drug program?

  • Jon Rintels

    Jeff, coincidentally, the Washington Post ran a story here that illustrates the converse of your point about the exaggeration of complaints to the FCC — it minimizes and miscounts the number of indecency fines actually levied by the FCC. Here’s the email I sent to the reporter, Frank Ahrens:

    Having now had a chance to read the print version of your article, and analyze the accompanying graphics, I’d like to point out that while your article states there have been 92 FCC fines for indecency since 1970, that appears to confuse the number of Notices of Apparent Liability with the number of fines actually proposed. Each NAL may – and often does – propose multiple fines. These fines may be for more than one indecent incident, either on the same date or different dates, or may impose multiple fines for airing one incident on multiple stations, or both. This is why the total amount of fines imposed by the FCC far exceeds the maximum amount of fines the Commission could possibly have levied for 92 fines. Our own research, which breaks down the NALs in radio from 2000-2003 to examine each of the fines levied by the FCC, finds there were 101 FCC fines for indecency for that period on radio alone.

    To illustrate my point, in just one Notice of Apparent Liability for the Fox TV show “Married By America,” the FCC fined each Fox O&O station and affiliate that carried the show. Thus, this one NAL for indecency proposed a total of 169 fines for that one incident alone. Link here.

    The result of this confusion is that your article considerably understates the amount of FCC enforcement activity and its “chilling effect” on decent speech that is protected by the First Amendment, which is critically important not only to creative artists, but to all Americans. For example, the TV stations that canceled “Saving Private Ryan” last year due to rough language were not doing so because it might incur one FCC fine with a maximum amount of $32,500. Each “fuck” could have been a separate fine, and each station could have been liable for all those fines. Thus, the $32,500 per incident per station could exponentially escalate to a total in the millions of dollars – as Fox and its affiliates discovered after airing “Married by America,” which generated 169 separate fines of just $7,000 each, resulting in total fines of $1,183,000.

    I hope you’ll have an opportunity to clarify this.

    If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.

    Jonathan Rintels
    Center for Creative Voices in Media (blog)

    Center for Creative Voices in Media
    1220 L Street, N.W., Suite 100-494
    Washington, DC 20005

    (202) 448-1517 (voice)
    (202) 318-9183 (fax)

    [email protected]

  • Alex Dorph

    Most americans spit, curse, lie, tell dirty jokes, talk about body functions and sex… Its only that tiny percent that doesnt find it good enough to live what they think is a clean life, they need to get their anointed hands into our affairs. Why? Maybe a little bit of “More holy than thou”.

    Bathroom Review

  • tony

    i was under the impression that you *could* say bullshit as an expletive, but you couldnt use it as a verb as in “look at that bull shit over there.”


    Mr. Rintels,

    Can you explain why Howard was fined for breifly discussing anal/oral sex “blumpkin” but when Oprah described anal/oral sex “tossing a salad” she was never fined despite thousands of complaints?

  • EverKarl


    By your logic, if 100,000 — or 100 million — sign a petition, it’s really no big deal, because they didn’t each compose a personalized message. So it’s really just the one complaint.

    Put another way: When you were with TV Guide and Entertainment Weekly, did y’all tell advertisers that pass-around circulation doesn’t count?

  • EverKarl

    To be fair, though, the counting messages to five commissioners as five complaints is ridiculous.

  • AvengingAngel

    Speaking of indecency, one of most ironic – and enjoyable – side stories of the CIA Leak/PlameGate investigation has been the discovery of Lewis “Scooter” Libby’s trashy 2001 novel, “The Apprentice.”

    As it turns out, poorly crafted, soft-core pornography seems to be quite the cottage industry among America’s conservative chattering classes.

    For the full story, see:

    “Hard Liners, Soft Porn: The Perverse Prose and Titillating Text of Team Bush”

  • kat

    Yeah, and Democrats have had enough of that shit on TV.

  • mina123

    i think whats indecent is how little attention american media is giving to the 0ctober 8th earthquake in pakistan and the human tragedy it has caused. please donate for pakistan earthquake relief. the OCT 8th earthquake has taken 80,000 lives a number that the UN says will double if the world doesnt step up to help. 30,000 children have been orphaned. the UN says the disaster is worse than the tsunami and this is the most difficult relief operation in history but the media doesnt give us any sense of the scale of the suffering. i request you to give this issue prominence on your blog.

    please donate. your money goes a long way n pakistan. UNICEF says that 5 dollars is enough to buy 30 blankets, 10 dollars is enough to feed a family for a week. 3 million are homeless. every dollar saves lives. please help.

  • Cranky Geezer

    In my lifetime, we’ve gone from tipping your hat when you pass a lady on the street… to Girls Gone Wild. There is a price to indecency, and that price is nothing less than the death of Western Civilization. Congratulations filth-peddlers. You’ve destroyed in 30 years what it took centuries to build.

  • Bill Henry

    It’s always the bible thumpers and their sheep who complain of indecency on the airwaves. Of course, their book, which they would LOVE to cram down everybody’s throat starting with grade school kids, is FULL of vile filth. Of course, since virtually none of them have read it, they have no clue as to what it really contains. I think Stern should have a bible reading on his show every day. He could start with Isaiah 36:12, my “favorite” verse, presented here from the King James Version: But Rabshakeh said, Hath my master sent me to thy master and to thee to speak these words? hath he not sent me to the men that sit upon the wall, that they may eat their own dung, and drink their own piss with you? Gee, the so-called word of god contains “dirty” words like piss! Of course, when “urine” is used in later versions, that makes it all OK. Hmmmm, come to think of it, maybe THAT bible verse is too vile for Howard’s show!

  • http://ruthcalvo Ruth

    Watched C-Span’s Brian Lamb interview Michelle Malkin, showing a printout of some of the truly vile emails she had received. They were the kind I skip out of distaste anywhere, and am wondering if even to make a point they should have been on the air?

  • kat

    Come now Bill Henry–get your mind out of the gutter. That verse is not about golden showers and fisting or fudgepacking. It’s simply the enemy threatenening with insulting words to cause famine to the point where people are reduced to eating shit. Rabshakeh meant to be insulting–a sort of eat shit or die moment. Rabshakeh was on your side, not a ‘Bible thumper”.

  • Bill Henry

    But Kat, remember a lot of it is about words with these anti-indecency crusaders. You can go on the so called public airways and talk about having pleasurable sex in clinical terms, but the minute you inject the F-bomb, out come the nasty letters to the FCC. ( so and so said FUCKING on TV! What’s the world coming to!) I’m just saying if these bible thumpers want to be consistent, they should start by getting rid of their own “instruction manual” which is full of absurdities, obscenities, and superstition. The “Good Book”? Hardly.

  • kat

    Bill you can get your pervert kicks anywhere–you don’t need to shove it in everyone’s face. If the word fuck makes you horny, go find a porn site. Don’t make TV into a porn tool.

  • Bill Henry

    OK, Kat, how about YOU then giving us YOUR list of “dirty words” that should never appear on the airwaves in any context? It seems there were 7 at one time according to someone, someplace. I know Carlin did a routine on this, but I still haven’t seen the “official list”. Let me ask you, if someone was to say in a TV interview in regards to a question about a business deal, and the response was “We got totally fucked by those bastards”, would that “make TV into a porn tool”?

  • kat

    I know I would not use ‘fucked’ at my job or I may not have one. There is never a need to use foul language on TV. I personally have more respect for a message delivered without crude talk than I do for one laced with obscenities. I have little respect or time for rapper like crap. I think howard stern is a pervert and i never give him the time of day. I don’t see this as a religious issue–but one of class versus classlessness–stern being the latter.
    If you need four letter words to give you an erection, that’s your business. I shouldn’t be forced to listen to it. You have a venue to get your jollies–use it.

  • Rich Drees

    Noone is forcing you to listen to Stern or anyone else for that matter. THere are plenty of entertainment outlets that cater to specific audiences. Find one you like, ignore the rest. Isn’t that the whole Free Market ideal that conservatives are supposed to espouse?

  • Bill Henry

    Kat, No, despite your apparent preoccupation with me getting my “jollies” by the use of such language, you still haven’t clued me in as to what are the prohibited words, and who is the final arbiter? Is there an official list someplace on line? Maybe I find the speech of TV preacher faith healers highly offensive. ( It would be comedic if people didn’t take it seriously) If so, I can always change the channel. It does seem strange to me, tho, in this nominally free society, the religionists, spewing their dark age hellfire rhetoric and anti-science nonsense are quite welcome all over the airwaves. Aren’t they just such wonderful goodie-goodie well-meaning people!! Show a couple having sex on just ONE channel, and the shit (ooops, maybe a dirty word)would hit the fan!

  • CaptiousNut

    Boy, Howard Stern is really Jeff’s binky. How many posts is this now on Stern?

    First Amendment my butt. This is about the paranoid religious and morality-phobic. Just reading this comment thread it is clear that these religious-phobes need some psychological treatment.

    Stern was on the way down anyway. He has already milked farting for all its worth.

    For those that haven’t watched or heard Stern. He often brings on strippers and porn stars and excitedly asks them if they were molested as children and whatnot. What a hero!!!

    Yeah, defending Stern is a real noble cause.

  • Cranky Geezer

    I think the old argument that “nobody is forcing you to watch/listen/read xyz” is utterly disingenuous.

    We all have to live with the negative externalities of these things. I may not be forced to watch/listen/read, but I *am* forced to deal with the foul-mouthed Howard-Stern-listener in line at the grocery store, the ill-mannered Jerry-Springer-watcher talking on his cellphone during a movie, and pay for the abortion of the Cosmopolitan reader who thinks sex is just “partying”.

    One of these days we’re going to realize that WE ALL pay the price for EVERYONE’S bad behavior.

  • LanceThruster

    Love that Jeff comments on Howard and his travails. Wasn’t happy that Howard was going to satellite until I got my satellite subscription. Now I’d be for it whether Howard was there or not. I think I’ll get a 2nd lifetime subscription to Sirius (hurry, ends 12/31/05).

    I’ve seen very well behaved Stern listeners at his book signings (book #1 and #2 had over 10,000 fans each!) who were of almost every age, race and economic demographic. The parts of his show that I like best are not always the same as those of my friends but we each get a bit of what we’re looking for.

    Religious nuts and other control freaks want to eliminate whatever they’re uncomfortable with but totally ignore the shortcomings of their own actions and worldview (ironic because at least for Xians, it’s scriptural i.e. ignoring the beam in your own eye as you point out the speck in your neighbor’s).

    When Howard asks an adult actress/performer about her upbringing, it adds to the understanding. Some were molested, some were from ultra strict or very liberal homes, and some were just average. Howard’s questions can be fun, rude, insightful, childish and/or all of the above. So what? I think the cult of sports worship degrades society but I am not trying to outlaw it, I just ignore it as needed. I fear LA championships because of the riots they frequently spawn. No riots have occurred to my knowledge from Sterns #1 ratings.

    For those too tempted or revolted by sexual content, find a healthier outlet for yourselves. Instead of forcing a metaphorical burka on everyone else, just find a suitable blindfold to wear.

  • kat

    Yeah, instead of getting your jollies from listening to Stern talk, find a healthier oulet. Try real sex instead of expecting Stern to sexcite you. That’s kinda pervertlike.

  • LanceThruster

    Kat – The brain is the most important sex organ we have. I would not want to be limited by whatever you have determined “real sex” to be. People find titillation in different places; I would hope no one begrudges you yours. The healthier outlet I was referring to was something non-sexual towards which you could channel your repressed urges. That way, you would only experience the actual awkwardness of sexual arousal when you were actually doing the “dirty deed”.

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  • LanceThruster

    Great summation with the blog archive link. In some ways I like that cable channels I might not order or want to pay for are there anyway because often I find content that I like. But there is still so much that I would not watch on a bet or because, as Jeff so aptly pointed out, many do not speak Spanish (which by the way I would watch if Spanish soap operas had English SAP that much English language programming has for Spanish speakers. Spanish TV has great T & A…and that’s just the children’s shows!).

    I hope that content providers learn to “give” more, not less. I have a cell phone but do not use a single feature that I have to pay more for because it seems in most cases as a way for them to nickel and dime me to death. Love flat rates!

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