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.

  • Fantastic work. This is one of the most important blog posts I’ve read anywhere all year.

  • pele

    They’ll be introducing stoning soon if you let them get away with nonsense of this magnitude.

  • GCW

    Awesome research and reporting, Jeff.
    The MSM is totally slacking here–this is hurting them and their media corps, but it took a citizen blogger to report this? 60 Minutes, now that it’s too late to meddle with the election, maybe you should look into this!

  • Wow, I really can change the world…with two of my friends.
    Humor aside, this is pretty scary. I am sure you’ll get a mention from Stern in the next day or two.

  • sickles

    While I crane my neck to speak to Jeff riding high on his horse, I’ll take the contrarian view here and go back to the Janet Jackson.
    These are PUBLIC airwaves. The public, no matter how small, has a right to complain. I believe that the FCC is reacting preemptively here to show that in the face of complaints they are taking quick measures. They do not wish to see another Janet Jackson debacle. Now, Jeff, you may think a little tit on the public airwaves is ok, but most people don’t…on the PUBLIC airways. This is what the FCC is SUPPOSED to do.
    So 3 people are not enough? How many then?6? 10? 100,000? Would it be ok then for you? Since when did Jarvis Almighty decide how many people should complain to make the FCC act?
    The FCC is doing what they’re supposed to do. This is what the people of this country said they should do when being set up as an agency that was placed there by their elected representatives.
    Pardon me if I don’t share your outrage.

  • brilliant. and that’s it with basically all in the public sphere. there’s only outrage when reporters actually report on something even if it’s only initiated by three people. public discourse sucks in this way if a huge pile of reporting is created and everyone says “what a scandal” until people like you show us that it was only three people actually complaining!

  • Ralph Cottenham

    Great post!
    Sickles, It’s not that three people aren’t enough, it’s about the rights of so many being taken away by so few. Doesn’t it make you wonder how many people actually have to complain to make something happen? How about this for instance, sickles offended me with his post, I am offended and outraged. Should I be able to have this blog fined and taken off the web? No, but something that I am offended by doesn’t offend someone else. What happened with Janet Jackson shouldn’t have, but it shouldn’t have caused a chain reaction that will cause everything that we see to be censored to the point where it makes more people mad than happy. That is what I think his point was of this blog. Have a great day in your protected world where 3 people choose what you are allowed to see.

  • Fascinating.
    A similar problem has been created by the major environmental groups (NRDC, Sierra Club) concerning comments on the President’s Mercury regulation.
    EPA has been overwhelmed with comments – about 600,000 of them – and as environmental groups and liberal newspapers continue to attack the Bush Administration over the rules, they use the sheer number of comments as a bully pulpit.
    The only problem is that of approximatly 600,000 comments, over 99% are simply form letters transmitted by postcards the Enviro groups printed up or through email comment machines on the enviro groups web page. In fact, the number of actual comments recieved where someone took the time to send an original thought to EPA number about 1,000. Of these, of course, the vast majority are from the industries that will be most impacted.
    This is a common battle EPA faces and is always debating how to comment mills. My feeling is these comments should be ignored completely, or otherwise treat all the identical comments and treat them as one. Enviro groups, and their Democratic supporters – Jim Jeffords, Patrick Leahy, Chuck Schumer, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Barbara Boxer – want each treated seperately and individually.
    Should there be a government wide standard adopted for dealing with these situations – controlling both EPA and the FCC and other agencies as well?
    How do you think EPA should react?

  • Bill B.

    Ralph, I think you missed the point of sickles post somewhat. First I think it’s ridiculous to take a show off the air for the reasons stated in the letter. That said, the FCC is tasked with determining if an infraction of the “decency code” has been made. It’s as if someone were to report a burglary — an investigation is started to look into the merits of the complaint. It doesn’t matter if one person calls the police or 10 people do. Yes, obviously the complaint is more likely to be looked into quickly if a huge uproar is made (both in regards to the FCC and the police). If the complaint has merit action will be taken. How else would you set it up? Make an arbitrary cut-off for the number of complaints necessary to start an investigation? Analysis of the complaint letters to make sure they weren’t written by the same person? As for myself, I’d tear it all down and let the market decide but that’s not likely.

  • Not sure what happened to that last paragraph. In posting it, a couple of words seem to have been dropped out. It should read.
    This is a common battle EPA faces and it is always debating how to treat comment mills. My feeling is that all these comments should be ignored completely, or otherwise grouped together and trated as one single comment. Enviro groups, and their Democratic supporters – Jim Jeffords, Patrick Leahy, Chuck Schumer, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Barbara Boxer – want each seperate form email and postcard treated as a seperate and individual comment.
    Sorry bout that.

  • Brilliant!

  • congratulations Jeff!

  • Steve

    Interesting story, but I kind of agree with a commenter here. Specifically, what are you arguing for? That three people shouldn’t be able to stop a show like that? Ok-pretty non-controversial. But the follow up to this-should the FCC ‘censor’ what’s being broadcast on television? I can’t tell what you think should be the answer to this. If no, then are you prepared to have hardcore porn (or violence, or ____) on the public airways? If yes, then isn’t the FCC the organization to be limiting what goes on the public airways? i.e. aren’t they the ones to do the job (if not them, then who?) It seem to me that we ALL (or virtually all of us) want the public airways to be ‘censored.’ The only debate is exactly what gets censored-exactly where to draw the line. So how do we debate where to draw the line? Your method-to criticize the line drawn by the FCC without offering a more appropriate alternative-isn’t a solution. Its just a little kid shouting NOT ME NOT ME NOT ME.

  • Jim

    Wow… truly excellent reporting, thank you. Without a doubt, people should use the power of the FOIA.
    On the other hand, I’m not sure it’s relevant that only three people took the time to write letters about the show. What’s relevant is whether the show broke the law or not. One could certainly argue the law should be changed. But I’m not comfortable arguing that the law should be enforced only if a certain number of people ask for its enforcement.

  • Amy

    Great work Jeff. Thank you.
    I do agree with the point that the exact number of people making a complaint cannot be correlated with the worthiness of those complaints. It might be that some day there is a serious problem in public life that is only noticed by a few. However, the FCC has gone way overboard.
    As Jeff hints, one would believe that there are armies of righteous Americans marching across flyover country decrying the obscenities perpetrated by the bicoastal media elite. It would be interesting to see some quality polling on what people think is acceptable on TV and radio (not that we can trust the polls). I suspect that a few well-organised pressure groups that have the ear of a few in Washington, have made their case seem more popular than it really is.
    When I read the complaint at first I thought the program must have been on at like 6pm or something. Turns out it was after 9pm anyway. What’s the big deal?

  • Amy

    Yes Jim, I agree. The relevant point is whether the show violated the guidelines, not how many people complained. The trouble is, those guidelines are vague and open to interpretation. I think it’s time for an inclusive debate about exactly what is acceptable, and then to enforce only that code, irrespective of complaints.
    Those who want to change the guidelines should campaign on that basis. It might not be very fashionable to have a pressure group campaigning for less uptight FCC rules on nudity and swearing, and no doubt it’d be shouted down by hysterical “family” groups (what a bare-faced theft of a description for political ends – like the rest of us are anti-family!), but it might just get more approval than we think.
    If we cut the bluster and get to the basics – what exactly is wrong with a bare tit on TV? It’s a part of the human body, that’s all. Get over it.

  • So keep on voting Republican, Jeff! If you think this is great, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
    All hail the Christian right! Burkas for everyone!

  • Franky

    Great work, Jeff. This is what all blogs should aspire to: bringing us some new and original investigation.

  • Well, let me counter the line of argument that says that it shouldn’t matter how few people complain as long as the complaint is valid. That is an internally consistent argument that does apply in situations like reporting a burglary, but the problem here is that the FCC is enforcing standards, not of law, but of decency, which are totally subjective. SUBJECTIVE. SUB. JEC. TIVE!!! This isn’t a matter of three people prodding the FCC to prosecute a crime; this is three people using the FCC to enforce their SUB.JEC.TIVE tastes on the rest of the viewing public. The rules being enforced aren’t laws, they’re the personal tastes of a tiny minority of easily-offended self-appointed morality mullahs.
    As for the idea that, since the airwaves are “owned by the public”, they should be used in ways that offend absolutely nobody, keep in mind that since there are an infinite number of busybodies out there who can be offended in an infinite number of ways, it would very soon become impossible to permit ANYTHING to be transmitted over them. The only practical and fair way to determine what should be transmitted would be some sort of majority-set standards. And unless you’re on your fifth crack rock of the evening, THREE PEOPLE ARE NOT A MAJORITY OF THE U.S. PUBLIC.
    The FCC is out of control and should be, if not abolished, purged.

  • JorgXMcKie

    This is not really different from the situation on most campuses where supposed “hate speech” is used to silence some, *even if no one complains!!* And, of course, even one complaint from a person of protected status is enough to trigger a bureaucratic nightmare. Your First Amendment rights are not just under attack from the Right, they’re under attack, period.

  • Hey Jeff — Thanks for this work, but now you’ve done it, can you post everything you got, including all three letters of complaint and the Davenport FCC letter(s)?

  • Don Mynack

    Well surprise, surprise! Not really shocking here. However, here’s something that Jeff has never really answered or addressed in his fantasy image of the “free speech” broadcast medium: At what point in our history has one been able to broadcast whatever one wanted to, on the public airwaves, without a set of guidelines as to what could be broadcast? This is an important question, given the fact that the spirit of Jeff’s argument is that something is being taken away from the people that they used to have. However, one has never had the right to broadcast offensive content on the public airwaves (unless I was really missing something in the 70’s and 80’s). Networks used to have standards and practices departments that would quash this kind of thing before it ever aired. Now, things got looser in the 90’s, but fines were so low that the enforcement power of the FCC was neglible. Now that the fines have increased, their power has increased. However, that fact remains that their standards have not changed. They are the same as they have always been. So what exactly has been taken away?
    BTW: Great work on this, Jeff. It’s pathetic that full-time journalists, with a lot bigger stake in this than a blogger like Mr. Jarvis, could not take the time to break this story.

  • sickles

    “The only practical and fair way to determine what should be transmitted would be some sort of majority-set standards.”
    How would that be any different Alex? You’ll still have ticked off people. My point previously had been that a public place has always called for a modicum of decency throughout the history of this country. Not just on the airwaves but in all areas of public life which is a cultural thing. The FCC is simply enforcing this cultural standard which is indeed subjective by its very nature. This is hardly the same thing as censorship in my view.
    Is it ok for our politicians to swear? (I dislike Cheney in particular for this very reason…Kerry publicly swore in a Rolling Stone article; not impressive)
    Is it ok for newspapers to regularly swear in their articles?
    Is it ok to go down to the town square and drop your bra as a form of artistic expression?
    You get the idea…if people want to see Janet Jackson’s boobs or Eddie Murphy going off the deep end in “Raw” or Howard Stern attempting to be funny, by all means use the private paid for cable lines. The rest of expect a standard of civility in the public view which would probably be similar to your idea of majority set standards which would probably not include swearing and nudity if I had to guess. Which is what the FCC is trying to maintain which is why it was created in the first place by our elected representatives.

  • Charlie (Colorado)

    Jeff, I agree that it’s interesting to know this, but I’d really be very interested to see what you think ought, therefore, to be done.
    It would seem — viz some of the comments above — that as long as the spectrum is considered a “public” resource, owned in common, it’s inevitable that there would be Governmental regulation. Otherwise, who can act in the “public” interest?
    Once we allow that there should be Governmental regulation of the airwaves, what should the limits be? You’re real pointed about your (appropriate) desire to regulate what’s written on your web comments — but then what should the limits be on our jointly-owned airwaves? If you don’t allow dirty words on your web space, why should you allow dirty words on the more public and more accessible airwaves that you also (jointly) own??
    Why should the opinion of one Jeff Jarvis be considered more important than the opinion of these three people who complained? Doesn’t the whole “public airwaves” argument strongly suggest that the airwaves ought to be regulated to be sensitive to the desires of the most sensitive?
    The claim of a First Amendment issue seems at least a little weak, since the “public airwaves” argument has historically been used to permit content regulation.

  • syn

    Oh pleez….the situation regarding PUBLIC AIRWAVES and the FCC pales in comparison to the fact that millions upon millions of American taxpayers are forced to pay for anti-American hate speech coming from the NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO.
    Ignoring the big evil by defending the foul mouthed is absurdity.
    Don’t forget to mention the numerous legal actions taken to CENSOR our Vietnam Veterans from telling the real truth left untold for three decades.
    No, it is better to concentrate on the foul mouthed, especially from a blog which prohibits foul language.

  • syn

    I hope Jeff does not receive the Larry O’Donnell approach to this undisclosed report he has posted. Those familiar words: liar, liar, creepy liar, lies, liar, lying liar,lie, lie, liar, creepy liar, you lie, liar, you lying liar full of lies.
    And, should you be confronted with such intellectual dialogue, try to defend your right to free speech.

  • Notice how partisan hack Glenn Reynolds has now jumped on your bandwagon after he criticized you at first for defending Howard? It’s time you denounce that idiot Glenn once and for all.

  • Chris

    I am conflicted on this.
    On one hand, the FCC doesn’t need any public complaints in order to enforce their rules and regs. At least I’m assuming there is nothing written in its procedural manual that they cannot act unless there is a public complaint.
    On the other hand, this whole Janet Jackson thing has been so blown out of proportion. We have these reality shows and stupid sitcoms that hardly reinforce the traditoinal values that make this country the greatest in the world, yet nothing is done about rampant promiscuity, cigarrette use etc. that we see glamorized on TV. I’d much rather explain to my children that Janet Jackson’s outfit malfunctioned than why the charaters on “OC” are not ones to emlulate.

  • fubar

    Sometimes it’s useful to fight fire with fire.
    First, learn the FCC’s alleged “standard” for indecency.
    Second, tape all manner of public broadcasts where some shred of stretched reasoning would find them outside the “decency standard”. Shakespearean plays come to mind, for example. Or readings from James Joyce. You get the idea.
    Third, send outraged letters outlining the case that the program content was patently indecent, with taped excerpts.
    Fourth, make copies of letters and tapes available so an army of like-minded people can do the same thing easily.
    Fifth, keep doing it. Then see what the FCC does. With enough complaints they’ll either have to act, or get further inundated, and get some nasty press to boot.

  • Robert Green

    great post, but one problem: your equating of the left and the right is weakly argued. Saying “girl” or “woman” as a social construct, enforced by no one in particular except individually offended people at the time of the act, is the same as what you describe? astroturfing to essentially accuse millions of having weak morals on the basis of a TV show? come on, i know you are in the “i’m hard on the right and left” camp, but it just debases your whole argument. sad, really.

  • Kory

    Excuse me if I care very little about some minor regulation of CBS, NBC, ABC, & Fox as it relates to indecency. Especially since I have 100+ other channel options that aren’t under those regulations, not to mention CD’s, DVD’s, and the Internet.
    Meanwhile the Department of Labor applies huge fines based on arcane & impossible to comprehend regulations on sex discrimination, age discrimination, overtime pay, sexual harrassment, and diversity.
    Meanwhile the EPA applies huge fines based on arcane & impossible to comprehend regulations on emissions, fair use, endangered species, hazardous materials, indoor smoking, and employees right-to-know.
    Meanwhile the IRS applies huge penalities and fines based on arcane and incomprehensible regulations on the definition of income, the difference between tax minimization and tax avoidance, and what constitutes a valid deduction.
    Meanwhile the courts impose massive judgments against companies because of consumers idiotic misuse of their products, an overriding judicial concept of ‘fairness’ rather than legality, and a desire to blame someone for every ‘victim’ out there.
    I’ll jump on the anti-FCC bandwagon as soon as people get on the anti-DOL, anti-EPA, anti-IRS, and anti-tort platforms. Until then, it is way down on my list of concerns.

  • Mantis

    millions upon millions of American taxpayers are forced to pay for anti-American hate speech coming from the NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO.
    “The latest IRS 990 for NPR for FY 2003 shows it had $120,017,283 in revenue, of which only $204,508 was in the form of government grants.”
    From Petrelis. NPR’s tax form is here.
    Millions and millions, huh? And as far as “censoring” the Swift Boat jerks, did they have any problems buying ad time? Please find a person who has not heard of the SwiftBoat Veterans because they were “censored”. Hell, just find someone who hasn’t heard of them.

  • annette

    so the pajamahadeen beat the socks off the msm on an issue crucial to their own business–as well as crucial to the public. good work, jeff. you show that good reporting and good communicating are not dependent on big organizations with snarky editors and budgets that reward robot anchors and talking heads, and overlook plagiarists. free speech always comes back to john milton’s argument: who will censor the censors?

  • Hi Jeff,
    What the FCC claims is simply not true. Our members alone filed 4,073 complaints about the “Married By America” episode that was the subject of recent fines. I have copies of all of the complaints as well as information for all 4,073 individuals who filed the complaints.

  • kimberly,
    much of what the fcc says is simply not true. thats what jeff’s post is sorta about.

  • by the way, kimberly, how many complaints did your group send to the fcc about Oprah talking about anal/oral sex?

  • Cridland

    If I was a Murdoch, I’d be wondering why my legal representation hadn’t made this case when the fine was levied.

  • Nice work, Jeff! Who’d have known three citizens constituted a majority?
    I want to let “Instahack” know that Glenn Reynolds not only linked to Jeff Jarvis (although he cautioned that he didn’t think Bush wasn’t behind this), but he also linked to my post defending Howard Stern.
    Calling Glenn a “partisan hack” and an “idiot” reveals about “Instahack” than InstaPundit. The latter is a gentleman, as you are too, Jeff.
    While we cannot all be gentlemen, I think that calling people “idiots” simply because they disagree is in another category entirely. It offends my low standards.

  • Eileen

    Congratulations, Jeff, on uncovering these documents via the FOIA. As I indicated in your post below, the agency is governed by a host of federal and prior FCC administrative rulings related to 1st amendment free speech issues.
    From the Media Section of the FCC’s site, here is an overview of the case law, definitions and standards they are (currently) utilizing in enforcement actions, from http://www.fcc.gov/eb/broadcast/obscind.html:
    [“It is a violation of federal law to broadcast obscene, profane or indecent programming. The prohibition is set forth at Title 18 United States Code, Section 1464 (18 U.S.C.

  • Angelos

    Kimberly, you and your group are wastes of oxygen.
    What do you think you are accomplishing? Apprently, in your blind zeal, you forgot that not everybody thinks like you. Your lack of control over your children has led you to turn to the government to be your nanny. Your moral bankruptcy has given you the false impression you have the right to infringe your views on others.
    Let me ask you this:
    -Were you watching that very episode of “Married by America”, of your own volition? If so, why? Anyone who’s part of a group so self-aggrandizingly named “Parentstv” should know that reality shows are crass and witless, generally stupid, and full of sexual innuendo.
    -Were you watching with your kids? If so, what the hell were you thinking?
    If you are any of your members can answer “Yes” to either of the above questions, your collective lack of judgement automatically disqualifies you from ever hold a position of authority above fast-food worker. Put down that pen, and get me some fries.
    See, this is how intelligence works:
    1) adult looks at the description of a TV show called “Married by America” (actually, all you really need to know is the title), and says, “that’s stupid, what else is on?”
    2) Failing that, say adult wants to watch “Married by America” anyway. OK, could be a guilty pleasure thing, whatever. Children should be in bed at that time anyway.
    3) If both “value judgement” and “parental responsibility” fail, and you want to watch the show, but your kids are in the living room with you, tape/TiVo the thing until later.
    Apparently, what your group lacks in taste and parenting ability, it more than makes up for in spare time to write stupid letters.
    Get off your high horse, lock your TV on TBN, and leave me the fuck alone.
    And remember, the more you invite the government into your life, the more you suffer.

  • As a former broadcast engineer and syndicated talk show co-host, I think people are not thinking clearly about this.
    First, the FCC requires no complaints to enforce its regulations. However, as a government body, it responds to pressure. I’ve been at DC exerting pressure for enforcement, and it worked (ham radio world, not broadcast).
    Second, the FCC used to be much stricter. I’ve dropped a 110kw station because the announcers left the mic on.
    Third, the FCC has standards with the intent of having family programming time and then more adult programming time. This is on over-the-airways broadcasts as opposed to pay services.
    They make that distinction because pay services are more controllable by parents.
    I have lived in France where broadcast TV runs hard porn most of the night. Yawn.
    The real question is whether there should be standards, what they should be, and what standards withstand first mendment scrutiny. Personally, I’ll go for standards. Unlike the past, there are plenty of places to get more racy programs. I have Dish Network with hundreds of channels. Cable systems have large numbers.
    What is a rare natural resource, best thought of like a natural park, are radio frequency bands suitable for widespread broadcast to inexpensive receivers. The FCC is the caretaker off that park. They also live in a highly political environment, which makes it more complex.
    The current decency crusade started with the infamous wardrobe malfunction. The number of complaints about that and other misbehavior caused the FCC to start worrying about this stuff. Note that the original FCC commissioner in all of this was a Democrat – for those who have the reflex to hang it on Bush’s religious views.
    In this case, I have no idea whether I agreee with the FCC. I don’t watch the show.

  • Ralph Cottenham

    Angelos, Said Perfectly!
    I am a parent of two children, 4 and 2, and they don’t watch anything that I don’t let them. I am the parent, I don’t need the government helping me out (Kimberly, it sucks that you need the help). This way when they go to bed and my wife and I want to watch something other than 50 million Incredibles commercials, we can. Because it’s our right as adults to do so.

  • NelC

    I don’t know what the limits for action should be, but I think it should be a lot higher than only 3 people initiating a fine of $1.2 million. I mean, what if Fox really pulled out the stops and offended 300? Would they get a fine of $120 million? What about 1 person? $400,000?
    And, er, 159 complaints that turn out to be 3? This is rampant dishonesty on the part of one complainent, to say the least. Definitely note-worthy, whatever you think of the validity of the complaint.
    Isn’t there someone who can fine the FCC for making such a flawed decision?

  • Shouldn’t there be some watchdog group that does this on a regular basis? Why should we have to rely solely on the time and effort of a committed blogger.
    Thanks Jeff for serving the public interest when no one else would.

  • BrentC

    Good work, and an interesting perspective; however, I disagree with some of the conclusions, and will take the contrarian view. I see a LOT of people here waving their “I’m a victim!” flags and crying about their “first amendment rights”. Let me explain something to you knee-jerk reactionaries – the first amendment was not intended to protect content that is provided *for commercial purposes* through a *public* medium. For those of you so concerned about your “right” to view borderline content (as has been defined so far by the FCC), you have the option to watch it on cable! (Is this a great country, or what?)
    While I agree that trying to define “decency” is a very subjective (and error-prone) process, the duty of a public agency in this situation is to err on the more, ahem, conservative side (and I don’t mean politically). Yes, the side effect of this is the possible dilution of “interesting content” on public media, and I know that some of you want to make the argument that “if the FCC continues in its draconian ways, we’ll be left with nothing but Tele-Tubbies and Sesame Street. However, that will always be counter-balanced by the *commercial* interests of the media content providers – let’s face it, if they can’t interest the majority of their viewers, they will not be viable as a commercial enterprise.
    The wonders of a free market system are that these forces both complement and contradict one another. However, a line must be drawn at perhaps the

  • Harvey

    Some years ago, a corporate attorney was briefing/lecturing/educating/… a bunch of first line managers about sexual harrassment/hostile environment issues. It soon became clear that an item could construe a “Hostile Environment” as soon as one person complained about it. The lawyer’s tap dance was a delight to behold when she tried to respond to my observation that if one person’s complaint triggered such a charge, we have moved from the rule of the majority to the rule of a single complaint.

  • Rick Ellis

    While I’ve used the FOA a lot in the past, it didn’t occur to me to do it in this case. Much to my regret. Good work.
    Two questions/points, though. My next move would be to try and talk to some of the people who sent them in (assuming contact info wasn’t redacted). I would be curious to see if the mail was the result of some organized campaign, or one focused person with a lot of willing friends.
    The other point is that while Jeff did a great job, it’s also important to keep in mind that he doesn’t exactly fit the category of “citizen/journalist.” I suspect most people assume that anyone described that way is a person with not a lot of traditional journalistic experience. In fact, Jeff has a news background that puts most of us to shame.

  • Karl

    I applaud Jeff for doing some original reporting here, but I’m shocked to find I’m the first to comment on the irony of his post. Apparently, people who file a form complaint letter should not be taken seriously by the FCC, but Jeff got his info by filling out a FOIA request form at the FCC’s site. Shouldn’t you have to create your own personalized FOIA request before the FCC takes action? No?

  • Jim S

    syn, what anti-American hate speech are you talking about? I listen to NPR most of the day at work when I’m actually at my desk and I can’t think of anything I’ve heard that fits that description. As far as the Swifties are concerned, yes they lied about a quite a bit. No one censored them, they just called them on it when they made claims that had no evidence to back them.
    Karl, does anyone really have to explain the difference between responding to a form that requests that information be provided to an individual and multiple submissions of a form letter that results in a massive fine?

  • >>They do not wish to see another Janet Jackson debacle
    Please, there wasn’t one. Unless you rubbed the tape raw on instant replay.
    And I echo Don and perhaps a few others, why the FOIA didn’t Fox do this little bit of research?
    Three is not the magic number. Now, thousands can vote with their remotes and turn off lame shit like this program to begin with … but sex itself is fun (ask almost anyone with out a pencil in their ass and a Bible rammed down their gullet).
    Very good work Jarvis. Thanks. You do your best when you’re talking media, free speech – and then I still won’t agree with you all the time – but I’ll respect your POV.

  • Uh, Karl….It’s fine to use a form (or Microsoft Outlook) to compose an email, which is what I did and a total of three people did to the FCC. My complaint is with those who couldn’t be bothered to do that and only copied it.
    As for the question of contacting the “complainers: — wish I could, but all personal information was redacted.

  • “Millions and millions, huh? And as far as “censoring” the Swift Boat jerks, did they have any problems buying ad time? Please find a person who has not heard of the SwiftBoat Veterans because they were “censored”. Hell, just find someone who hasn’t heard of them.”
    Hear, hear. The Swift Boat folks comprised people who never met Kerry, and those who can’t document content with him, and those who over three decades said a lot of different things, including supporting Kerry at various times. Hard to see how they were censored by anyone.
    NPR presents lots of opinions that I find offensive — which tells me they’re doing an excellent job of including a variety of thought. I heard Bill Bennett quite respectfully interviewed the other night, and he said a lot of very interesting things. I disagreed with almost all of them, but I was glad his ideas were being shown on NPR straightforwardly and first-person.

  • MWB

    “I urge you to send your own complaint to the FCC along the same lines — force their hand. It doesn’t matter if you just cut-and-paste mine; that’s what most complaints to the FCC look like.”–Jeff Jarvis, Nov. 12, 2004
    “It’s fine to use a form (or Microsoft Outlook) to compose an email, which is what I did and a total of three people did to the FCC. My complaint is with those who couldn’t be bothered to do that and only copied it. “–Jeff Jarvis, Nov. 15, 2004
    Some complaints are more equal than others, it appears.

  • MWB

    But really, isn’t the question of how many people complained and what method they used a red herring? Jeff, you’ve made it clear elsewhere that you are, on principle, a First Amendment absolutist. So isn’t it safe to assume that you would have the same objection to the FCC fining Fox even if 3 million people had written original, personal letters?
    So all the copy about the few who complained isn’t really to the point–3, 23, 90, 159 or 4073, the Jarvis position is still the same–unless the point is to inflate the outrage.
    Could that be? The presence of numerous straw men suggests so:
    “It is shocking enough that what tens of millions of us are permitted to see by our government…”
    As far as I can tell, our government permits me to see just about anything I want. What it permits me to broadcast on the public airwaves is another matter. There is a difference.
    “It is Constitutionally abhorrent that only three people can cause the government…”
    Again with the three people. Your objection is to what you see as an abuse of the First Amendment by the FCC. I fail to see what is objectionable (much less Constitutionally abhorrent) about three people (or even one person) being able to influence their government. But it’s more dramatic to cast it as “the tyranny of the few” I know.
    “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?”
    Who exactly is this “all of us” you refer to? All of us electing our representatives who have jurisdiction over the public airwaves, which they exercise by way of the FCC? Or just “all of us” who agree with Jarvis?
    “No, millions watch TV. Only three are outraged.
    This is America’s “moral values” army: three strong.”
    Now we are looking through the other end of the telescope. Objection to the coarsening of our culture can only be valid if it is “outrage” and only if it expressed in an original complaint to the FCC about a particular TV show. OK.
    “Wake up: It’s three people with empty helmets sticking up over the wall thanks to email and Xerox.”
    And how big is your army of First Amendment absolutists?
    “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.”
    Most radical? I have my doubts. An earlier comment listed a number of areas where regulatory overreach appears far greater, and has wider impact.
    Jeff, I understand your position and can respect it, though I disagree. But this form of mostly-straw-man argument loses you ground with me.

  • MWB:
    I’m simply saying what’s good for goose is goosing for the gander: Make fun of this absurd process by doing just what these bozos are doing. Show the absurdity of it.
    I plan to use the complaint factory to which I link to add a statement above — i.e., this is a bunch of crap — and send the forms off to the FCC so that when the next FOIA request is made, they will be included. I am making fun of this offensive process by using the process quite on purpose and with full consciousness of what I’m doing.

  • And what happens when, when you mock their system by abusing, they decide you have a good thing happenning. “Hey!” they’ll say. “This guy is good!” And they’ll keep on going.
    Sarcasm fails and hypocrisy wins.

  • Well, Richard, I’m mocking their absurdity by telling them they have to fine ABC stations for airing “Saving Private Ryan” if they fine Stern and find Bono guilty and I’m mocking their absurdity by using their methods. They have to stop. One way of making them stop is by forcing them into a corner and forcing them to use their own methods on themselves: Force them to fine a fine and patriotic movie to show the what they are doing wrong. This is what they have bought themselves by violating our precious First Amendment.

  • MWB

    Jeff, fair enough re: using the “complaint factory” for your own ends.
    I’d be interested in your response to my larger point. Short version: If First Amendment absolutism is a matter of principle, presumably you would take the stand you do even if everyone else in the country agreed with the FCC here. So, headlining “the tyranny of the few” vs. “all of us” is a bit disingenuous. You’re really only interested in the opinion of “all of us” insofar as we agree with you. And the “tyranny” you see would be tyranny whether “of the few” or “of the many.”
    Even more interesting to me would be how you came to be a First Amendment absolutist, how you define that, and what caveats you include (yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater, etc.). Is there a previous post or posts (one of your Daily Sterns, perhaps) that lays it all out?

  • MWB:
    I believe government has not role regulating speech. Period. The constitution is clear on that. I make the standard caveats on yelling fire in a theater or treason or libel; those are well-established.

  • Lex

    Late to the party … and yet raising a point no one else has raised yet: The Freedom of Information Act applies only to *federal* records, and only *executive-branch* records at that. If you want to keep an eye on the mayor, etc., your own state’s open-records law probably is what governs access. The Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press has info on all 50 states’ laws here.
    Also: Not to discourage you, but many FOIA requests don’t get filled anywhere near as quickly or productively as Jeff’s did. That situation has only become worse under John Ashcroft, who basically promised executive-branch agencies that if they wanted to deny a FOIA request, his department would give them every possible legal assistance. And Gonzalez signaled in a 2002 speech, reported at the time in Editor & Publisher magazine, that he’d likely be little better.

  • Oscar

    I find it odd that you claim that “only” three people wrote original letters. Is originality the magic criteria for valid protesting?
    Yes, I understand that 23 is not significantly more than 3, but what’s the point of that hyperbole? All kinds of “write your representative” campaigns give participants an easy form letter to use if they don’t want to write one themselves, be they liberal or conservative.
    I don’t disagree with your main premise – that the FCC is broken, simply put.

  • MWB

    “…government has no role regulating speech. Period.”
    Yelling “Fire” in a crowded theater
    Libel (and Slander I assume)
    False Advertising?
    The more you think about it, the more it becomes clear that the term “speech” in the First Amendment doesn’t mean just anything someone might say. Content and context matters.
    That’s why this debate isn’t really about the “tyranny of the few” or the vagueness of the rules or the inconsistency of enforcement. As undesireable as any of those things may be, each could be addressed in ways that would still leave First Amendment absolutists put out.
    It really all boils down to where the line should be drawn, and who does the drawing. Should “obscenity” go on the list with libel, incitement, false advertising and the rest of the well established limitations on free speech? And if so, how should it be defined, and by whom?

  • Tad Sketchy

    1) Am I the only one who’s finding the distinction between “broadcast channels” and “paid-for cable channels” less and less persuasive? Supposedly only 11% of television viewers see broadcast channels through traditional “rabbit ears” antennas.
    2) If one removed all shows even vaguely definable under FCC regulations as obscene, indecent and profane from broadcast channels, what exactly would that accomplish? Does one envision some sort of programming utopia that would then blossom? Hasn’t the market spoken on this issue, with the creation of PAX?
    3) I am amused to note that with this post, 21 times more comments have been generated on this issue than were formally sent to the FCC.

  • Rootbeer

    If the FCC’s duty is truly to enforce “contemporary community standards”, it ought to be listening to what the public says is NOT offensive, in addition to what it says IS offensive. This is not possible if the FCC is set up to recieve complaints, but not compliments.
    Millions of people watched the program. Twenty-three were offended enough to complain. A million minus 23 demonstrates to me that no, according to “contemporary community standards” the content was not offensive. The Silent Majority has (not) spoken.

  • I don’t know the particulars of this other than what I’ve read here.
    But it seems to me that three people writing does not mean only three are against public obscenity, anymore than it means nobody is FOR public obscenity if no one wrote to the FCC to support Stern.
    By the size of Stern’s audience many want public indecency. How many of THEM wrote the FCC in support of it?
    The law has long ruled that obscenity for the sake of obscenity is legal as long as it is involving only adults and is NOT public. It seems to me Jackson and Stern have violated that.
    “Private Ryan” on the other hand comes under the “art form with redeeming qualities” designation, so I would think it should be handled much as any adult programing is handled….movies with ratings..and TV movies and programs shown outside the hours that children normally watch TV.
    At one of our public state parks one summer, a group of teen age potty mouths joined the pleasant gathering of families and children enjoying some quality time together. They were loud, and every other word was a sexual obscenity…at least two or three words in every sentence it seemed. It mattered not that there were women and small children present.
    These otherwise nice kids really seemed unaware their behavior was anything but OK.
    Must we have a publicly obscene media enforcing that message?
    If Stern and Jackson are OK for public venue, then you really can’t complain if next, people are having sex on the bus or right next to you as you eat dinner in a restaurant.
    In a civilized society, the line does need to be drawn as to what the general public has to put up with. Three letters or not, I very much doubt the majority of the US is so decadent they want to see and hear the likes of Stern and Jackson everywhere and anywhere.

  • Michael

    “If Stern and Jackson are OK for public venue, then you really can’t complain if next, people are having sex on the bus or right next to you as you eat dinner in a restaurant.”
    You can’t be serious. You’re joking, right?

  • Leslie

    Actually, the correct saying is “*falsely* shouting fire in a theater.” If the theater really is on fire, then it’s quite allowed to shout “FIRE!”
    “In this case, Schenck and Company were convicted of violating the Espionage Act of 1917, a Federal law which, among other things, made it a crime to obstruct government draft recruiting and enlistment efforts.
    Schenck printed 15,000 leaflets, many of which were to be mailed to draftees. [2] The first page of the leaflet contained the text of Section I of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, and on the flip side of the leaflet were printed (among others) the following phrases: “Do not submit to intimidation”, “Assert your Rights”, “your right to assert your opposition to the draft”, and “If you do not assert and support your rights, you are helping to deny or disparage rights which it is the solemn duty of all citizens and residents of the United States to retain.” [3] Schenck was arrested for passing along this information.”
    Arrested, tried, and found guilty on all counts.
    “We admit that in many places and in ordinary times the defendants in saying all that was said in the circular would have been within their constitutional rights. But the character of every act depends upon the circumstances in which it is done. . . . The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”
    There’s freedom of speech for ya.

  • Frank

    Jeff, you say Government has no role in regulating speech. Is that individual speech or is that collective speech carried out on your behalf by your elected officials.
    If its individual speech then why are the people in the first amendment different than the people in the second?

  • Alvin

    Just heard you on Howard Stern talking about this. Way to go.

  • Brilliant work. I am stunned by what you discovered, and I applaud you for your effort in this regard.

  • mark-o

    OH NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    We need MORE boobies on teevee, not less!!!
    More boobies, more boobies, more boobies!
    And arses, too!!!!

  • Anne F.

    The only reason ABC and their affiliates caved on “Private Ryan” was the same reason Spielberg made it: to show the American people what horror awaits their children when they go to war. It’s an anti-recruiting film. If it got the ratings they expected, no one would volunteer to be Bush’s cannon fodder. And when they bring back the draft (and they will!). “Private Ryan” will cause a mass exodus to the Canadian border!

  • scb

    On my way to work this morning heard your name mentioned on the show biz report on KROQ regarding your discovery. I have been a fan of your blog and thought it funny to hear about you on KROQ!

  • michael

    I think there are at least TWO separate issues here:
    The first is a cultural issue. And personally, I don’t agree with ANY kind of censorship

  • martin

    I dunno — I think the FCC deserves praise for being such a responsive agency. What other branch of government will jump so high for so few?
    If you want to see more sleaze on television, I guess it’s up to you and three other people to send letters to the FCC commending Fox every time it airs something of questionable taste. Meanwhile I think I’ll go read a book.

  • Cal
  • “A tyranny of the few”
    Agreed, but who’s suprised? THIS IS HOW GOVERNMENT WORKS!!! It is why I work everyday to limit the size scope and power of government and the tyrannical few that want to control all of our lives.
    Help us out. Vote Libertarian

  • AST

    I agree that this was ridiculous, but it wouldn’t have changed the fallout from the Superbowl broadcast. I don’t think that three complaints should result in that kind of fine, but I also don’t believe that there should be no recourse for indecency.
    One of the things people are entitled to is to have a say in what their community is like, and that right is being steadily degraded by civil rights litigation and court rulings. The airways are the commons of our society and telling people to just change the channel is not an answer to parents who worry about what kind of crap their kids are exposed to outside of their homes. A lot of the problems caused by “adult entertainment” is that it gets delivered to people with adolescent mentalities and too often is aimed at that audience. Shock jocks are a prime example.

  • Person of Choler

    Do any of you ever wonder if you just watch too much TV?

  • >Posted by Lynn
    No, I’m not. As one poster above stated …the real question is whether any line should be drawn at all, and if so, what line is within the parameters of the first amendment.
    If that indeed is the case:
    There are folks living amongst us that would see nothing wrong with the above scenario. They would think all the supporters here, who might yet still find public sex objectionable, are prudes! If you objected, could they not feel about any remaining standards, as those here feel about the standards of the religious right and not want interference of their expressions of “love”?
    Wasn’t there already an incident where one of the media shock jocks dared a couple to have sex in a public place…they did..and got in trouble for it? I vaguely remember reading about it.
    Everything is relative, after all.
    Folks, be careful about what kind of world you are asking for. You -and your children – may wind up with it.

  • P.S. The post above by me is a reply to Michael’s question at
    11/16 7:22 am.
    I had copy /pasted his comment not realizing it wouldn’t transfer

  • Stutely

    Copying a form letter and mailing it in is the NORM Now – in fact mailing a letter is actually much more impressive than what most lobbying groups have their constituents do nowadays which is to email or at the most fax in a standard form.
    I guess I totally miss the point anyway. The FCC isn’t a complaint agency set up to to respond only to issues which get the most complaints. It’s charged with going after violations of the regulations. It has the power to go after violations if there are ZERO complaints. Contrary to popular myth, it needn’t take a poll before enforcing the law.
    It’s also true that the FCC doesn’t have someone listening or watching every single program out there – it relies on the public to bring violations to its attention. So even ONE complaint is relevant.
    So your big “SCOOP” is fairly irrelevant.

  • Stutely:
    Not when community standards are a factor, as they are supposed to be, and the “community” is three people out of a few hundred million.

  • Mod

    So, all a competitor of Fox has to do to cost them money is to write three seperate letters of complaint, randomly generated 200 names to put on top of them and send them off, every day?
    Geez, the Simpsons is ‘sexually suggestive’. Any number of situations could offend less than 1 percent of people. Why are those people watching Fox after 9pm?

  • In the spirit of Thanksgiving, thanks for this excellent work, Jeff. Here’s hoping your work on this issue gets a lot more attention.