The F-and-S analysis

Here’s my first submission to Comment is Free at Guardian Unlimited: a summary of the FCC’s latest crimes against speech.

When government regulates speech, it falls onto a slick slope. This is a particularly perilous course these days, when mere cartoons can spawn deadly riots. Now, more than ever, shouldn’t we be demonstrating the power of free speech, the courage to hear anything? Instead, in America, our government is washing our collective mouths out with soap.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission just issued a slew of penalties against American broadcasters for saying bad words or almost showing pixelated, simulated sex. It levied a record $3.6 million fine for a sex scene in a single show, “Without a Trace,” and confirmed a $550,000 fine against CBS over Janet Jackson airing her breast. The commissioners cite the American public’s “growing concern” with TV programming (though I reported on my blog that the supposed outcry is manufactured almost completely by the so-called Parents Television Council and other right-wing religious pressure groups). They say that broadcasters don’t know where to stop. But it’s government that doesn’t know where to stop

Consider: In this country, it is now worse to use bathroom or bedroom vulgarities than it is to issue bigotry or hate speech. How could this be? When Bono used the F-word on an awards show, the FCC for the first time declared that the word was not just indecent but, worse, profane — that is, “so grossly offensive to members of the public who actually hear it as to amount to a nuisance.” Practically, this means that the word in any context is unbearable for society. Now, wIth its latest orders, the FCC declared the S-word (using that prissy code) to be profane as well.

But the commission conceded that other words are also grossly offensive to members of the public. They wrote: “Although we recognize that additional words, such as language conveying racial or religious epithets, are considered offensive by most Americans, we intend to avoid extending the bounds of profanity to reach such language given constitutional considerations.”

To sum this up all too bluntly: “nigger” and “kike” are constitutionally protected while “fuck” and “shit” are not.

The festival of irony continues. When Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” was set to air, the latest among many times, a year ago, many stations elected not to broadcast it because the soldiers used F- and S-words aplenty and the FCC had just ruled that F’s, in any context, are profane. The FCC later said “Ryan” deserved no fines because it was such a fine work of art.

Note then how the FCC has now put itself in the position of being not only our national nanny but our cultural critic laureate as well. They decide what is art worthy of protection and what is not. They decide what is good enough.

Yet in Wednesday’s orders, the FCC issued a rare slap at a PBS documentary “The Blues: Godfathers and Sons,” because its subjects used the same words that were in “Saving Private Ryan.” So white soldiers are allowed to say bad words while black musicians are not.

But lest I turn this into a racial card game, let me be quick to point out that Oprah Winfrey avoided penalties for describing the same oral-anal sex acts that netted notorious and hilarious shock jock Howard Stern one of his last fines before he left broadcast radio for satellite, (where the FCC’s gags do not reach… yet). The FCC said that Oprah’s explanations of anal and group sex were OK because this was educational. And we’re wiser for it, let me tell you.

: MORE: The Kos crew is fed up and decides to fight back. At last. Go get ’em.

: Just did ABC Radio network on this; did Howard 100 last night.

  • NotEdwardRMurrow

    “To sum this up all too bluntly: “nigger” and “kike” are constitutionally protected while “fuck” and “shit” are not.”

    So… izat mean Lenny Bruce will make a comeback?
    Sounds good to me!

  • What government function is mandated by the Constitution that is carried out by telling the public what it can’t watch? The freedom from using the digits to change channels? This government just passed legislation t

  • [got cut off] that usurped the rights of the states to guard the public from unsanitary food, without congressional hearings, during the Dubai Ports World activity. I would rather be protected from unsafe food than from loose language.

  • The Kos crew is misguided — they’re suggesting e-mails to the Parent’s Television Council, which is surely a waste of time. Better to e-mail the FCC and your legislators!

    I’m wondering where the bloggers are on this — I’ve been tracking this since last night, and so far hardly anyone’s talking about it! BTW — I’ve got a roundup of sorts at my blog, and I’m hoping more bloggers will be talking aboit this during the day.

  • Rich Drees

    Times like this makes me wish that Bill Hicks was still alive…

  • Joe

    I would like to nominate George Carlin for FCC Chairman.

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  • This is all part of a policy to control dissent and cower broadcasters. After all, this is the same administration that has punished people for telling the truth about global warming, the size of the new Medicare drug program, the safety of the Plan B pill, and various economic indicators.

    O’Connor may be worried about a dictatorship arising from control of the courts, but control of the media is also one of the early objectives as well.

    First it will be “bad” words, then it will be “bad” thoughts. Even the blogosphere is under attack as a way for the people to support a candidate without government intervention.

  • ged

    Well, you almost made it though a piece without bringing up the H—– word. Close, but no cigar.

  • Jeff,

    If you are such a free speech advocate, when are you going to weigh in on all of the laws that regulate speech during elections?

    The First Amendment was intended to protect political speech, first and foremost – not profanity.

  • Matth

    Jeff – Any idea what the legal status is here? Are the broadcasters going to fight this in court? If so, where do things stand in terms of exhausting the administrative appeals?

  • You, Captious, restrain your knee. Remember that you already won me over.

  • Jeff, I agree with your views on freedom of speech as you know, but just to be difficult, I’d like to ask you that if you believe in good, wholesome, honest free speech, why are you aligning yourself and your blog with a spin doctor, on CNN no less?

    “Train us, Edelman, train us, Edelman, train us, train us, train us, Edelman.”

    Thanks very much, but I don’t need ‘training’. Do you?

  • Noel,
    Oh for God’s sake, I was NEVER but NEVER saying that Edelman or any flack should train bloggers or anyone. Now I understand the reaction to the misunderstanding. I was saying that we need to clue in bloggers about sensible transparency (as we also need to clue in journalists!). And, yes, I should have not have used the verb “train.” I have already fallen on that sword and twisted said sword so please forgive and forget, friend. Or do I need to train you to do that? ;-)

    When you and Captious convince me to agree then you need to take the sale, as they say. You each convinced me of the error of my ways, and there’s no sense in then continuing to fire.

  • I hadn’t realized I’d convinced you of anything and it’s so disappointing to hear I have. I was really enjoying roasting you over the illicit consumption of danish pastries. Can’t you not be so big about this? Couldn’t you be just a little bit smaller?

    As for training me, good luck trying ;-)

  • isn’t it the duty of those who would impose a practice, to pay for it? i suggest those who want to establish a standard practrice to pay to research, estblish, prosecute, and carry it out. The bill is in the mail.

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