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.