Issue 93, Spring 2004

by Joan E. Bertin

By the time you read this, Congress will likely have increased the fines for broadcasting indecent material from $27,500 to $500,000 per occurrence, and violence will be included in the definition of indecency. Performers as well as broadcasters could be fined.

Decency defies easy definition; even the Federal Communications Commission is confused. Sarah Jones’ song “Your Revolution,” which criticizes misogynist rap lyrics, received an “apparent notice of liability,” which was later rescinded, but in the interim the song was off the air. Eminem’s Grammy-winning song, “The Real Slim Shady,” was also initially labeled indecent and later cleared. In a more telling sign of the times, last fall the FCC concluded that the single expletive Bono uttered at the Golden Globe awards wasn’t indecent, but in March the FCC reversed itself and decided it was.

The airwaves offer plenty of material that is tasteless or offensive to some viewers, yet ratings indicate that millions of others tune in. Their views don’t count in this discussion, however; the FCC responds only to complaints, without taking account of the market forces that drive programming. It’s a peculiar turn on constitutional principles. While the First Amendment protects the majority from trampling on the rights of the minority, here the First Amendment rights of the majority are being swept aside in deference to the sensitivities of a minority.

The decency standard makes a hash of the First Amendment, by permitting government regulation of protected speech, including serious social commentary. Concern for children is cited as a rationale, but no one seriously claims that a few distasteful words or a fleeting image—what you see before changing the channel—inflict actual harm on minors. This also assumes improbable ignorance or naivete on the part of adults. Super Bowl fans could only be “shocked” by a risque halftime show in the sense that Claude Rains was “shocked” to learn of gambling in Casablanca.

If you don’t like what’s on, change the channel, turn off the tube, cancel the cable, dismantle the dish. If your children are exposed to something offensive, inaccurate, or just plain stupid, tell them what’s wrong with it. Like it or not, they live in a media-saturated world, and parents can help them learn to negotiate it wisely. When they tune in, they need to understand that technology is a tool for them to use, not the other way around.