Last month, over 100,000 Americans filed public comments with the Federal Communications Commission, asking the FCC enforce broadcast decency laws. This month, the entertainment industry filed its comments – and arrogantly demanded the “right” to flood American homes with indecent content.
The online journal Radio World reported on the “reply comments” filed with the FCC, which were largely from entertainment industry groups. (Most average Americans filed comments during the first comment period, while the industry largely waited to “reply” to the public’s comments.)
The overwhelming majority of the 100,000 public comments American citizens filed with the FCC demanded the government body continue to enforce laws against indecency on the public airwaves. Unsurprisingly, the “reply comments” filed by representatives of broadcasters, the entertainment industry, and their lobbyists (which Radio World disingenuously calls “public advocacy groups”) demanded absolutely no decency regulation whatsoever — or, if that demand fails, a draconian revamp of FCC policies which would put the burden of “proving” shows are indecent on the members of the public.
Radio World dismissively characterized the more than 100,000 comments from the American people as “something along the lines of this, from one citizen: ‘I am completely opposed to the FCC further allowing another level of moral decay on the airwaves’” – a comment which clearly demonstrates the utter contempt the entertainment industry (and its trade press) has for the sensibilities of its own customers.
Radio World then offered a summary of comments from industry groups. (Naturally, no comments from the actual owners of the broadcast airwaves – the American people – were included.)
The National Association of Broadcasters claimed that “the rationale for broadcaster-specific limits on ‘indecent’ speech has crumbled under the weight of changes in technology and media consumption.” This must come as news to the NAB’s own president, Gordon Smith, who last year at the NAB’s national convention stated that, “Even today, broadcast radio and TV are where the ears and eyeballs are. More than 46 million viewers rely exclusively on over-the-air TV. Of the top 100 prime-time shows, 95 of them are on broadcast TV, not cable networks.” (The NAB also pointed out that “children in particular enjoy unfettered access to content via devices that they carry in their pockets and backpacks — access that usually involves no subscription or special parental involvement.” Isn’t this MORE reason the entertainment industry should act responsibly in creating content, not less?)
The Center for Democracy & Technology, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Public Knowledge, and TechFreedom bellowed that “it is simply a matter of time before the Supreme Court strikes down indecency regulation once and for all. Whatever the future of broadcasting might be, there is no question that broadcasters have the same First Amendment rights as other speakers.” This is untrue. Broadcasters do NOT have “the same first Amendment rights as other speakers,” for these reasons: 1) the First Amendment grants “freedom of speech, and of the press” to individuals and legitimate news sources, not to multi-billion dollar entertainment corporations; 2) the Amendment’s purpose was to preserve free political debate, not enable the spread of profanity, pornography, and graphic violence; and 3) possessing First Amendment rights does not automatically grant the right of access to the publicly-owned airwaves. Use of the airwaves is a PRIVILEGE, not a right; and as with all such privileges, it comes with responsibilities. Use of the public airwaves requires a broadcast license. It is up to the FCC and the Congress to decide what requirements to impose for receiving such a license; and for almost 90 years, one requirement has been that broadcasters operate “in the public interest.” Demanding that the entertainment industry be able to dump whatever garbage it wants into every home in America, using the people’s own airwaves to do so, is rather difficult to reconcile with “the public interest.” And for the vast majority of those 90 years, enforcement of broadcast decency laws has been totally uncontroversial. It is only in recent years that a tiny clique of media moguls and Hollywood insiders has become determined to force ever-more extreme violence, sexual content, and graphic language into people’s homes.
The same groups also complained that “like all speakers, broadcasters should not have to defend themselves against vague and subjective accusations.” It would probably come as news to most politicians, pundits, and other public speakers that they “should not have to defend themselves against vague and subjective accusations.” Essentially, what these groups are saying is: broadcasters should be completely above the law, and not subject to any criticism whatsoever. Unfortunately for them, the American people think differently.
National Public Radio complained that avoiding broadcast indecency was too burdensome: “NPR, its members and other public radio broadcasters have been forced to reconcile the sometimes competing demands to produce programming that serves the public interest while avoiding broadcasting indecent or profane matter…News and public affairs programs, in particular, require the producer to make editorial determinations based on the issue(s) being addressed, the substance of the programming and the make-up and needs of the station’s listeners. The commission’s enforcement approach has made those determinations significantly more difficult.” Essentially, NPR is whining, “It’s TOO HARD to produce serious, meaningful, intelligent news and commentary without using the f-word!” It is difficult to see how “programming that serves the public interest” is incompatible with “avoiding broadcasting indecent or profane matter.” What — are the folks at NPR upset because they can’t do a multi-part series interviewing porno movie actors?
It’s also more than a little arrogant of NPR, an organization which is FUNDED by American taxpayers – a huge number of whom specifically said they wanted the FCC to continue enforcement of laws against indecency – to decide that IT knows what is in “the public interest” better than the public itself does. This arrogance was revealed even further when NPR stated that “by adopting a more practical approach to indecency and profanity enforcement, the commission staff could routinely dismiss complaints about broadcast matters that may involve an isolated anatomical reference or a subject matter offensive to a few but clearly not indecent or profane.” So if something is offensive only to “a few,” it is “clearly not indecent or profane”? Who is NPR to decide whose sensibilities should be honored and whose should not? For example, even the highest estimates say only about 10% of Americans are gay. Does NPR believe that it is therefore acceptable to blanket the airwaves with homophobic slurs, because it would only be “offensive to a few”? In short, NPR feels the Federal Communications Commission should not determine what is “indecent or profane” – NPR should.
A large number of capitalist broadcast-related groups – with names like “Lincoln Financial Media” – pushed for so-called “reform” by saying, “the commission should only entertain documented complaints against specific stations from bona fide viewers and listeners…Such documentation has previously taken the form of either a tape or a transcript. Undocumented allegations of complainants should not be credited, particularly when there is no way to establish what material actually aired.”
One has to ask: how, exactly, is a complainant supposed to prove they are a “bona fide viewer”? According to media companies, unless you can somehow PROVE you were watching TV at the very second something indecent aired, your complaint should be ignored. If adopted, this measure would be the first time in the history of the American legal system that an individual had to personally witness a crime in order to report one.
Of course, broadcasters’ real purpose is to set up a system which burdens viewers who wish to file complaints. Such viewers would be required to submit a video recording or transcript (!) of the entire program. And even if they did so, according to these groups there should still be a review process defining whether the offense was sufficiently “egregious” to warrant government action.
It is not surprising that multi-billion-dollar media companies want less burdensome regulations; so does every corporation. But unlike most other corporations, broadcasters are making money by using a public resource and public utility: the airwaves, which are owned not by the corporations, but by the American people.
The media industry has it exactly backwards. They are the ones being regulated, not the American people. And the government’s job is to regulate industry and advocate for the American people – not ignore complaints from the public while smoothing the way for corporations. But by the broadcasters’ logic, if a citizen complained about a factory belching smog into the air and dumping toxic waste into the public water supply, the complaining citizen would have to submit samples of the air and water, along with scientific statistical analyses of particulate content, before the Environmental Protection Agency could look into it.
Even more insidiously, Saga Communications urged the commission to “implement a ‘triage’ system to discourage frivolous or unsubstantiated complaints and to identify ‘cookie cutter’ indecency complaints.” Translation: if you’re a member of the PTC or another group concerned about the influence of media on children and families, your opinion – and your First Amendment right to “petition the government for a redress of grievances” – shouldn’t count. Apparently, Saga Communications believes that the opinions of the thousands of people who file complaints on public policy issues at the urging of the Democratic party, the Sierra Club, the NAACP, or GLAAD shouldn’t be counted, either.
Finally, multiple groups went on to whine that laws against broadcasting indecent content at hours when children are watching create an “ inhibiting environment that has a chilling effect on artists’ creative expression.” One has only to look at the current glut of TV shows about serial killers, the increased sexualization of teenage girls, or the fact that use of the f-word on prime-time broadcast TV has increased 2400% since 2005, to see how “chilled” and “inhibited” the entertainment industry’s “creative expression” is today.
It’s not a surprise that the entertainment industry continues to push for the “right” to do anything it wants, any time it wants, completely free of all regulation and without regard for the well-being of children or society; but one of the main reasons our government exists is to “promote the general welfare.” This will not be done if government bends the knee before a tiny group of ruthless and rapacious media bosses.