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Committed to the First Amendment 8/31/2003 08:00:00 PM Eastern

FCC on the Offensive

We understand that Infinity will be fined, and more than the token amount, for indecency by the FCC for the Opie & Anthony stunt, in which WNEW-FM New York listeners were encouraged to have sex in public places and talk about it on air. One of those places was St. Patrick's Cathedral, which drew immediate censure from many quarters, including this one. Clearly, theirs was the kind of sophomoric, sacrilegious stunt guaranteed to get them a trip to the principal (and, as it turned out, a pair of pink slips). But was it indecent? No, not by the FCC's vague standards, nor should it be.

The Media Bureau was circulating the decision last week, which means that Chairman Michael Powell was on board. The other commissioners are pretty much gung-ho for toughening indecency standards, but we must admit to disappointment in the chairman, whose talk on First Amendment protections and the problems with content regulation has always been strong. Perhaps he reads the indecency rule differently. He is nothing if not a good soldier when he feels he has been given an order. But this was a chance to walk the walk, and he appears to have chosen to march with the content-reg crowd.

We don't believe this stunt was an indictment of Catholic sex scandals, though we can't be positive since the issue was raised during the broadcast, or a political statement about artistic freedom, or anything other than the sin of bad judgment, but broadcasters must be allowed to make those mistakes and to be thoughtlessly offensive. Otherwise, they will not be free to be thoughtfully so. The latter is the only way boundaries are tested and barriers broken. Our children are better served by a free press than by one censored in their name.

French Disconnection

A stroll along the Seine, the play of light through beech trees sheltering a sidewalk café, the throw of spray at the Palais Royal fountain. Perhaps the enjoyment of such simple pleasures and the general pace of European summers are behind Vivendi's refusal to get on with it and sell its entertainment assets already.

Last week, the Vivendi board, meeting in Paris, decided not to decide who will win its hand, but it will certainly think about it some more.

In a summer lacking the merger-a-minute pace of years past, Vivendi/NBC/Bronfman et al. has been the main point of interest bookmarked in deal-watchers' dog-eared Fodor's. But Vivendi's stringing out the $14 billion sale (that valuation may be part of the hold-up) of its Universal movie studio and theme park and USA Network as though teasing a crowd of rich suitors has begun to get old. The company risks going from playing the coquette to playing le clown. The last word at deadline was that the auction was finally coming to an end, with NBC emerging as the winning bidder. Let's hope so. It's in Vivendi's interest to get its act together and unwind assets that it has conceded it is not "genetically coded to run." Vite! Vite!

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