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Committed to the First Amendment 3/02/2003 07:00:00 PM Eastern

Redemption for Revolution

The FCC's Enforcement Bureau has correctly righted a wrong that has been on the books far too long. Two weeks ago, it finally rescinded its May 2001 fine against noncommercial KBOO-FM Portland, Ore. The station had had the audacity to air an attack on sexual exploitation, Sarah Jones' rap song Your Revolution, during a public-affairs show dealing with social mores and attitudes. Despite that context and the obvious pro-social message of the song, the FCC concluded that it was unfit for public consumption if there was the possibility of young people in the audience. Ironic, since young women are among the people Jones wanted to reach with her message that they should not allow themselves to be exploited.

Rather than roll over and pay the $7,000 fine, the station challenged it, pointing out that Jones had been asked to perform the same song at high school assemblies, historically not hotbeds of smut and arguably a venue even more careful about what speech it permits than the FCC is.

There may be some close indecency calls—we wish the FCC were not empowered to make any—but this wasn't one of them. The fact that the enforcement bureau could describe this as "a very close call" suggests it is over its head. That the fine was levied goes to the continuing problem with the FCC staffers' having the power to decide what a nation can and cannot hear and see. Since each decision becomes national precedent in the "know it when I see it" regime of indecency enforcement, each decision should have to be voted on by the commissioners. That would be "our policy revolution."

Too Close for Comfort

On paper, and certainly on video, it appeared to be a clear journalistic coup. WPRI-TV Providence, R.I., cameraman Brian Butler's footage was an extraordinary record of the tragic nightclub fire that claimed the lives of nearly a hundred people. But as the story unfolded to reveal that reporter Jeffrey Derderian was also there in a dual role as co-owner of the club and as a journalist reporting a story, the picture began to cloud.

According to the station, Butler was there only to shoot bar-scene footage for a Derderian story, ironically, on safety in public places. But, even if we take WPRI-TV at its word that the video was not intended to promote the club in any way, the facts still spell conflict. Derderian's interest in the club should have raised flags. As a nightclub owner, he shouldn't have been reporting a story that necessarily included nightclub safety. And he should have stayed out of his own club.

The journalistic breach pales beside the human tragedy and the civil and possible criminal litigation that will come. But, while the police reconstruct the decisions that led to the disaster, the executives at WPRI-TV and owner LIN Television should look at the decisions that put its cameraman in a position to capture it.

 

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