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Committed To The First Amendment 9/05/2004 08:00:00 PM Eastern

The GOP Should Get Off This Pulpit

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who headed the Republican Platform Committee, said last week that its lengthy document "represents what the American vision is" and celebrates "the diversity of ideas." We sincerely doubt both claims on at least one point.

To us, that vision appears fogged by a misplaced sense of religious persecution and the specious suggestion that the media is either causing or perpetuating it. In one portion of the platform, the GOP officially proclaims: "We condemn the desecration of places of worship and objects of religious devotion and call upon the media to reconsider their role in fostering bias through negative stereotyping of religious citizens." The link between the two is not explicit, but the impression is left that the media consistently ridicules religion and contributes to the desecration. Come again?

The good thing about party platforms is that they are little more than the hot air left over after all those campaign balloons are blown up. Yet they are touted as the party's core principles. This plank in the platform demands at least an explanation and, better yet, a rebuke. What were the Republicans thinking? And what are they watching? More than likely, this portion was an attempt to appeal to the conservative base while moderates were lining up to appear on TV during the proceedings, but that does not excuse it.

The vast majority of outlets that deal specifically with religious themes do so in a way that is overwhelmingly positive, whether it is almost all of Pax TV or CBS's long run of Touched by an Angel
and its current run of Joan of Arcadia
or The WB's Seventh Heaven
or noncommercial TV's long-running Religion & Ethics. Sundays are filled with preachers of every sort on TV and radio. Cable has several religious channels usually available to subscribers.

We'll admit that religions of all stripes get skewered on South Park, but the point is that the stereotype is being blasted, not the religion. Even the broadcast comedy that pokes the most fun at fundamentalist Christians does so with an irreverent fondness. Christianity Today
magazine scrutinized The Simpsons
character Ned Flanders and concluded that "many evangelicals would have no difficulty in recognizing Ned and his family as their own."

We are not aware of even one instance in which a place of worship was desecrated on a TV show, except in cop shows, where catching the culprit was the reason for the scene. That, in fact, we've seen several times—usually the episode was in response to an actual church- or synagogue-vandalism story that had made headlines—and the script always reflected appropriate disgust at the act. Certainly, in coverage of Iraq and Israel, we have seen countless news stories about the significance of sites considered sacred by Muslims, Jews and Christians.

We suspect that Republican platform writers just wanted to blame the perceived liberal, indecency-peddling media for something. But, for every Sex and the City, which surely the religious right abhors, there's an Everwood. For every Bill Moyers, there's a Brit Hume. For every Howard Stern, there's a Rush Limbaugh (and a Sean Hannity and a Michael Graham and on and on). And for every rerun of Dana Carvey as the Church Lady in old episodes of Saturday Night Live, there's The 700 Club, right in the middle of ABC's Family Channel, contractually forever and ever.

Television is not a breeding ground for anarchic atheists, and neither is radio. If the Republicans can cite chapter and verse on the "negative stereotyping of religious persons," we invite them to do so. Otherwise, this insulting platform item should collapse from its lack of a foundation.

Let's Not Go to the Videotape

The FCC is proposing to require broadcasters to record and archive everything they air, to make it easier for the offended to complain. Frankly, it's a horrible idea. As it is, an overzealous FCC has already driven radio and TV stations and networks into self-censor mode. "Improving" the complaint system would only make things worse and more oppressive.

There is no compelling government interest in forcing stations to log everything they air and make it readily available to the general public. Instead, the FCC proposal is an attempt to leverage the fallout from the increasingly ludicrous Janet Jackson backlash to give the government even more control over what we can see and hear.

By forcing broadcasters to keep mountains of tape or an ocean of computer memory, the onus of documentation falls on the accused, not the accuser. That's enough to force an industry already chilled by the threat of huge fines, like those aimed at Infinity and Clear Channel radio stations, into complete submission for fear of saying anything that might jeopardize license renewals. The result would be a media landscape sponged clean of anything likely to offend anyone. It's de facto prior restraint.

Indecency regulation has First Amendment problems from the get-go. But if the FCC is to exercise any content control, it should be sparingly. Instead, the FCC is trying to put traffic cameras at every stoplight and then encourage the public to make citizen's arrests.

Small-market broadcasters by the hundreds, from group owners to noncommercial outlets, have weighed in at the FCC with one voice pointing out a raft of problems with the proposal.

One very real one is the financial burden, particularly equipment and administrative costs, of taping and archiving everything broadcast, including digital multicasts. There are copyright liability and contract issues and, most important, the inhibition of free speech.

The FCC itself has conceded that relatively few complaints are rejected for lack of a transcript or tape, so the benefit to the commission would be negligible. It's a point National Public Radio made in its strong opposition to the proposal.

NPR also noted that broadcasters would incur substantial costs "even though most have no prior history of indecency violations or even complaints." In addition, NPR said, because the rule would "facilitate the filing of indecency, profanity and obscenity complaints, whether justified or not, it will necessarily discourage broadcasters from broadcasting programming that may offend any listener, thereby chilling protected First Amendment speech."

We agree. This proposal is misguided public policy dressed up as public service.

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