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1/04/2004 07:00:00 PM Eastern

Clear as Mud

With budgets to pass and foreign entanglements to untangle, some legislators have nothing better to do than parse FCC language to purge it of a profanity "loophole."

The FCC is partly to blame for the mess that is indecency enforcement. It makes up its policy as it goes along. But so is the Supreme Court, which handed FCC regulators the vague indecency charter that has pushed them down a tortuous enforcement route that provides little guidance to those attempting to follow it.

Double entendre and innuendo can be actionable, the FCC has said in a case involving references to "Tootsie Rolls" and "Whoppers." But, in the "urinal guard" ruling, "pissed on" is not actionable because it was ruled a variation of "pissed off," meaning angry. The FCC has also ruled that "vulgar insults" can be OK: "sawed-off little prick," for example, so long as you are describing somebody and not something.

The expletive that prompted Reps. Doug Ose (R-Calif.) and Lamar Smith (R-Texas) to attempt to amend the Communications Act was Bono's f-word–peppered appearance on the Golden Globes. In that case, the FCC found the swearing too fleeting and isolated, rather than too non-adjectival, to sanction.

The FCC is always fumbling in the semidarkness, leaving a trail of enforcement decisions that doubles back on itself. That trail has led legislators to the bathroom wall, with an amendment reciting the seven "dirty" words followed by the admonition against "compound use (including hyphenated compounds) of such words and phrases with each other or with other words or phrases, and other grammatical forms of such words and phrases, and other grammatical forms of such words and phrases (including verb, adjective, gerund, participle and infinitive forms."

Well, that should clear things up.

More Smoke Than Fire

CBS took some heat for rescheduling its Michael Jackson interview for last Friday after initially saying it would not air it before "the due process of the legal system runs its course." The confluence of that decision and Jackson's granting of an interview with 60 Minutes
was seen as evidence of a quid pro quo. In essence, CBS executives did not dispute the characterization. The quid pro quo, they said, was that they were not about to slate the tribute to Jackson until he had addressed the child-molestation charges on their air. That may be a change from the original "due process" plan, but it is certainly a defensible one. If its stand on the tribute spurred the Jackson camp to relent on the interview, then so much the better for CBS.

For 60 Minutes' part, a spokesman insists the entertainment show was not part of its negotiation. The final result was that Bradley did get to ask Jackson about those serious charges—all false, Jackson claims—and CBS aired a tribute to the music of a man yet to be convicted of any crime. Looks like another day at the TV office to us.

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