The President's Bad Word

We'd swear we heard President Bush swear last week—except that the commander-in-chief's salty language was never heard on many broadcast television outlets.

When Bush uttered the word “sh-t,” and it was picked up by live microphones at the G-8 conference, some TV news departments chose to run the videotape with the audio intact. You'll notice we “dashed” the word. The broadcast networks bleeped it.

The $325,000 difference is that we didn't have to be so careful. In this case, we're being vague just to make this point. But we have printed profane language and, no doubt, will again (even within this editorial).

The broadcasters who bleeped the president say it was not out of fear of FCC reprisal but was in accordance with long-standing policies similar to those at this magazine. Maybe so. But the unwritten policy might also be: “Restrain yourself especially if it's the president who's cussing.”

That's the scary reality the FCC's Language Police created by threatening whopping penalties. Media news executives can't decide what to air solely on merits. They must consider the fines.

CNN isn't in the habit of airing profanities, but it decided to let the sh-t fly with unexpurgated audio and un-dashed text. Of course, CNN doesn't face a multi­million-dollar fine if the FCC doesn't agree with the call.

The networks and stations have challenged four FCC profanity findings, including one citing CBS' Early Show, where in 2004 a Survivor contestant called one of the other castaways a “bullshitter.” That utterance was fleeting and live; Bush's trash talk was taped, with plenty of time to make the editorial call.

That gets back to a relevant issue: The FCC says its indecency decisions depend entirely on context.

And that's the problem. Because the FCC said its profanity crackdown won't exempt newscasts, broadcasters can never decide to air an indecency in a newscast without fearing a fine.

It is highly unlikely the FCC would hammer any station for language in a newscast, but nothing is certain. And that unpredictability steals the journalistic birthright of First Amendment freedom from broadcasters.

How ridiculous. How stupid. Some legislators are vitriolic about television indecency, thinking not about what they're espousing but only about how righteous it makes them look in the eyes of voters.

We're sure the Founding Fathers never anticipated that, either.