Why I Complain About IndecencyGuest Commentary 4/25/2004 08:00:00 PM Eastern
Nine days after the FCC proposed $495,000 in fines against Clear Channel for Howard Stern vulgarities, CBS's 60 Minutes
chose to re-broadcast a story on pop diva Mary J. Blige during which she exclaims, "S--t!"
I filed the successful Stern complaint, and I filed another complaint after Blige's excretory expletive was aired. Here's why.
1. A parent can say to a child who parrots Stern, "Don't use that language." "Why?" whines the child. "Because Stern makes a living being vulgar." But when that child hears profanity on 60 Minutes, the most respected news program in American history, what then does a parent say in rebuttal?
2. Viacom's CBS and MTV gave us the Super Bowl halftime show, the broadcast industry's 9/11 moment in the culture war. Viacom is the one company, especially with Stern in its tent, that ought to be the most careful right now not to make matters worse for all other broadcasters. Yet its airing of the Blige piece looks to some like a calculated "in your face, FCC," especially since it was a repeat (there was a chance to edit it out) and the program aired hours before Viacom and other industry giants announced the likelihood of litigation to thwart the indecency crackdown.
So, which was it, intentional or sloppy? As a one-time guest on 60 Minutes, I can tell you sloppy is not an option. It's a very carefully edited program.
Why do I and other parents care? Listen to Secretary of State Colin Powell, the father of FCC Chairman Michael Powell. He wrote these words nine years ago in his memoir, My American Journey: "We say we are appalled by the rise of sexually transmitted disease, by the wave of teenage pregnancies, by violent crime. Yet we drench ourselves in depictions of explicit sex and crime on television, in movies, and in pop music.
"A sense of shame is not a bad moral compass," he continued. "I remember how easy it was for my mother to snap me back into line with a simple rebuke: 'I'm ashamed of you. You embarrassed the family.' I wonder where our national sense of shame has gone."
At a time when radical Islamists recruit others with the assertion that America is the "Great Satan" as proved by the depravity of its popular culture, what is our rebuttal to Viacom treasure Howard Stern's asking Manhattan prostitutes to come down to Ground Zero to service rescue workers poring through the smoking rubble?
Lincoln's great biographer Carl Sandburg wrote that "freedom is moving easy in harness"—a brilliant metaphor for what the Founders called "ordered liberty."
Either broadcasters will accept the light harness of decency that has been the law for decades and start cleaning up their acts, or the public's deepening outrage will foster a more fearsome governmental response.