How's That Again?


You could have knocked me over with a feather from Gypsy Rose Lee’s boa when Lawrence Tribe, the venerable lawyer hired by, among others, the cable industry to defend TV content, almost offhandedly agreed with a Senator Tuesday that a scene from FX’s The Shield was likely obscene.

Obscenity is to indecency as the pole vault bar is to the high jump, which means a heck of a lot higher. To be obscene, the content has to be without redeeming social importance and totally gratuitous, neither of which the scene of forced oral sex (actually about power and nothing about sex) in the Peabody award-winning drama is. Gritty, disturbing, violent. Sure, but also on pay TV after 10 at night.

I would have expected the "obscenity"comment from a legislator who does not spar with Supreme Court Justices for a living, but it seemed totally out of left field for Tribe, the Harvard trained Constitutional scholar. I have to assume he has a strategy, but I don’t know what it is.

Neither did FX, which quickly issued a statement defending the show.

Tribe also riled some Senators by seeming to suggest they are grandstanding on the issue and Big Brothering the media. Some of them are, of course, but not all. And anyway, you try not to wave it in front of them like a red flag in front of a bull, particularly when you are on their home turf. At least I don’t think you do. Tribe said he had meen misunderstood, but that was the impression I thought he was meaning to make as well.

Fortunately for the media, a number of Senators at the  Commerce Committee hearing on the impact of violent images on kids came armed with their own reservations about the government regulating more TV content than it already does.

One of those was not Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), however, who came out swining and never let up, coming just short of accusing broadcasters of child endangerment and suggested studios be prevented from producing the kind of shows he believes harm children.

The media violence issue is complicated by the fact that TV does at times seem so unrelentingly, disturbingly gory. Rockefeller said that one reason that TV networks don’t cut back on violence is ratings and advertisers and sweeps, but isn’t that just saying networks don’t cut back because that is the programming that a lot of people seem to want to watch these days.

I was impressed by Senator Lautenberg of New Jersey, who said what we should be focusing on society’s appetite for violence rathern than the fact that the media is giving that public what it seems to want. Perhaps, he said, that could mean not cutting social programs that help poor people and counsel troubled kids. 

He also got in a nice zinger, saying it was hypocritical to allow all that media violence and yet prevent peole from seeing the consequences of our real violence in Iraq, the bodies of soldiers returning to Dover, Del.

By John Eggerton