Behind the Cultural Clean-Up

Author Frederick Lane takes aim at the crackdown on indecency

Author and attorney Frederick Lane has served as an expert witness on the issue of online pornography for public defenders and the Justice Department, among others. He is concerned about the administration's push for its view of moral correctness. Fresh from media appearances to plug his new book, The Decency Wars: The Campaign To Cleanse American Culture, Lane talked to about the government's crackdown on indecency and profanity and the profit motive he sees behind both sides of the issue.

Why did you write this book?

I was fascinated by the whole reaction to the Janet Jackson/Justin Timberlake thing on the Super Bowl halftime show. It really staggered me that so much attention was being paid to something that, while probably immature and a little crude, was not the end of Western civilization. It played into a lot of research I have been doing over the years on obscenity and pornography and the general issue of indecency.

Is it dangerous for the government to try to regulate morality?

What really disturbs me is that any one group feels it has a monopoly on what is morally correct. That attitude spills over into a latent, or not so latent, belief in one view of political correctness, and I think that has been a real problem with this administration.

Who or what is behind the FCC's indecency crackdown?

I believe that, when the FCC went from $440,000 in fines to $7.7 million in 2003, you had the combination of an FCC chairman [Michael Powell] whose deregulatory efforts were going down in flames and an administration that desperately needed to get its base out for the 2004 election. Those two factors combined to push the FCC to do far more on indecency than they had ever done before.

But wasn't there another factor: the flood of online complaints and the FCC's decision to change the way they counted those complaints?

Yes, it did give them some political cover for doing what at least some of them might have been inclined to do. The flip side of it is that it also gave the administration cover for putting pressure on the FCC to do more. When a Brent Bozell from the Parents Television Council can pick up the phone and call [White House advisor] Karl Rove and say “250,000 complaints were filed on a particular television show,” that is arguably a big enough number.

But the other argument I make in the book is that, if you look at these [complaints] in percentage terms, it is still a ridiculously tiny percentage of the viewing audience.

If you are looking just at 10% of the Super Bowl audience, the FCC would have to have gotten on the order of 9 million complaints to hit that level. I think the final total was on the order of 700,000. So we're allowing a very small tail to wag a very big dog.

How complicit, or at least acquiescent, have broadcasters been, for their own economic reasons, in this crackdown?

I think that it's such a double-edged sword for them. I don't know how much they are actually acquiescing to the FCC at all. When it comes to content, I think they continue to poke the FCC with a sharp stick. If you're Brent Bozell, you don't think that broadcasters are acquiescing at all.

You suggest in the book that a profit motive is behind both sides of the issue.

Broadcasters have a tremendous profit motive in terms of putting content out there that is sexually provocative that some people can describe, if they wish, as indecent because, frankly, that's what sells. That's what gets the eyeballs to the screen.

Broadcasters have been fighting desperately to slow the loss of market share to cable, Internet and movies. One of the ways they do that is to push the envelope in terms of content.

The flip side is that religious broadcasters and cultural nonprofits aimed at cleaning up decency use this as a very valuable fundraiser. Newsletters and e-mail solicitations go out, and it's all about “Give us money to fight them and try to elect politicians who will clean up America.”

I think there is a real “bait and switch” going on in terms of a lot of conservative politicians' soliciting support on the promise of cleaning up the culture. Many know that, under our constitutional system, they can't deliver everything they are promising in terms of cultural clean-up.

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