Dirty talk and due diligence

Morality in Media wants FCC nominees to voice their views on enforcing decency

Congress should make President's Bush's FCC nominees express their opinions on enforcement of broadcast indecency law, the watchdog group Morality in Media said Tuesday.

The group has complained repeatedly that the FCC is shirking its enforcement duties and says the incoming commissioners should be required to reverse the trend. "Radio stations that provide national and local platforms for grossly vulgar 'shock jocks' have little to fear from the FCC; and no broadcast TV station has paid an indecency fine in over 20 years," the group wrote in an open letter to members of Congress.

The group also criticized as too lax the long-delayed indecency guidelines the agency published April 6.

Under a 1995 court decision, broadcasters are forbidden to air "indecent" content that "describes or depicts" sexual or excretory organs or activities in a "patently offensive" way between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. Obscene programming is forbidden entirely. Identifying what truly constitutes indecent or obscene programming has always been difficult, however.

Besides making the latest batch of FCC nominees hold forth on the current status of airwave indecency, Morality in Media also called for Senate hearings on the issue. Specifically, the group urged lawmakers to examine why the FCC took six years to issue indecency guidelines, why so few fines are levied for indecent broadcasts, and whether the FCC can better monitor TV stations' compliance.

Although Morality in Media's comments echo sentiments expressed by FCC Commissioner Gloria Tristani, the FCC has been reluctant to take on the role of active arbiter of indecent broadcasts. Complaints are often stifled because they must be accompanied by a tape or transcript. Listeners and viewers, often caught off-guard by offensive broadcasts, are rarely prepared to make recordings or take detailed notes during a show. For his part, FCC Chairman Michael Powell has said he is reluctant to have the five unelected commissioners take the lead in regulating content.

Although some lawmakers have been critical of the proliferation of raunchy broadcasts, few have taken Morality in Media up on its demand for a tougher line against the FCC.