Here is what is clear about the FCC's new indecency regime: Nothing. So here is what broadcasters have to be afraid of: Everything.
Sarah Jones' rap was indecent; then, oops, it wasn't. Eminem was indecent; then, sorry, scratch that. Bono's f-word was fleeting, nonsexual, in a live show, and so not indecent, except, wait a minute. It was, too, indecent! Oprah can talk about sex, but Howard Stern can't.
The f-word may or may not be actionable in live news coverage. Broadcasters don't know; First Amendment attorneys don't know. We're told that, at the RTNDA convention, FCC aides were saying flatly that the f-word is indecent. Period. Meanwhile, others from the commission weren't so sure. It's like trying to get directions from a weather vane.
The affiliate groups of CBS and NBC weighed in against the Bono decision, as did the Association of Public TV Stations and the Media Institute, which is funded by many of the major media companies. A number of those—including Viacom, News Corp., and NBC—have already challenged the FCC's ruling. The networks and their affiliates can agree on at least one thing: The FCC doesn't know what it's doing, other than collapsing in response to political pressures, personal bias, or mass e-mailings from self-appointed guardians of decency.
The ABC and Fox affiliate associations have yet to weigh in. ABC has been hanging back for the sake of political expedience, but ABC affiliate board Chairman Deb McDermott says she supports the groups that have filed and would counsel her board to consider weighing in as well. A former Fox affiliate head says the network has not asked the affiliates to comment and there has been no "groundswell" from the rank and file. There should be.
The FCC clearly cannot be trusted to make content decisions. By throwing out years of precedent in an instant, by changing courses more frequently than a freshman on registration day, the commission has turned a vague indecency standard into a joke.
Except nobody's laughing, because the punch line is censorship or self-censorship, which, in this dark time, have become indistinguishable.
The FCC can
make one decision: Concede that it doesn't have a clue about what is or isn't indecent and get out of the censorship business.
Clearly, the government didn't want the pictures from that Iraqi prison getting out. Just like some people didn't want Nightline's Ted Koppel to read the names of all U.S. soldiers who have died in Iraq.
Without those pictures and broadcasts, prisoners might still be getting abused, and the statistics of mounting war dead might remain marching columns of anonymous numbers on a stat sheet. Instead, we have images to remind us that Americans don't have a corner on righteousness. With the roll call we are reminded of the price of our decisions.
Both were important stories, and both required a free and aggressive press to make sure they got told. It's times like these that make us proud of the TV news business.