Fight the Tyranny of the Minority


We are glad to see that the rest of the world is finally catching on to the fact that a flood of indecency complaints is no barometer of broad-based opposition to media content.

Last March, FCC Chairman Michael Powell himself conceded that the majority of indecency complaints for all of 2003 had come from one source, the Parents Television Council. Those are frequently point-and-click e-mail complaints that PTC makes as easy as possible. Nothing wrong with that, but nothing to suggest a groundswell, either, since such complaints do not even require the complainant to have seen the show.

So we were somewhat surprised by press accounts earlier this month, offered in breathless tones by the general media, that relatively nobody was really complaining. It reminded us of Casablanca and Claude Rains' mock shock to learn that gambling was going on in a casino.

Unfortunately, as some at the FCC have been eager to point out, it takes only one complaint to get the ball rolling. That means, if three of five commissioners agree with the complainant, it has taken only four people to decide what millions in the rest of the country can see and hear.

Remember, it was basically one guy with a typewriter and a dislike for Howard Stern's show that got the FCC to fine Infinity $1.7 million and started Stern on the road to satellite radio when Infinity agreed to settle Stern fines back in 1995.

Frankly, we are more worried by how few people it takes to chill speech than how many complaints come from the PTC.

We have been arguing for years that e-mail campaigns give a false sense of groundswell. But it cuts both ways. The hundreds of thousands of complaints against media consolidation that helped send the FCC's ownership-rule revamp to legal-challenge limbo were also overwhelmingly from a few groups.

The United Church of Christ has set up a Web site to push surfers to join its challenge of a couple of Florida TV licenses over the stations' not carrying a UCC commercial. Who knows how many more e-mails to the FCC that will mean? Again, volume does not equate to a mandate. It just confirms the power of the Web to magnify the minority, whatever its beef.

The FCC doesn't seem to acknowledge that point. Powell has told the National Association of Broadcasters that the FCC's increased indecency enforcement is a direct response to the increase in complaints, even as he acknowledged that most of the complaints were not exactly coming independently from irate viewers who were springing up, Howard Beale-style, to proclaim that they're mad as hell.

Frankly, you can get a half million people to endorse (or complain about) almost anything. But if we start magnifying those minority views through a distorted lens, the view isn't pretty.

Almost as troubling are the complaints nobody knows about.

By settling rafts of indecency complaints and potential fines through consent decrees, as some broadcasters have done, those corporations let the government subtly decide what is indecent. The industry furtively agrees to cover its backside with its checkbook.

Those actions by broadcasters are in addition to the dismissals of indecency complaints that are usually informal FCC staff decisions. Those decisions usually aren't even made public.

But the chill is in the air, created by a few and suffered by many, including the industry as a whole. The sooner Viacom goes to court over the ridiculous Janet Jackson fine, the better. Americans, broadcasters, judges and even lawyers have better things to worry about.