The speaker is usually a senior-level executive from a network or studio or the executive suite of a multibillion-dollar media conglomerate. The conversation starts something like this: "That was a great editorial you ran about the New McCarthyism in Washington. It really crystallized what a lot of us are feeling here. It's downright scary the assault on free speech and how frightened it's gotten everybody. Democrats, Republicans, they're all piling on, and nobody from the industry is really fighting back."
To be sure, we're always happy to get the kudos for fighting the good fight, but we are wondering when the media industry is going to recover from its collective case of corporate laryngitis and scream itself. Instead of applauding our editorials, why aren't the media making their own?
Stations and networks have extraordinary power, and have been ceaselessly chastised for abusing it. To us, that's exactly the reason their voices should be heard now defending the good they do, the information they provide, and yes, even the controversy they ignite. Elvis swiveled his hips, Ellen DeGeneres came out, and a fictional Murphy Brown battled a real vice president over the rights and roles of women and mothers, all in prime time. All of that caused controversy, and that's something to be proud of. Why don't you,
the creators, the owners, react to the controversy that TV and radio causes with pride rather than fear?
It seems the industry isn't even comfortable acknowledging its unique place. When we've received kind words about our editorials, we've asked some of you to write signed commentaries or columns to add your voices. Sadly, the inevitable response is: "Are you crazy? I don't want to lose my job. We're getting enough heat already."
A senior broadcast-network executive recently confided to us that he doubts that "the next M*A*S*H
with its anti-war message, All in the Family
with its un-PC attitude, or even Will & Grace"
could happen in the current climate. "At least on broadcast," says one of the members of the Silent Media elite, "it seems like we're going back to the days when married couples slept in twin beds."
Hyperbole? Maybe. But there's little doubt Washington has sent an antiseptic chill through the creative community. One Madison Avenue media buyer worries that soon "all I'll have to buy for my clients is bland and blander."
Last week, the FCC slapped Clear Channel with a $495,000 fine for airing "indecent" utterances by Howard Stern, whose syndicated show the radio group canceled, conveniently, just before its executives were called before Congress. Stern claims that it wasn't the sex talk but his new-found opposition to President Bush that scared the radio bosses. That Stern's theory is plausible is just another indication how rolling over on phony indecency issues can have more-frightening political ramifications.
That's lamentable, horrible. We understand the impact that Washington can have on your various enterprises. We don't understand, however, why the media has not knocked politicians off the bully pulpit of indecency. How much further do the media need to be pushed?
By not speaking up, the media put their future in jeopardy. In fact, those guilty of offensive behavior are not the network gatekeepers—every now-notorious act of "indecency" in the news was live, unplanned, a mistake—but the demagogic grandstanders in Washington. There's nothing offensive about going on the offense for the First Amendment. But there is something truly obscene about remaining silent.