Stop the Content Crackdown

Committed to the First Amendment

The FCC has opened a second front in the war on content. It fired the first shots at media violence in its crackdown on indecency earlier this year. Two weeks ago, it brought out the big guns, opening an inquiry on the impact of TV violence on children, not waiting for a proposed Senate bill that would order it to do so.

We'll take an inquiry over a notice of proposed rulemaking, since it is essentially a fact/opinion-finding mission. But the earnestness and bipartisanship of this FCC's urge to "do something" about TV violence, mirroring the over-reactive indecency crackdown, concerns us greatly.

What's more, we doubt there's more to be gained from rehashing the hundreds of studies suggesting that viewers are affected by the programs they watch. Guess what? That's why advertisers pay billions to sell us something every 15 minutes.

There is nothing new in decrying the media's influences on our youth. Yes, violent videogames, voyeuristic TV and rap music are frightening to a lot of parents, but that fear should not be translated into regulation for the sake of appeasing a particular moral sensibility, even one we might agree with.

The question is whether there is a national crisis that can be tied directly to the media. The answer is no. There is, instead, a sort of national hysteria about "decency" that threatens to carry other speech along in its wake.

Speech is not untouchable. If the public interest is overwhelming enough and the remedy narrowly targeted, government can regulate speech. But given the FCC's targeting of the f-word regardless of context and its serious consideration of fining CBS over Janet Jackson, we don't think this FCC could be trusted to identify the nuances.

Even if this FCC were more careful, it would then be faced with the task of distinguishing between artistic and gratuitous violence. It would also have to balance the number of people spurred to violence by the media against those prevented from committing violence because of the cathartic effect of violent entertainment. The latter, in fact, cannot be measured at all, while the former is still a gray area. The very children we seek to protect have often grown up meeting and defeating their deepest fears through vicarious violence—in fairy tales, read to them by their parents.

If we were picking which content should be controlled through government strong-arming, it would be a mixture of excessive violence and hate speech, rather than sex. Others might pick a combination of sex and infomercials, and some might pick speech that promotes gay lifestyles, or gun toting, or bass fishing (we're thinking PETA here). But we don't get to pick, and neither should the FCC or the Congress.