What Were They Thinking?

Committed to the First Amendment

No page has spoken out more often or more passionately for full First Amendment rights for broadcasters, even when broadcasters themselves have been willing to chip away at their own freedom in exchange for political advantage. We still believe broadcasters should be free to be irresponsible and offensive, and that the FCC shouldn't tell them what they can and can't put on. But when broadcasters appear to abdicate that editorial judgment, they should not be surprised when the FCC moves into the vacuum. We believe that broadcasters sometimes mistake the freedom to do something for the obligation to do it, as though they were helpless common carriers of whatever program they are advised will make a buck or titillate a demo. They are not.

All this is by way of preamble to the FCC's indecency fine against Infinity's WKRK-FM Detroit for what can only be described as patently offensive material by virtually any contemporary community standard. Painful as it may be, every broadcaster should type in the following address: http://www.fcc.gov/Daily_Releases/Daily_Digest/2003/dd030403.html. Scroll down to the "Texts" heading and click on the first blue link (FCC-03-71A1.doc). Scroll down to "Attachment A" and start reading.

Ask yourself whether that is appropriate for broadcast at 4:30 in the afternoon. Ask yourself if allowing that broadcast is responsible editorial stewardship. And we don't just mean of a regulated medium. Think of printing that in an afternoon daily newspaper. Ask yourself if the people directly responsible for putting that on the air should still have jobs. Our answer would be no.

Like it or not, and we don't, the FCC has the power to regulate indecent speech. Irresponsible behavior invites them to use that power. WKRK-FM's behavior was a gilt-edged invitation to regulators to lay their heavy hand upon the company that broadcast it, or on the entire industry, as the full commission has warned. No, it was more like a huge red banner waved in their faces.

Perhaps Infinity was simply setting up a test case by broadcasting something that so fit the definition of indecency that there could be no dispute of its indecency, leaving only the challenge of the constitutionality of the law itself. In its response to the initial complaint, Infinity did not dispute the indecency but did challenge the constitutionality. If it was a strategic gambit, Infinity should say so, apologizing profusely for having to broadcast such swill in order to carry the industry's standard. Given that Infinity has, in the past, paid seven figures rather than make that First Amendment challenge, our guess is that this was not a calculated ploy but a case of unchecked envelope-pushing and of lousy management.

Broadcasters are ultimately responsible for what goes on their air. Freedom of the press does not mean freedom from accountability. Infinity is controlled by Viacom, and Viacom is controlled by Mel Karmazin and Sumner Redstone. They are accountable for the WKRK-FM broadcast of Jan. 9, 2002. We wonder what they are going to do about it.