Why 'Frontline' Used Bad Language


Several months ago, Frontline set out to make a film that would bring the real and raw experience of U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq into the homes of public-television viewers. Our A Company of Soldiers is a film about young men at war, often in combat and always in danger.

As you might expect, the language of these soldiers is sprinkled with expletives, especially at their moments of greatest fear and stress. As we edited the program, we were judicious but came to believe that some of that language was a part of our journalistic mission: to give viewers a realistic portrait of our soldiers at war. We feel strongly that the language of war should not be sanitized and that there is nothing “indecent” about its use in this context.

PBS stations were given the option of airing an edited or unedited version based on their own community standards. Broadcasting the unedited version carries some risk that the FCC would entertain complaints and levy a fine. Each public-television station had to decide for itself whether to take that risk.

Frontline does not believe the expletives used by the soldiers violate the FCC's “indecency” rule. They are not used in a “gratuitous” manner, nor are they meant to “titillate” or “pander,” which are the terms the FCC uses to determine if there has been a violation.

You may be familiar with the recent case of ABC's broadcast of the movie Saving Private Ryan, which contained repeated instances of strong language, used in the same context as this Frontline. It was widely reported that a majority of the FCC commissioners decided they would not support viewer complaints about the language in Saving Private Ryan, and outgoing Chairman Michael Powell concluded that the agency should not take action against the ABC stations that aired it because the language was part of accurately portraying the story about the Allied invasion of Normandy during World War II.

Frontline appreciates the 43 stations that were willing to broadcast the unedited version, but recognizes the difficulty any station would have in deciding to take a risk that might result in a penalty. We encouraged all stations that could do so to stand with Frontline because we believe what is at stake here is not only the particulars of this case but the principle of editorial independence.

We believe that overreaching by the FCC is at its heart a First Amendment issue. We think that the editorial integrity of future Frontline reportage is at risk, along with many other types of programs, whether art, science, history, culture, or public affairs. Editorial decisions should be free from influence by the government and should be made in accordance with the standards, practices and mission of public television. We hope you agree.