There is a sound component to the modern libertarian movement in America today, but all too often it's overshadowed by the impulse toward social irresponsibility. Adam Thierer of the Cato Institute has savaged the Parents Television Council in "'Desperate Housewives' and Desperate Regulators," an op-ed marked by stunning incoherence and juvenile low blows. If this is the best Cato can do, it goes a long way toward explaining why the libertarian movement is not taken seriously on the American political scene.
The premise of Mr. Thierer's screed is that the Parents Television Council, a "censorship advocate" is exercising a "heckler's veto" over popular programming in America by mobilizing its members to "bombard" the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) over indecent material, resulting in shows being fined or driven off the air. Now, he warns breathlessly, "Get ready for another impassioned censorship crusade by the 'let's- censor-television-to-protect-the-children' crowd because the PTC is protesting the "smash hit 'Desperate Housewives'...the most popular broadcast-network television show with kids aged 9-12." Seven times Mr. Thierer uses the word "censorship" (including four uses of the term "censorship advocate") to describe the PTC. It is a deliberate, and sophomoric attempt to create a boogey monster when the real solution is - insert sounds of libertarian trumpets, please - personal responsibility.
Let's begin with what Mr, Thierer doesn't know, or if he does, has chosen to omit from his readers. The very essence of the PTC's mission is personal responsibility. The PTC has spent years urging Hollywood - writers, producers, actors, directors, studios, distributors - to show personal responsibility for the product it is placing on the airwaves. The PTC likewise has undertaken a massive national campaign, spending millions of dollars in the process, demanding that corporations demonstrate personal responsibility in the shows they sponsor with their advertising dollars. Finally, the PTC has urged parents themselves to show personal responsibility in controlling what their children watch.
What the anything-goes Cato crowd doesn't want to accept is that now parents - millions of parents - are doing precisely that. The broadcast airwaves are owned by the public, not the networks. Use of those public airwaves is a privilege, and the networks have been systematically abusing that privilege by airing product that is absolute sewage and clearly in violation of their legal responsibility to abide by community standards of decency. This is the law as affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, which Cato may, or may not, recognize as an authority of sorts. Now those parents are demonstrating that very personal responsibility Cato embraces by uniting - a million strong at the PTC - and demanding the FCC exercise its legal mandate to ensure those networks abide by community standards. And Mr. Thierer is complaining. So much for the Cato crowd's support for personal responsibility.
What of the suggestion that by targeting a "smash hit" like Desperate Housewives, the PTC is exercising a "heckler's veto" over popular programming? Mr. Thierer is clever but not forthcoming. Having reviewed the latest Nielsen ratings to get his data, he saw something else: "Desperate Housewives" has an audience of between 25-27 million. That may place this show at the top of the ratings, but in a nation of 295 million, it also means that 9 out of 10 Americans are not watching - embracing - this program.
What is most shocking, perhaps, is Cato's head-in-the-sand worldview about the dangerous and very real effects of offensive programming on children. "Censorship advocates also claim that any exposure to 'indecent' or 'violent' material will result in degenerate, dangerous youths," Mr. Thierer writes dismissively - and disingenuously. I know of no one who has ever said that "any" exposure "will" result in corrupted youth, and neither does he. In a similar vein he writes that "the psychological literature [on the effects of indecent and violent programming] is all over the place," a contention that is simply untrue. There have been several thousand scientific studies demonstrating the damaging effects this kind of programming can have on children. And if programming doesn't have an impact, why do corporations spend billions of dollars every year in advertising?
Mr. Thierer believes that parental responsibility should be limited to keeping children away from those polluted airwaves. Does he also believe people should be allowed to put obscenities on their license plates and if parents don't approve they should just keep their children off the roads? If a drug dealer is peddling his wares in a school parking lot, is keeping the child out of school the only solution? Such is the incoherence of the libertarian thought process.
So what motivated Mr. Thierer and Cato to savage the PTC and its one million members this way? Who underwrites Cato's work? The media giant Comcast Corporation does. The media giant Microsoft does. The media giant Time Warner does. Perhaps, as they say in the business, we should follow the money.