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The FCC Fleshes It Out

As part of the February 22, 1994 settlement agreement in a federal district court case, the Federal Communications Commission agreed to better explain how it decides what is, and isn't, indecent broadcast content. On April 6, 2001 - seven years, one month, and two weeks later - the FCC at last released the relevant policy statement.

It begs the immediate question: Why did it take the FCC more than seven years to comply with a court order? Answer: The Clinton administration ran the FCC and had no interest, all the grand Democratic Party rhetoric aside, in doing anything to confront the sleazemeisters in Hollywood. The FCC is at last obeying the law because Michael Powell, whom President Bush appointed to head the commission, now is in charge.

In an early, historical section, the statement notes the government's court-approved right to regulate broadcast indecency, a right based on the "compelling government interest...in supporting parental supervision of children and more generally its concern for children's well-being." It goes on to revisit the FCC's longstanding indecency standard, under which to qualify as indecent, broadcast material must "describe or depict sexual or excretory organs or activities" in a "patently offensive" manner.

What does "patently offensive" mean? The FCC spells out for the first time the "principal factors" in an indecency judgment: the material's "explicitness or graphic nature"; "whether the material dwells on or repeats at length [sexual or excretory] descriptions"; and "whether the material appears to pander or is used to titillate, or whether the material appears to have been presented for its shock value."

Then we arrive at broadcast content that the FCC has scrutinized in the past decade-plus, followed by an explanation of why the commission determined it to be indecent or, in a few instances, "not indecent." (It probably would have been more difficult for the commission to find examples of things that were just plain decent.) Almost every example comes from radio, where - the escalating tastelessness of prime time television notwithstanding - most of the worst broadcast raunch has been for quite a while.

The document gives examples of "patently offensive" content, beginning with - who else? - Howard Stern. "Have you ever had sex with an animal?" Stern wondered. "Don't knock it. I was sodomized by [the sock puppet] Lamb Chop."

The Los Angeles rock station KROQ played a song titled "You Suck" which goes, in part...actually, that one's too graphic to quote from. Let's just say it's about a well-endowed man's reluctance to perform cunnilingus on his partner, and her resentment of that state of affairs.

And, moving from the filthy to the truly despicable, this, from an announcer at the Phoenix area's KUPD: "What is the best part of screwing an eight-year-old? Hearing the pelvis crack."

Three of the four commissioners released statements accompanying the document. These will surprise those who expect broadcast sleaze to disturb Republicans more than Democrats.

Republican Harold Furchtgott-Roth declared, "If rules regulating broadcast content were ever a justifiable infringement of speech, it was because of the relative dominance of [broadcasting] in the communications marketplace of the past...As alternative sources of programming and distribution increase, broadcast content restrictions must be eliminated." Chairman Powell, a Republican, did not issue a statement, but has said he doesn't want to serve as a "nanny" where content issues are concerned.

Democrat Gloria Tristani remarked, "This policy statement will likely become...a 'how-to' manual for those licensees who wish to tread the line drawn by our cases...It would better serve the public if the FCC got serious about enforcing the broadcast indecency standards."

The most interesting comments came from Democrat Susan Ness: "Release of this policy statement alone will not solve the festering problem of indecency on the airwaves. However, it is entirely within the power of broadcasters to address it - and to do so without government intrusion. [Emphasis in original.] It is not a violation of the First Amendment for broadcasters on their own to take responsibility for the programming they air, and to exercise that power in a manner that celebrates rather than debases humankind."

When the patently obvious becomes a grand declaration, you begin to understand how logic and sound judgment have become ends instead of means.

If the tide of broadcast pollution is to be turned, the audience will play the crucial role. First, the FCC itself doesn't monitor programs, but rather responds to listener and viewer complaints - and in large markets like Washington, there's no scarcity of complaint-worthy material. Given this policy statement, stations' claims that they didn't know they'd crossed the line of decency will be far less plausible.

The FCC has spoken. But will it act? Soon we'll know if this is more Clintonesque grandstanding or if the commission is serious about its responsibilities.