Michael Powell right, for onceDavid Hoppe
I am not a fan of Michael Powell, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. I don't like the way he puts corporate media ahead of public interest. The way he tried to make it easier for fewer companies to own more local media outlets was outrageous. And his willingness to say that "public" complaints to the FCC about indecency on radio and TV have reached unprecedented levels, when 99.9 percent of those complaints appear to come from a single right-wing organization, is either deceitful or dumb. Entertainment moguls who deny that their products affect the quality of life in society are like tobacco executives who insist that smoking doesn't lead to lung cancer. They cling to denial because their business makes them rich.
But the people who are really getting on my nerves are the producers in the supposedly "liberal" entertainment industry who have made a fetish out of claiming that Powell's public posturing about media indecency threatens their freedom of speech. I wish they would shut up.
Ever since Justin Timberlake yanked Janet Jackson's bustier at the Super Bowl, the country's been in a tizzy about decency standards. Powell's FCC has levied fines against some broadcasters over the language and content of a few programs. This has reportedly had a chilling effect on program producers. Howard Stern, for example, was unceremoniously dumped by Clear Channel, an event that, interestingly enough, caused little, if any, public outrage.
More to the point, producers say the FCC's penalties have driven them into an onerous self-censorship. Since no one seems to know exactly what the FCC will consider indecent, this has left entertainment's creative class second-guessing about how to keep from crossing an already fuzzy line. As one media type puts it: "Content is getting watered down to where it is 'FCC proof.' Following this slippery slope to its logical conclusion, broadcast content will eventually reach a level of suitability for 11-year-olds."
This, presumably, would be a terrible thing. Much, much worse, for example, than the weekly triple scoop of graphic morbidity that CBS serves up under the heading CSI: Las Vegas, Miami and New York (can Indianapolis be far behind?).
The makers of such entertainments would have us believe that concerns over decency are putting a cramp in their creativity and that this tramples their right to free expression. But what they really worry about is that, so far, Powell and the FCC have limited their focus to broadcast media due to a lack of jurisdiction over cable and satellite stations. Their fear is that as broadcast gets tamer, cable and satellite will turn up the sex and violence and effectively put them out of business.
Having spent more time than I care to admit trolling cable on Saturday and Sunday afternoons - prime time for kids - and finding a virtual gallery of R-rated sadism and brutality there, I can begin to feel the broadcasters' pain.
They do business in what is called a "cluttered" landscape. To cut through the clutter, you have to hit an already distracted viewer with something more sensational, more shocking than your competition. How, in other words, do you compete for eyeballs when your cablecasting rival gets to show some guy sticking a woman's eyeball with an icepick?
Rather than arguing that cable and satellite should be subject to the same standards as broadcast, media executives have wrapped themselves in the First Amendment. This is irresponsible for at least two reasons. Just as there is no constitutional protection for someone needlessly putting other people in danger by yelling, "Fire!" in a crowded theater, there should be no "right" to gratuitously pollute society with media that is demonstrably toxic.
As if common sense weren't enough, there is now a whole literature of research showing a connection between exposure to staged acts of violence and violent behavior. If the staging was occasional and done with expressive purpose, this would not be an issue. But media violence today is chronic and everywhere you look. It is estimated that by the time a child reaches age 18, she will have witnessed 200,000 acts of violence and 40,000 murders. As a report by the Parents Television Council puts it, "Violent entertainment leaves a mark, even on children who don't engage in aggressive behaviors. Witnessing repeated violent acts increases general feelings of hostility and can lead to desensitization and a lack of empathy for human suffering. Over time, consumption of violence-laden imagery can leave viewers with the perception that they are living in a mean and dangerous world ... "
Entertainment moguls who deny that their products affect the quality of life in society are like tobacco executives who insist that smoking doesn't lead to lung cancer. They cling to denial because their business makes them rich.
But the First Amendment was not created to make people rich. It was designed to insure a free flow of ideas and expression. By confusing free speech with an entertainment business based on sensation rather than content, TV and radio producers are trying to find protection for the indefensible. Their arguments trivialize the First Amendment for the sake of personal gain.