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FCC: Big Brother is watching

Nick Anderson | Friday, September 25, 2009

 Do you remember February 1, 2004? Like most of you, I was at a Super Bowl party. I don’t remember who played that game, but what I do remember is a matter of national importance; a moment that recklessly stole the innocence and dignity of our generation. Five years later, it’s still hard for me to talk about it. I saw an image of a woman’s breast on a 46-inch screen for 9/16 of a second. Thankfully, the FCC is looking out for me. 
It’s now 2009, more than five years since the dreaded incident; isn’t it about time for me to get over Janet Jackson’s exposure? The grotesque sight was finally fading from our collective mind when the FCC, like a bureaucrat in a dark suit, came charging in to remind us by reopening the investigation into CBS’s potential “recklessness” in the morally deprived display of flesh. 
The fallout from the first investigation was wide reaching. It left CBS $550,000 poorer, increased the maximum fine the FCC was allowed to levy from $27,000 to $325,000 and left an American public with an 18 percent approval rating of the FCC’s actions. Most importantly, the FCC’s actions did nothing to increase decency in the general population, and instead left us with a media that fears the wanton distribution of fines on archaic, prim standards. 
The vast majority of fines from the FCC are the result of the airing of “indecent” or “profane” material. Material is considered indecent if it “in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities.” Material is profane when “including language so grossly offensive to members of the public who actually hear it as to amount to a nuisance.” 
Enough of the legal-speak, let’s discuss some examples. There are two sets of profane words, those that are presumptively profane, and those that aren’t so long as the reference is fleeting. I can’t reproduce any of the words in an alumni-friendly Observer, but the distinctions can be found online. A bare buttocks isn’t indecent so long as it isn’t touched in any manner. Any sexual organ is always indecent. Racial slurs are not necessarily profane, but can be depending on context. Edited or pixilated material can be indecent if a sexual meaning can be inferred. That clears matters up, doesn’t it?
One can learn a lot about the FCC by examining its lists of received complaints. In the first three months of this year, more than 180,000 complaints were filed.  In January there were 578. In February there were 505. In March, there were 179,997. What happened in March causing this watershed of complaints? Nothing, something happened on the Internet. The Parents Television Council posted a message telling its readers to complain about the March 8 episode of “Family Guy.” Was this episode of “Family Guy” indecent? Probably. Was it more indecent than the episodes aired in February and March? Probably not. 
Careful readers may have noticed an oddity by this point in the article. So far, the only acts mentioned as indecent have been sexual. Aren’t there other forms of indecency? Like drugs, violence or interrupting a 19-year-old during her acceptance speech at the VMAs? According to the FCC, those are perfectly acceptable. Funny, especially considering the average person is much more likely to have sex than murder someone while shooting heroin. 
A puritanical FCC wasn’t a surprise under a neo-con presidency, but it’s looking like Obama’s hopeful change hasn’t made it to the airwaves yet. What society needs is neither outright media censorship nor absolute freedom of speech rights. An intelligent, critical eye on the media is all that is needed. Nothing more, nothing less.