Indecency Makes for Good Farce

Salon’s Eric Boehlert does a nice job at outlining the unfortunate outcome of the mutli-lateral coalition that mobilized to help stop the FCC’s attempt to loosen media ownership rules:

What is surprising for free-speech advocates such as McChesney and Chester, who fear the effects the indecency reforms could have, is that when they look across the newly formed battle lines they see some of their closest anti-media consolidation allies leading the charge for new enforcement of content.

As I repored on last Friday’s radioshow, the most recent wacko salvo in the indecency crusade is House Judiciary Chair James Sensenbrenner’s statement to the cable industry last week that broadcast indecency ought to be enforced criminally, not with regulation.

For all the handwringing, I do wonder how far the indecency crusade can go. There are some very high-tension lines of power and money that risk being cut if indecency rules are pushed too hard, or into the criminal realm.

For instance, let’s recall that FOX is the recent recipient of a huge $1 million+ fine for an episode of its program, The Bachelor. FOX boss Rupert Murdoch is not likely to sit by too quietly and watch his FOXploitation profits get sucked down by government regulation.

It’s one thing when the crackdown targets just a few prominent, and not necessarily popular, scapegoats, like Janet Jackson and Howard Stern. It’s another when it threatens some of the most popular programming on television and radio. (And while Stern is tops amongst morning radio shock jocks, I would not classify him as widely popular compared to the top 25 TV prime-time TV programs).

As I’ve stated before, the crowd that is most concerned with indecency and so-called “values” often values effort nearly as much as results. All the jockying for position on the issue wins big points with the moralizers, even if very little change is effected, while unsuccessful campaigns fade out of the popular memory.

I don’t mean to wholly dismiss the gravity of the indecency campaign. Yet it’s getting so farcical and moving in so many different directions — enforce indecency on cable! no, make family tiers! no, let’s throw ’em in jail! — that it’s hard to see it as a coherent movement or campaign. Sure, the tenor and tone is pretty clear and scarily widespread in political circles, but it also looks like just a bunch of posturing and grandstanding.

I’m not going to cry over FOX, Viacom and Disney sweating bullets and bleeding money. Of course, the fear is that the same irrational “values” persecution will be levied upon community and college radio stations, too. However, while a multi-hundred-thousand dollar fine will is only a flesh wound for Viacom, it’s lethal to a non-commercial LPFM.

I’ve been mulling this over more than a year now, and I still stand by what I wrote back in Feburary 2004:

Yes, from a principled standpoint the daytime ban on indecency is wrong. But so is the enforced scarcity of broadcast licenses and the FCC’s and Congress’s refusal to open up the airwaves to more broadcast stations of all types, low power or high power.

The system of broadcast allocation and regulation is fundamentally flawed, unprincipled, inconsistent, and even corrupt. I’d argue there is no principled way to work within such a system to repair it or make it more just.

Most community stations are already very careful about indecency and probably toe a line much more cautiously than commercial broadcasters, since the stakes are higher for them. Many take advantage of the free harbor, moving their potentially indecent programming until after 10 PM, as a good compromise between avoiding fines, but still airing challenging content. Luckily, these days indecency is exclusively defined as sexual and excretory talk, and cannot be legitimately applied to muck-raking political reporting.

I’m not wishing for more indecency regulation, enforcement or legislation. But, frankly, I’m not wishing for much more media regulation or legislation in the first place, since most laws and regs are intended simply to provide an advantage to one industry or company at the expense of another. Very rarely does any law or reg actually protect any semblance of the public interest.

There is almost never any such thing as deregulation — just new regulations that hand over the prize to a different competitor.

The indecency spectacle will play out, and I’ll be glad to watch the broadcasters, cable operators, religious right, reactionary Democrats and sycophant Republicans all clamor and step over each other. It should make for good slapstick.