Shocking and Gratuitous: Bono’s F-Word Is Now a Precedent for Two Words Too Bad To Use

Last week the FCC cleared out part of its indecency queue and I’ve finally had a chance to read the order [link to PDF]. Let me tell you, it is interesting reading, if only to find out that the words “shit” and “fuck” are such fundamentally offensive words that their mere utterance alone makes something indecent (unless they’re said during Saving Private Ryan)

But we were already kind of on to the “F-Word,” after the FCC famously reversed itself to declare that Bono using that expletive during a live broadcast of the Golden Globes was indeed indecent. This, even though pre-Janet-Jackson-Superbowl-Halftime the Commission had decided that the expletitive, in and of itself, was not indecent.

Now that world has enlarged to include “shit,” and all of its derivitives, too.

In this new order, the FCC is definitely trying to narrow a line it’s been walking for more than a decade. Historically the Commission has not wanted to issue any policies defining indecency in any concrete way, and trying to discern some sort of guidance from its decisions can be an exercise in frustration. In particular, the FCC has tried to shy away from declaring specific words indecent or not indecent.

Finally, in 2001 the FCC released a policy statement intended to give guidance to broadcasters about indcency, but only at the behest of Congress, and about seven years late.

In the 2001 statement, the Commission made it clear that even “fuck,” when used as an expletive in a “fleeting” manner, did not necessarily consitute actionable indecency, if the context of that utterance wasn’t otherwise sexual or excretory in nature. One example given was a radio news announcer from KPRL(AM)/KDDB(FM), Paso Robles, CA, who said “Oops, fucked that one up.”

That exception is out the door, as the FCC now concludes that

certain vulgar sexual or excretory terms are so grossly offensive to members of the public that they amount to a nuisance and are presumptively profane. We reserve that distinction for the most offensive words in the English language, the broadcast of which are likely to shock the viewer and disturb the peace and quiet of the home.

No matter how you use them, the FCC says,

we now find that the ‘S-Word,’ at issue here, has an inherently excretory connotation. In light of the core meanings of the ‘F-Word’ and ‘S-Word,’ any use of those terms inherently has sexual or excretory connotations and falls within the first prong of our indecency definition.

The only FCC Commissioner to speak out against this decontextualized criminalization of two words is Democrat Jonathan Adelstein, who articulately addresses it in his partial dissent:

The Order builds on one of the most difficult cases we have ever decided, Golden Globe Awards, and stretches it beyond the limits of our precedents and constitutional authority. The precedent set in that case has been contested by numerous broadcasters, constitutional scholars and public interest groups who have asked us to revisit and clarify our reasoning and decision. Rather than reexamining that case, the majority uses the decision as a springboard to add new words to the pantheon of those deemed to be inherently sexual or excretory, and consequently indecent and profane, irrespective of their common meaning or of a fleeting and isolated use.

Although he fully affirms the FCC’s new indecency regime, Democrat Commissioner Michael Copps at least connects up the apparent increase in lowest-common-denominator programming with delocalization and ownership consolidation:

In 2003 the FCC sought to weaken its remaining media concentration safeguards without even considering whether there is a link between increasing media consolidation and increasing indecency. Such links have been shown in studies and testified to by a variety of expert witnesses. The record clearly demonstrates that an overwhelming number of the Commission’s indecency citations have gone to a few huge media conglomerates. One recent study showed that the four largest radio station groups which controlled just under half the radio audience were responsible for a whopping 96 percent of the indecency fines levied by the FCC from 2000 to 2003.

Nevermind that one of the new fines went to a locally-owned non-commercial PBS station for an airing of a documentary on the blues in which old bluesmen shocking talked liked old bluesmen, using words like “motherfucker.” I’ll admit it’s hard to connect up the consolidation argument to that one.

Still, the FCC also sets some words free, choosing to ennumerate some semi-naughty words that are not inherently indecent:

“hell,” “damn,” “bitch,” “pissed off,” “up yours,” “ass,” “for Christ’s sake,” “kiss my ass,” “fire his ass,” “ass is huge,” and “wiping his ass.”

And the FCC’s analysis regarding the relative offensiveness of these words and phrases is priceless:

To the extent the complaints describe the context in which the word “ass” is used, it is used in a nonsexual sense to denigrate or insult the speaker or another character. The word “piss” is used as part of a slang expression that means “angry.” The word “ass” and the phrase “pissed off” do not invariably invoke coarse sexual or excretory images, and in the context presented they do not rise to the level of offensiveness of the “F-Word” or “S-Word.”

(As a side note, I find the FCC’s prudish use of the gradeschool substitution “F-Word” and “S-Word” to be kind of hilarious given that the Commission fully quotes the transcripts containing these words, and uses the full words in quotes when directly referring to them. Do they cover table legs in the Commission’s offices, too?)

Missing from all this indecency talk is any question at all about the supposed harm of indecent material. The constitutionality of the ban on indecency in based only on the supposed “pervasiveness” of broadcast media and its accessibility to children. But nowhere is there any proof that indecent words, or graphic descriptions of sexual or excretory functions actually cause real harm to children, or anyone else for that matter.

Ira Glass, producer of public radio’s This American Life, made this very observation a couple of years ago in a New York Times op-ed:

What’s craziest about this new indecency witch hunt, is that it’s based on the premise that just one exposure to filthy words will damage a child. (I’ve yet to hear of a scientific study proveing even that repeated exposure affects children.) Recently on my show, I asked one of the people who organizes write-in campaigns to the F.C.C., Brent Bozell, what harm it did anyone to see Janet Jackson’s breast for a fleeting second, or to hear Howard use the phrase “anal sex,” and he said it destroyed the “innocence of childhood.” In our talk, Mr. Bozell used the phrase several times himself, presumably doing exactly as much harm to young people as Stern did on April 9, 2003.

You can listen to that particular show at the This American Life website.

The networks and stations fined in this round say they’ll fight it, which is expected.

And, although all these fines were issued to TV stations, it’s pretty likely radio’s turn is just around the corner.







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