WASHINGTON — The media are striking back. Viacom/CBS, News Corp./Fox and several Hollywood guilds are among those leading the first organized charge opposing the feds’ anti-smut crusade.
The Screen Actors Guild, the Writers Guild of America, the Directors Guild and the Recording Industry Assn. of America also have joined to petition the Federal Communications Commission to reverse its most recent decision against U2 frontman Bono.
Under pressure from watchdog groups and the public, the commission in March overturned its earlier ruling that the singer’s “fucking brilliant” exclamation during 2003’s live Golden Globes telecast was not, in fact, indecent.
FCC topper Michael Powell pushed the agency to change its decision and made it clear it would set a new precedent, namely that any use of the f-word would be verboten in broadcasting.
The awards show aired on NBC, and the Peacock net weighed in Monday, seeking a partial review of the Bono decision. NBC chairman Bob Wright complained in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece that Washington has gone overboard in its indecency backlash and lumped the nets in with radio broadcasters whose shock jocks have led to the lion’s share of FCC fines.
ABC was not expected to join the drive.
A few performers, including comedian Margaret Cho and magicians Penn & Teller, as well as the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists, have signed onto the petition. Actors, deejays and other talent are vigorously lobbying against a provision in a bill wending its way through Congress that could subject performers to $500,000 in fines for indecency on the air.
Petition also included an open threat to take the FCC to court if the agency opts not to overturn the Bono decision.
“It’s up to the FCC,” said Robert Corn-Revere, a prominent First Amendment attorney who filed the petition for the various parties. “They now have the opportunity to take a look at some of the legal arguments and get a sense of how their ruling is having an impact on broadcasting decisions.”
At a recent media luncheon, former FCC topper Dick Wiley warned the agency about crossing swords with Corn-Revere, who has won several high-profile broadcasting cases before the Supreme Court and said he’s confident of another victory if the current crackdown winds up there.
“The commission’s aggressive crackdown on ‘coarse’ speech has sent shockwaves through the broadcast industry, and the lack of clear guidelines, coupled with threats of draconian administrative action, has forced licensees to censor speech that unquestionably is protected by the First Amendment,” Corn-Revere wrote in the petition.
The document goes on to cite evidence that Washington’s efforts to clean up the nation’s airwaves is already having a chilling effect, as broadcasters scurry to avoid crossing the fuzzy indecency line.
NBC, for instance, decided to blur the image of an 80-year-old woman’s bare breast in an episode of “ER,” and public radio station KCRW in Los Angeles fired longtime host Sandra Tsing Loh when an engineer failed to bleep the f-word out of a segment of her show. Some radio stations have stopped airing live perfs by visiting artists and dropped classic rock songs such as the Who’s “Who Are You” and Pink Floyd’s “Money.” Other songs, such as Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” and OutKast’s “Roses,” have been edited for air.
NBC has filed only a partial petition, because the Peacock agreed with the FCC’s decision not to include a fine when it ruled Bono’s use of “fucking” was indecent. But the net argued the agency’s March decision contradicted years of precedent and created strict liability for certain offensive words “regardless of their fleeting nature or context.”
The Parents Television Council kicked up a storm of protest when the FCC originally ruled Bono’s dropping of the f-bomb was not indecent because it was “fleeting” and was used only as an adjective and not in a sexual way.
PTC spokeswoman Lara Mahaney said Monday she expected the petition, and that if the FCC decides to reverse its decision on the f-word again, the group would launch another appeal.
Mahaney suggested broadcasters who argue that the federal indecency standards are too vague should hire better lawyers. And, she acknowledged, it’s not the law itself but the FCC that’s at fault for failing to hold broadcasters accountable to any content standard for years.
“The FCC has made so few rulings in the past that nobody even cared — nobody even took them seriously,” she said.
American Civil Liberties Union
American Federation of Television and Radio Artists
Beasley Broadcast Group
The Creative Coalition
Directors Guild of America
The First Amendment Project
Fox Entertainment Group
Freedom to Read Foundation
Media Access Project
Minnesota Public Radio
National Coalition Against Censorship
National Federation of Community Broadcasters
Penn & Teller
People for the American Way Foundation
Recording Artists’ Coalition
Recording Industry Assn. of America
Screen Actors Guild
When in Doubt Prods.
Writers Guild of America