Anti-smut crusade rises

FCC, Congress respond to F-word outcry

WASHINGTON — Note to Oscar presenters: watch your mouth.

Anti-smut crusaders in Washington are on the offensive again and this time the Federal Communications Commission and Congress are taking notice.

Late Tuesday, FCC chairman Michael Powell was circulating a draft proposal that would overturn last October’s decision not to fine TV stations for airing U2 frontman Bono’s use of the F-word during a live broadcast of the Golden Globes awards last year. His staff is working on reviews of a number of other recent controversial indecency decisions.

Since October, the public and activist groups have flooded the FCC with requests to review the Bono decision. Review requests often sit dormant for years, so Powell’s move to re-examine the result is a significant policy shift for the FCC topper. Powell is skedded to address the National Press Club in D.C. today and will likely discuss his decision to revisit the subject.

Hearing coming up

Agency activity came the same day the House Energy and Commerce Committee announced a hearing skedded for Jan. 28 examining the FCC’s enforcement of broadcast indecency laws titled “Can You Say That on TV?” In recent weeks, several lawmakers have introduced bills designed to either outlaw all use of a host of dirty words on the public airwaves or impose tougher penalties — including revoking station licenses — for indecency violations.

The battle over appropriate language for TV and radio was re-ignited last fall when the FCC let stations off the hook for Bono’s indiscrete reaction to receiving an award.

“This is really, really fucking brilliant,” Bono exclaimed on live TV.

Agency officials explained their ruling by noting that Bono’s dropping of the f-bomb was “fleeting” and used as an adjective, not in a sexual context. The explanation only strengthened the resolve of the anti-smut crowd who argue that it’s high time for the federal government to clean up the increasingly raunchy content on TV and radio.

Activists were further energized after Nicole Richie, high society bad girl star of “The Simple Life,” uttered the F-word on the Fox’s Billboard Music Awards Dec. 10.

Council files complaints

The Parents Television Council, a group of social conservatives who monitor the airwaves for racy content, has filed more than 85,000 indecency complaints to the FCC in the last year. In the past few weeks, the council has redoubled its efforts. Members have sent thousands of e-mails to the White House, Attorney General John Ashcroft, FCC commissioners and their staff, as well as to execs and station chiefs at News Corp./Fox and top managers at Billboard complaining about the F-word on broadcast TV and radio.

“The Federal Communications Commission apparently has very poor leadership and is unwilling to enforce obscenity and indecently laws,” the group wrote to President Bush in the e-mails. “We ask you to remove the commissioners of the FCC and replace them with responsible leaders. These FCC commissioners have failed the American Citizens through their malfeasance and misinterpretation of obscenity laws. The obscene F-word must not be allowed on the broadcast airwaves.”

Brent Bozell, who heads the Council, Tuesday lauded Upton’s decision to hold hearings on the indecency issue.

“The FCC’s failure to enforce even the most common-sense decency standards has given the television networks carte blanche to assault the American family with profanity, explicit sex and extreme violence on a nightly basis,” he said. “Congressional leaders have finally heard our outrage and now have an opportunity to force the FCC to do its job.”

Splitting hairs

Up on Capitol Hill, Rep. Doug Ose (R-Sacramento) has accused the FCC of splitting hairs on its explanation for why it did not punish the incident at the Golden Globes. Ose doesn’t care how the words are used; he wants to wipe them out completely in all their forms — gerunds, infinitives, adverbs, nouns and all.

Despite all the activity, industry types aren’t running scared yet. Those interviewed for the article believe election-year political pressure is prompting Congress and the FCC to act.

Certainly, Powell’s view of the role the feds should play in policing TV content has already shifted during his tenure at the FCC.

“I don’t think my government is my nanny,” he said at his inaugural press conference in June 2001. In a letter to Bozell last November, however, Powell was far less glib.

“Personally, I find the use of the F-word on programming accessible to children reprehensible,” he wrote.

If Powell decides to toughen his stance, he can count on at least two of his colleagues’ support. Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps and his GOP colleague Kevin Martin have called for tougher penalties for violations in recent months.

If Congress decides to wade into the issue, it will have a tough time rewriting indecency standards that took more than two decades for the Supreme Courts and lower courts to define.

Whether the new standard would cover news, as well as entertainment content, is another thorny issue lawmakers would be forced to tackle if they decide to re-open the law.

Nearly a decade ago, National Public Radio ran into trouble when it ran a taped interview of organized crime wiretaps of John Gotti that contained frequent use of the F-word. The FCC never ruled those broadcasts indecent, prompting legal analysts to interpret different standards for news and entertainment programming.

The indecency rules also do not cover any content appearing on cable even though more and more viewers are getting their news and entertainment from cable outlets.

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