The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has never been a U.S. Office of Censorship, browbeating broadcasters into relentlessly bland programming. Despite being mandated the responsibility to insure against broadcast indecency between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., tasked to protect the innocent eyes and ears of our young children, how many times has the FCC fined a TV station or network for violating decency standards? None. Try and find one.
Radio broadcasting is just slightly different. A steady stream of complaints about Howard Stern and his ilk on the FM dial have drawn some minimal fines, nuisance fees for multi-million-dollar radio enterprises. These fines aren't slaps on the wrist -- they're occasions for great bad-boy advertising. Shock jocks openly laugh on the air at them.
On April 3, the FCC fined a Detroit radio station the statutory maximum fine of $27,500 for an "egregious" violation of decency standards. The bureaucrats warned they would not hesitate to react strongly to future violations, including possible license revocation. But there aren't a lot of quaking boots in the radio business.
For his part, FCC chairman Michael Powell recently told a National Association of Broadcasters event that he "gets queasy" when the government plays content cop. He reminded the audience, and commissioners seated in front of him, that commissioners "are unelected regulators who have no direct accountability" to the citizenry.
That is true, but it is also true that Powell serves at the pleasure of the president of the United States, who said he would restore honor and integrity to the White House, but never suggested he would restore any fraction of honor and integrity to the largest streams of popular culture. Bush strategist Karl Rove overtly steered candidate Bush around any sermons against immoral entertainment. If Powell ever decided to put his mouth where the fine money is and denounce irresponsible filth on TV and radio, he would probably get a call from the White House political affairs office.
To his credit, Powell defended the Detroit fine as well-deserved. He claimed the commission will go after stations and owners who are egregious and flaunting in their violation of obscenity standards. That would be very welcome. It might even be surprisingly popular. But when the emcee of the NAB event, ABC star Sam Donaldson, inquired why the commission does not use the "death penalty" of license revocation in extreme cases, Powell became a spokesman for moral equivalence: "What is really rude to some people is acceptable adult entertainment to others."