In the surging surf of the trashy tidal wave known as the Super Bowl Halftime Show, radio shock jocks are a very unhappy lot. Whether it's Howard Stern or Don and Mike, the airwaves today are filled with whining and complaining about the newly restrictive atmosphere emanating from the Washington offices of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Congress.
The shock jocks make it sound like we've entered a Brave New World of autocratic censorship. The House has passed legislation by a resounding 391-22 margin that would, among other things, increase finds almost twenty-fold, to $500,000 with license-revocation hearings after three offenses. The FCC, for its part, has stated it intends to get very serious about curbing the abuses on the airwaves. In short, the old formula -- look for the next boundary of taste to bowl over -- doesn't look like such a smart play right now.
Opponents of the new trend cry repression, censorship, the repeal of the First Amendment. But is the new trend censorship -- or democracy?
Ten years ago, the debate raged over offensive images of "Piss Christ" and Robert Mapplethorpe's sexualized photos of naked young children, subsidized by every American taxpayer through the National Endowment for the Arts. NEA lovers cried "censorship." But by funding offensive "art" without consulting the taxpayers, the real government-dictated or government-favored speech came from the NEA's cultural commissars, not the protesters. If the American people were allowed to vote on whether they would spend their pennies on "Piss Christ," the vast majority would veto that ridiculous expenditure.
Broadcast speech is not subsidized in the same way as NEA art -- although the regulatory rationale for the FCC is based on the principle that the airwaves belong to the public. Radio and TV stations merely make a mint off them. The political problem for shock jocks is that when their "finest" work is held up to public scrutiny, most people can't believe they actually say and do these incredibly perverted things. They like the idea that the FCC actually upholds the broadcast-obscenity laws that have long been on the books.
The Super Bowl sleazefest taught Washington and Los Angeles that when the most debased programming narrowcasted in the neatly compartmentalized youth culture -- MTV, Howard Stern, "South Park," you name it -- is exposed to the broad mass of the American people, they go from passively unaware to actively outraged. Entertainment barons only care about the wallets of the young adults who show up in the ratings counts. Activists concerned about the degradation of the broader culture have gone to Washington demanding action to protect the airwaves they -- and not Viacom -- own.