The new seriousness at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) toward basic, unmissable profanity on broadcast television and radio is beginning to draw great protest from the proponents of profanity and indecency. They have unfurled the banner of the First Amendment and uttered the usual buzzwords and mantras: free speech, censorship, chilling effect. Then there's a new one: "creative integrity."
This last one comes from NBC president Robert Wright, who wrote a passionate editorial in the Wall Street Journal claiming the TV elite are the titans of "creative integrity," and must not be protested. "Ultimately, we have much less to fear from obscene, indecent or profane content than we do from an overzealous government willing to limit First Amendment protections and censor creative free expression. That would be indecent," Wright insisted.
It's an argument Howard Stern would love: It's not smut that is indecent, it's protesting smut that's indecent! It's like saying cigarettes don't kill people, the anti-tobacco lobby does.
Wright and other activists are now condemning the FCC for defining NBC's airing of the F-word during the Golden Globe Awards as obscene. Apparently, the F-word is the very height of "creative integrity." I wonder if Robert Wright taught his own children that profanity is creative and laced with integrity.
NBC filed its own brief of protest at the FCC. The other, more publicized brief -- covered with headlines like "Hollywood Fights Back" -- can be found at the Web site of People for the American Way. It is signed by Fox Entertainment, Viacom (CBS, MTV, etc.), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), several broadcasting lobby groups, the magician duo Penn & Teller, and the potty-mouthed bisexual comic Margaret Cho.
This coalition is not interested in the broader cause of free speech -- you will not see Margaret Cho or Penn & Teller speaking out for the right of high school children to pray at the flagpole, or the right of a graduation speaker to credit Jesus as a positive influence in his or her life. (In fact, the ACLU is an aggressive litigant against this form of "offensive speech.") This brief is an overt effort to make America's airwaves safe for the F-word. It warns the FCC's Golden Globes ruling that "the isolated use of an unplanned and unscripted expletive is both 'indecent' and 'profane' represents an unconstitutional expansion of the government's intrusion into broadcast content."
Don't they know people start giggling when they try to say the F-word is not profane because it was "unplanned"? Or that it's not indecent if it was an "adverbial intensifier" that did not describe "sexual or excretory activities"? This is where the public starts rolling its eyes about lawyers trying to manipulate language into meaning nothing, or anything at all.
This ambitiously disingenuous brief is authored by lawyer Robert Corn-Revere, who represented Playboy Entertainment Group before the Supreme Court in 1996. Who is paying him for his lobbying effort this time? His speech isn't so free-flowing on that question. The New York Times reported Corn-Revere "would not say which organization initially engaged him to pursue the petition." He's also presently working for Florida entrepreneur Stuart Lawley, who's attempting to prevent Congress from requiring an "xxx" domain code for Internet porn peddlers.
When he sat beside this writer in a Congressional hearing in January, Corn-Revere acknowledged he "actively represented" clients in the entertainment business, but insisted "my testimony represents my personal views, and should not necessarily be attributed to my clients." That's at the very least misleading, since his personal views seem to be indistinguishable from his sleaze-merchandising clients.
Every lame complaint is tossed into the basket here. The Hollywood pro-indecency brief complains that the FCC ruling reflects "arbitrary" regulation, since the commission overruled its so-called "Enforcement Bureau" on its finding that NBC's F-word was not profane. How dare the FCC's commissioners override their staff!
The pro-indecency brief also suggests it is intolerable that the FCC "no longer requires that complaints be substantiated, and that, in some cases, no complaint need be filed at all." Is anyone willing to suggest that the Bono outburst on NBC never happened? What next, Hollywood? That the FCC can't really substantiate that Madonna and Britney Spears kissed on MTV? That it's uncertain if the Super Bowl halftime show fiasco occurred?
Lobbies like People for the American Way ought to know that it's not "the American way" to win political arguments without a debate. It's not "the American way" for broadcasters to shovel smut out of the television set and then say no one is allowed to define obscenity as obscene -- or complain. The American way means you have to persuade the public on the merits of your case, and it doesn't look good to people when you use every euphemism and piece of legalistic mumbo-jumbo to insist that the F-word is somehow not profane.