A war has begun. The four largest broadcast television networks and 800 of their affiliates are taking the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to federal court. For the public, the claim is that the FCC's latest fine of CBS is unconstitutional and does not apply a clear and consistent standard on matters of decency.
It's true that the FCC has not always come to agreement on fines with perfect consistency. But for anyone following the decency debate, this network argument is drop-to-your-knees funny. The broadcasters, saying the regulators have an inconsistent standard on decency? The broadcasters rate their programs for parents using differing standards for each network, often for each show, with holes in the parental protections so broad you could drive a fleet of Hummers through it. And they think the FCC is inconsistent?
But that's not what this network lawsuit is about. The real network viewpoint came through in the Frank Ahrens report in the Washington Post: The hope that this lawsuit "could become the test case awaited by broadcasters who seek to challenge the government's ability to police the airwaves, the broadcasters acknowledge privately."
There's a powerful underlying message in that "acknowledging privately" phrase. The networks are fighting a two-faced war. To parents and the general public, they talk of social responsibility, and spend hundreds of millions of dollars talking up their V-chip, and how they aid parents to navigate the channels. But in court filings, and in the councils of power, the networks are unmasked for what they are: people who believe in no limits, no standards, no scruples. It's an industry that is just a profitable assembly line of garbage, and wants the "right" to offend many millions of families, using the public airwaves owned by those families to do so.
CBS displayed this hypocrisy over the Janet Jackson breast-baring incident during the Super Bowl halftime show in 2004. In the immediate P.R. disaster that followed, CBS spokeswoman Leslie Anne Wade quickly offered apologies: "The moment did not conform to CBS' broadcast standards and we would like to apologize to anyone who was offended." But now, CBS appeals to the FCC, arguing that the incident was not indecent.
So if it wasn't indecent, why apologize? Because it's a two-faced war. Tell the broad mass of Americans one thing, and tell the political elite something entirely different. And while we're at it, let's ask CBS this: If stripping your clothes off in front of millions of children during a sporting event does not constitute indecency, then what does?