Aiming to set some standard, any standard for decency on television is not an easy business. Trying to cover the issue as a reporter is apparently just as difficult. But it's sad that reporters write stories that lead to ridicule of the anti-indecency "censors," while they feel the need to censor out the subject matter that's central to the debate.
See the wave of stories that emerged last week after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) bundled 36 complaints organized by the Parents Television Council and threw them in the wastebasket, dismissing them as perfectly acceptable television moments for small children. Unless you work at the FCC, you'd have almost no idea what complaints were rejected. Why? Because reporters failed to describe the episodes in question and censored out the indecent language from the TV shows in their news stories.
In the Washington Post, reporter Paul Farhi wrote: "A number of the denials focused on the nickname -- also a slang term for the male sexual organ -- which increasingly is working its way into television scripts." Farhi provided an example: "the agency ruled that it was not indecent when, during an Oct. 30, 2002, episode of the WB's 'Dawson's Creek,' one character says to another: "Listen, I know that you're [upset] at your dad for flaking on you. It doesn't mean he's a bad dad, and it doesn't mean he doesn't love you." Prompting another character to say, 'No, it just means he's a [nickname/slang term for male sexual organ].'"
In the Washington Times, reporter Chris Baker passed along: "Several of the episodes cited were from shows such as 'NYPD Blue,' 'Dawson's Creek' and 'Boston Public' in which characters use a term that can be interpreted as another word for 'jerk.'" Baker couldn't even be specific enough to tell readers that this term for jerk is also the word referring to the male sexual organ.
How vague can the "news" get? This is especially weird since impressionable children are not exactly running down the driveway in the morning to read the saucy words in the Business section of the Washington Post or the Washington Times.
When the PTC tried to take out a newspaper an ad in a variety of newspapers across the country highlighting the content of shows recently dismissed as acceptably decent by the FCC -- like the infamous episode of Fox's short-lived show "Keen Eddie" where a prostitute is hired to masturbate a horse to extract its semen for the black market -- every single newspaper advertising department rejected it as too indecent for its (mostly adult) readers. At least the Washington Post story mentioned how newspapers turned the PTC ad down. A few months ago, New York Times columnist Frank Rich was railing against the "indecency hoax" brought by TV watchdogs. Rich did not consider that if that's the case, then his own newspaper is also a member of the vast "hoax" conspiracy, given it, too, rejected the ad as inappropriate.
The content of these shows and others are much more overtly sexual than the infamous Janet Jackson Super Bowl incident, but the FCC seems to be saying that only actual nudity or actual sexual situations on broadcast television are offensive enough to trigger remedial action. You can talk about anything you want, and focus entire hours of TV programming on raunchy sexual subject matter, as long as you don't show actual sex. That's a sad abandonment of the FCC's responsibility to uphold community standards. But the media are also failing to do its job in advancing an honest debate.
This isn't the first time the media has mocked a decency debate without exploring the actual content. It's too common. A 1991 Media Research Center study found that in 47 network news stories about indecent art subsidized by the National Endowment for the Arts and 29 stories about the profane rap group 2 Live Crew, the networks failed to show the artworks or play the lyrics, even as some reporters downplayed their shock value. Only two of the 47 NEA stories mentioned there were images from NEA-funded artists they could not show on television. Only six of the 29 reports on 2 Live Crew included any attempt to display the lyrics at the heart of the story.
If the media are going to cover the decency debate, they need to do a better job of explaining exactly what the FCC is deciding. They should not have it both ways, implicitly or explicitly displaying their disdain for "censorship," and then censoring out the most controversial parts of televised raunch. Instead of being offered fair and thorough journalism, the American people have been cheated out of a complete understanding of the "censorship" controversy.