Into the sewer we go -- led by Bono

Posted: Oct 14, 2003 12:00 AM

If you caught the Golden Globe Awards last January and you live on the East Coast where the program was aired live, then you heard Irish rock star Bono express his thanks in the following words, "This is really, really (f---ing) brilliant."

The Federal Communications Commission received hundreds of complaints -- mostly from those affiliated with the Parents Television Council. As George Carlin reminded us, there are supposedly seven words you cannot say on television, and the f-word tops the list.

Now, after months of deliberation, the FCC has issued its ruling. David Solomon, chief of the FCC's enforcement bureau, declared, according to The Associated Press, that while "the word may be crude and offensive ... in the context presented here, (the f-word) did not describe sexual or excretory organs and activities." Oh, well that's all right then. The "use of specific words," Solomon explained, "including expletives or other ‘four-letter words' does not render material obscene."

Using the f-word as an intensifier served to domesticate it, according to the FCC. So its use -- and that of the other crude words -- can now be expected to increase on television, as it has in the movies.

Or perhaps I should say continue to increase, because the Parents Television Council has already documented the rise in vulgarity on television. Since 1998, use of profanity expanded by 95 percent during the "family hour" from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. on the three major networks, as well as Fox, WB and UPN. The vulgarity rose by 109 percent in the 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. slot.

The Parents Television Council also reported news that might at first seem positive -- sexual references have declined in frequency. But, sigh, it's not as good as it seems, since the sexual talk has become more explicit when it does crop up.

The next time the matter is brought before the FCC, the agency will doubtless find other grounds to overlook profanity on television. It is, after all, so much easier to let standards slip than to uphold them.

And few seem to have any grasp of what's at stake in policing the language. Are we not guaranteed "free speech" by the First Amendment? In a discussion on C-SPAN last week, the subject of government dictating speech was explored. Should the FCC, whose commissioners are appointed by presidents, have the power to decide which words Americans can pronounce on broadcast television? It seems a classic violation of the First Amendment.

The FCC's power to regulate television goes back to the early days of radio, when spectrum space was a limited resource. Since very few broadcasters would enjoy the immense power of the airwaves, Congress decreed in the Radio Act of 1927 that licensees would have to agree to broadcast in the "public interest, convenience and necessity." The Federal Communications Commission regulates the licensees.

Today, in a world of cable and satellite, with hundreds of channels, the licensee model -- based on the premise of scarcity -- has largely become obsolete. Cable television channels broadcast whatever they please. But 33 percent of homes are still without cable. To get down to first principles, the First Amendment was meant, first and foremost, to protect political speech. By no stretch of the imagination can use of the f-word be said to represent a core American value.

Some protest that it's "just a word." Are they denying the power of words? There used to be something called "polite society." Refined and courteous people policed their language so as not to give offense. Such a simple, quaint idea. Just the other day, my children and I were bombarded, as we waited at a traffic light, by someone in a jeep who insisted upon blasting his vulgar music to the world. Maybe it was Bono's music. I wouldn't know. Even if the driver had been blasting Mozart, he would have been stepping on our toes. But the obscenity compounded the offense.

Courtesy, consideration, self-control. Memo to FCC: They make life more civilized.