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Communication Shakedown



Published March 31, 2004 at 5:00 p.m.

News broadcasts now post the current terror alert level as routinely as they forecast the day's weather or report sports scores. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are out of work as corporations continue to send jobs overseas. Medicare and Social Security are on life support. Our educational system is turning out fewer and fewer qualified young people. And their parents can't afford to send them to college, anyway, because they're being bankrupted by an out-of-control health-care system.

In these troubled times, it's comforting to know that the Bush administration is getting serious about naughty language. You may not have seen much on TV about the new scare tactics the administration is using to whip the media into shape. That's probably because many in the television industry are too scared to talk about them.

Radio personalities have been dropping from the airwaves like flies since Janet Jackson flashed a breast to Super Bowl-viewing families and handed the religious right the excuse it needed to turn the FCC into avenging angels.

There are a large number of Christian fundamentalists out there -- much larger than anyone, except perhaps George W. Bush and Mel Gibson, suspected until recently. Teenaged boys didn't make The Passion of the Christ the unimaginably profitable monstrosity that it is. The religious right is powerful enough to make a terrible movie into a box-office phenomenon, and a terrible first-term chief executive into one who might get to serve four more years.

As a rule, these people aren't pleased with the direction American culture has taken and they want to make some changes. George W. Bush, who wants their votes in November, has obligingly begun to put those changes in motion. His primary hand puppet in the crackdown on free speech is Michael Powell, the chairman of the FCC and son of current Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Over the past decade, the Federal Communications Commission has gone about its business, for the most part without attracting attention or eroding First Amendment rights, even as shock jocks have multiplied. According to the agency's website, its business includes processing applications for licenses and other filings, developing and implementing regulatory programs, taking part in hearings and managing national-security emergency preparedness functions, and analyzing complaints.

You'd think the FCC would be too busy to bother with potty-mouths, but since the election year began they've suddenly become public-enemy number one.

Though the FCC is an independent government agency, it is "responsible to Congress," the website explains. One might assume this means Congress hammers out policy that the FCC then enforces. One would be wrong. This year, anyway. Since January, virtually the reverse has been happening. After being dormant on the subject of media naughtiness for more than a decade, the FCC sprang into action after Jackson's Super Bowl stunt and petitioned Congress for expanded authority.

In contrast with the years it took to convene a hearing on 9/11, the Republican-controlled Congress formed a subcommittee and held a public hearing on the issue within a matter of weeks. Prominent broadcasters were hauled in, berated for putting the nation's children at risk, and warned that new, astronomically stiffer fines were in the works.

Coincidentally, some of the country's most popular radio performers began disappearing from the airwaves immediately. The long list of missing-in-action and/or fined includes:

• Tampa's Todd Clem, better known as "Bubba the Love Sponge," who's now out of a job, and whose station has been fined just under $1 million;

• Washington jock Elliot Segal of "Elliot in the Morning" fame -- throwing a 50th birthday bash for porn star Ron Jeremy earned his station a $247,500 fine;

• A highly-rated Atlanta duo called The Regular Guys, whose off-air conversation with a porn star was broadcast by accident when a Honda truck commercial was supposed to run; and

• Sandra Tsing Loh, who did commentaries for an NPR affiliate in Santa Monica, California but doesn't anymore since her engineer forgot to bleep her use of the F-word as they'd planned.

And then there's Howard Stern. The FCC may have figured on getting a two-fer when they set their sights on the king of the shock jocks. Stern's an easy target for moral-majority types; and since he read Al Franken's book Lies, and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them last month, he's been a vocal critic of the president and the close ties between the Bush family and Lowry Mays, CEO of media giant Clear Channel Communications and a major contributor to Republican causes.

Just three days after Stern adopted his anti-Bush stance, Clear Channel yanked him from all six markets that carried his morning show. Stern asserted that the attack had at least as much to do with political speech as it did with indecent speech.

Instead of a two-fer, the administration got a public-relations nightmare. Stern has proven relentless in decrying the folly of Bush's policies. He's been equally critical of the FCC's recent actions and those of the U.S. House of Representatives, which on March 11 overwhelmingly approved a bill raising the amount a station can be fined from the current maximum of $27,500 to $500,000, and the penalty a performer can face from $11,000 to $500,000. The Senate is now considering similar legislation.

Given that more Americans are tuning in to the "Howard Stern Show" than are listening to CNN, MSNBC and Fox News combined, a little of the recently fined performer's invective is going a long way. Much of Stern's outrage stems from the Catch 22-style approach of the FCC crackdown. In essence, the agency is penalizing broadcasters for violating standards that it hasn't yet established.

"Who can figure this out?" Stern bemoaned. "I'm trying to comply, but they can go back three years and fine me for saying I had a bowel movement." Indeed, the broadcast for which the FCC fined Stern on March 18 aired in 2001. Stern's show hadn't been fined in 10 years, and the commission did not explain why it had waited so long to find the installment offensive.

Others in the media have expressed similar confusion. "It's been extremely frustrating," an anonymous Clear Channel employee was quoted as saying in an April 1 Rolling Stone article, "The company is so unclear on giving us any guidelines. They just sort of tell you, 'Don't be bad and figure it out.'"

"Nobody can afford to be on the hook for a half-million-dollar fine," said Regular Guy Larry Wachs in a recent interview. "It's one strike and you're out. They give more appeals to convicted murderers than a disc jockey."

The world's largest organization of public-relations professionals, the Public Relations Society of America, recently prevailed upon the government to play fair, saying the FCC's current course could result in serious erosion of free speech. In a letter to chairman Powell, the PRSA's Reed Bolton wrote earlier this month, "The problem is that the FCC never has spelled out what's permissible and what's not permissible. 'When in doubt, leave it out' cannot be an acceptable policy in a democracy that depends on free and open discussion.'"

Reed called for "the establishment of clear definitions of offending acts -- guidelines established only after full and open discussion and debate with all the publics the FCC serves."

One sign the moral shell game isn't likely to end any time soon: Even the FCC can't figure out where it draws the line. On January 19, 2003, U2 lead singer Bono accepted the Golden Globe for best original song on a live NBC telecast with the comment that he found the honor "really, really fucking brilliant." The Parents Television Council complained about the incident but, last fall, the agency's enforcement chief determined that the remark had not been indecent because it didn't meet the standard in effect for decades.

On the same day it fined Howard Stern, however, the FCC did an about-face, overturning its own ruling and declaring that Bono's remark was not only indecent and profane but obscene as well. "By our action today, broadcasters are on clear notice that, in the future, they will be subject to potential enforcement action for any broadcast of the F-word or a variation thereof," the commission's chairman announced.

Stressing the need to "protect our children," Powell added, "This sends a signal to the industry that the gratuitous use of such vulgar language on broadcast television will not be tolerated."

If the agency's own decency expert can't figure out what the rules are, more people working in radio and TV are certain to find themselves learning the hard -- and expensive -- way what they are and are not permitted to say or do.

Is this any way to run a regulatory body -- penalties first, regulations later? Perhaps the only thing crystal-clear at this point is the fact that, in their campaign to keep America clean, Bush and company are prepared to fight dirty.