By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
JustasaTIMEmagazinepollout this week shows Americans want more TV censorship, a brace of Republican initiatives threatens to extend federal control of what you can see and hear and read to both cable TV and the Internet.
Hollywood better wake up. Remember the Hays Office, which imposed family-values censorship on the movies in the 1920s — a ham-fisted squelching of “indecency” that cramped and crippled scriptwriters and moviemakers for decades thereafter? Well, what one of the most powerful Republicans in the U.S. Senate is now talking about sounds very much like the same thing, except now it’s about cable TV and the Net.
The latest assault on cable TV’s creative freedom comes from octogenarian Republican Senator Ted Stevens, chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. Stevens and his committee are considering a censorious House-passed “indecency” bill regulating radio and TV broadcasters — legislation cooked up in the wake of the furor over Janet Jackson’s boob flash during the Super Bowl. And now, the weighty senator wants to extend its provisions — including a draconian new government-imposed ratings system. With an ironclad Republican Senate majority, Stevens usually gets what he wants.
The effect on cable-TV programming would be enormous. The Republican-controlled FCC has, in the Bush years, already been heavy-handed in targeting what it deems broadcast speech too impure for you to hear. Its rulings go way beyond the traditional “Seven Words You Can Never Say on TV” made famous by George Carlin’s uproarious comic riff. That’s why Howard Stern — after getting a $495,000 spanking from the FCC — chose to exile himself from broadcast radio to his upcoming new home on Sirius Satellite Radio. But if Stevens has his way, Howard will be subjected anew to the same censorship on the Net. And so will cable.
From the ACLU to libertarian conservatives, predictions of what the Stevens proposals mean are dire. “I think Stevens is probably laying the groundwork for another assault on speech online,” Adam Thierer, a senior fellow at the libertarian, free-market Progress & Freedom Foundation, told CNET, the online magazine about the Internet. “He’s obviously pointing the way to other members of Congress, saying that if they want to control the media, they have to start at cable and satellite first, and then target the Internet . . . This foreshadows the coming debate we’ll have over IP-enabled services in the video space.”
The already-passed House bill calls for sharply increased new fines for violators — the whopping $1.18 million FCC fine imposed on the Fox network for airing a wild guys’ night out on MarriedbyAmericawould be doubled under the new law. These new “indecency” regs — if extended to cable TV and the Net, as the Republican powerhouse senator intends to make happen — would mean, for example, that HBO’s AngelsinAmerica,which swept the Emmys, would most likely never have been aired in the unadulterated version that the distinguished playwright Tony Kushner wrote. And the host of cable-TV shows with less literary merit but a higher “smut” content would certainly come under federal attack. So would song lyrics, and the many cable broadcasts of rock concerts. Cable TV has up until now been mercifully free from the arbitrary Savonarolas of the broadcast nets’ infamous “standards and practices” departments, which exact oh-so-cautious compliance with FCC regs. But, threatened with huge fines and the opprobrium of being labeled “indecent” by the federal government, cable execs with their eye on the bottom line of profit won’t risk being dropped by cable operators in the American heartland in a country drowning in religion-driven bowdlerization.
That’s all the more true given the public’s demand for more censorship, revealed in a new Timemagazine poll out this week: 68 percent of Americans say the entertainment industry has lost touch with viewers’ “moral standards,” 53 percent want stricter FCC censorship of sex and violence on TV, and 49 percent want to extend FCC regs to cover basic cable, including MTV and the E! channel on most cable systems. That’s just what Stevens’ proposals would do.
And he’d throw in the Internet for good measure. Thunders the senator: “We ought to find some way to say, here is a block of channels, whether it’s delivered by broadband, by VoIP, by whatever it is, to a home, that is clear of the stuff you don’t want your children to see . . . I take the position that at the time the Supreme Court made its decision about cable, cable was just one of the ways for public access to television products. Today 85 percent of the television that is brought to American homes is brought by cable, and I believe that the playing field should be leveled.”
Extending those FCC “indecency” standards from broadcast to the Net and cable TV would drastically change the audio-visual landscape. If it’s too risqué to be seen by a 10-year-old, fuhgeddaboutit. To take just one Net example, explicit sex education, or safe-sex videos on the Web featuring graphic instruction on how to use a condom, could potentially be covered by this new “indecency” bill. So could the streaming videos of frank-talk conferences on AIDS education offered by the Kaiser Family Foundation on the Net. And the list goes on . . .
Thereappearstobelittleoppositionin Congress at the moment to Stevens’ new censorship drive. Stevens himself says, “I think the Congress means business now. I have not received many complaints from, I can’t think of any real complaints from members of Congress about what I have been saying.” Watch the GOP make this an election-year issue next year — as the Democrats scamper.
At the same time, the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) is considering a crackdown on political blogging under the provisions of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law. According to Republican FEC member Brad Smith, including the Net under McCain-Feingold “would strike deep into the heart of the Internet and the bloggers who are writing out there today.”
Commissioner Smith told CNET two weeks ago, “We’re talking about any decision by an individual to put a link [to a political candidate] on their home page, set up a blog, send out mass e-mails, any kind of activity that can be done on the Internet. Again, blogging could also get us into issues about online journals and non-online journals . . . Why should Salon or Slate get an exemption? Should Nytimes.com and Opinionjournal.com get an exemption but not online sites, just because the newspapers have a print edition as well?” Blogging a press release from a campaign, or promoting a politician’s views on issues — let alone a blogger’s recommending a financial contribution to a candidate — would all fall under the McCain-Feingold law under the proposals.
In Monday’s WashingtonPost,another Republican FEC commissioner, David Mason, spelled it out: “We are almost certainly going to move from an environment in which the Internet was per se not regulated to where it is going to be regulated in some part,” Mason said, adding: “That shift has huge significance.”
In response to this threat, leading bloggers formed an ad hoc committee called OnlineCoalition.com, to petition the FEC to “grant blogs and online publications the same consideration and protection as broadcast media, newspapers, or periodicals by clearly including them under the Federal Election Commission’s ‘media exemption’ rule.” In just two weeks, the petition has already harvested the signatures of more than 2,500 bloggers and journalists, myself among them.
Credit where credit is due: The stories about both these new censorship drives were broken by CNET’s Washington bureau chief, Declan McCullagh, who for a decade has chronicled threats to Internet freedom on his invaluable Politechbot.com (for “Politics and Technology”) Web site — which you can check out for regular updates on both the Stevens- and FEC-proposed crackdowns on untrammeled free speech.
DOUG IRELAND can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND, at http://direland.typepad.com/direland/.