The American Civil Liberties Union says some public TV stations' reluctance to air Ken Burns' World War II documentary, TheWar, over a handful of profanities "clearly settles any question about the chilling effect" of what it called the FCC's "vague and contradictory indecency regime."
The FCC found a PBS documentary on the blues indecent for its profanities, but concluded similar language in Saving Private Ryan was not indecent. The FCC has said there was a difference between an interviewer or subject using the words and their use in context by soldiers in the heat of battle, even though the first instance was a documentary and the second a work of fiction.
“To impede the First Amendment rights of those who fought and died for those very rights is reprehensible," said ACLU Washington legislative director Caroline Fredrickson in a statement. "Our public broadcasters should not be afraid to air fourteen hours of an educational and fact-based documentary because of a handful of profanities. Images of the brutality of war are far more disturbing than any four letter word."
Jan McNamara says PBS has no way of tracking just how many stations may not air the show, aire an edited version, or move the airing to after 10 p.m., when indecent speech is allowed by the FCC. She said she has heard from only one station, KQED San Francisco, which says it will use the edited version in prime time and the unedited version in the post-10 p.m. safe harbor. In the unedited version, the terms SNAFU and FUBAR are defined, necessitating the use of the F-word, and there is one s-word and one a-word reference.
The War is also catching some flak from Hispanic groups, who have criticized the show for its absence of the voices of Hispanic veterans or a recognition of their contribution. Burns has said he would remedy the omission, though National Hispanic Media Coalition head Alex Nogales said last week that he was concerned Burns would not honor his pledge and said if the show, which debuts Sept. 23, does not sufficiently include the contributions of Hispanics within the documentary itself, the group reserves the right to take "very punitive" action.
He also said NHMC has been working with PBS to make sure such omissions "never happen again."
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