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Capital Watch

Word Play

David Solomon, chief of the FCC's Enforcement Bureau, insisted to a Media Institute crowd last week that the controversial decision to fine Bono for using the f-word during a Golden Globes show did not mean the word was, per se, off-limits. Despite press reports to the contrary, the FCC still takes context into account. Although greater leeway is given in deciding if newscasts are indecent, he warned that news isn't shielded from punishment. Citing KRON's fine for a morning-show bit featuring penises used as puppets, Solomon said the sanction was levied because on-air newscasters encouraged the spectacle. He says broadcasters must do more to self-regulate, rather than hide behind "the mantra of the First Amendment."

Indecency Shelf Life

When the FCC investigates broadcast-indecency complaints, one common defense tactic by stations is to plead ignorance of what words or images actually aired. The FCC hopes to blunt that strategy. It proposes that broadcasters be required to keep recordings of their broadcasts for up to 90 days. The requirement is under consideration because listeners often are driving or are unable to record or transcribe broadcasts they think violate the rules. The FCC is asking the industry and the public to weigh in on the appropriate length of time that recordings should be retained. (It suggests either 60 or 90 days.) The FCC also wants to know how much it would cost stations to warehouse recordings and whether the plan raises any First Amendment issues.

Get Serious

Even though time may be running out on the current crop of FCC commissioners, Michael Copps wants the FCC to rewrite broadcast-ownership rules. No matter that Chairman Michael Powell is likely to step down at the end of President Bush's current term. Or that Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein must give up his seat when Congress adjourns for the year. Says the Democratic FCC commissioner, "It's time to get serious around this place." Judges threw out the previous version of the rules last month. Copps called for the first in a series of hearings on media consolidation to be held outside Washington by early August.

In a not-so-veiled swipe at Powell, Copps rejects the argument that the courts clouded the situation. Powell had lamented after the court ruling that it might now be impossible for the FCC to set any ownership limits.

Employee Audits

Broadcast stations and cable systems will be subject to random FCC audits to check compliance with new minority- and gender-recruiting rules. Forty-five state broadcaster associations asked federal judges to block the audits, but the court refused. The new rules require companies to track and report to the FCC gender and ethnic data on their employees. The data will be used only to track industry trends because the FCC is forbidden from using the information to judge whether stations are meeting broad outreach requirements. Broadcasters wanted to stop the audits until the FCC decides whether individual station data will remain confidential. Without confidentiality, broadcasters say, activist groups and individuals will use the information to support discrimination lawsuits.