The Censors Are Coming!

Few Independence Days have found the media less independent. The First Amendment is under attack from all sides, and, if a study by think tank Freedom Forum is any indication, "the public" doesn't much care. According to the report released last week, a majority of Americans wholeheartedly favor government regulation of media content. They won't say that, of course, once some show that they like is yanked or edited into submission, but by then it may be too late.

Meanwhile, Congress is ready to hike fines for indecency, and the FCC is ready to regulate "offending" language and images. Many broadcasters have been intimidated into canning popular programs they would not have touched if they were programming to the tastes of their audience rather than their government masters. On the opposite page, we highlight some of our editorial comments about government attempts to infringe on First Amendment rights over the past 70 years. It is sad commentary that free speech is still considered so dangerous today.

The Radio-Television News Directors Association, with the help of the Homeland Security Department, last week touted seminars it will hold for journalists about how to cover terror attacks. That's laudable, and yet we'd feel a lot better if, when not attending seminars, more journalists would be pressing for access to government information being denied in the name of that very same homeland security. Associated Press President Tom Curley has proposed a journalist's lobby to push back against tightening control over information: "The government's power is overwhelming," he says. "Its agents are armed and authorized to use force if they have to."

Curley's call to action and broadcasters' recent attempts to arm themselves and, gasp!, even fight back give cause for hope. So, ironically, does the news that the FCC plans to fine Viacom $550,000 for the Janet Jackson incident.

Michael Powell is a smart enough lawyer to know that an indecency finding against Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" is so specious it does not stand a prayer of surviving on appeal.

Remember Powell's previous stands against government content regulation? Some part of us still wants to believe that this has all been part of a Machiavellian campaign by the chairman to get the FCC's indecency rules thrown out by the courts while appearing to give his bosses in Congress and the national nannies on his own commission what they want.

There is also hope in the Supreme Court's ruling last week that the government had not justified the Children's Online Protection Act, which would have tried to ban porn sites kids could easily get to.

The court pointed to cable's own Playboy Channel case. In that one, the justices ruled that the least obtrusive way to block the channel from homes where parents didn't want their kids to see it wasn't to ban the channel during the day but to make the scrambling mechanism work. By using that logic again in ruling on the porn sites, the court buttressed cable's defense against indecency regulations. It may even have given broadcasters some room to seek a looser content rein as well, once the V-chip blocking technology is in enough sets. That's the hopeful view, but the industry must do more than hope.

Yes, the censors are coming. Yes, they have won some recent battles. But there are more battles to be fought, and the prize is too precious to simply concede. American media should be leading the fight.