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Clear and Present Danger

The FCC inquisition has begun. Certain words, no matter how they are used, now may not be said on penalty of economic death, i.e. license revocation. It's as though the mere sound of the word could corrupt. This Orwellian fear of the power of language is rooted in prejudice and ignorance. Here's what else it is: a clear and present danger to freedom of speech.

"The gratuitous use of such vulgar language on broadcast television will not be tolerated," said FCC Chairman Michael Powell last week, sounding like the censor he professes not to be.

Under political pressure, he led his agency to reverse its decision on singer Bono's impromptu use of the f-word on a live awards shows last year on NBC. The FCC at first dismissed the complaint. But last week it changed its rules on content regulation of indecency and the use of profanity. Bono is now guilty.

For several weeks now (and periodically for more than 70 years), this page has asked the industry to start standing up to Washington before regulators and legislators annexed all of its First Amendment real estate. Never has that call been so urgent.

Some backbones began to emerge last week, but the industry can't continue to act on some Darwinian timetable. It is time to fight.

Viacom President Mel Karmazin, to his credit, dug in his heels last week when he told Sen. Sam Brownback that a particular Howard Stern broadcast was not indecent, at least as it had been
defined by FCC.

There were a few more voices raised in opposition to the FCC's potentially sweeping new censorship powers. The performers' union and the major advertising associations spoke up against the new indecency-enforcement bills that, combined with the Bono decision, would chill content to a greater degree than any rules in the nation's broadcast history.

Of course, the ad community is trying to break a full-court press by those who want to protect children from too many fatty french fries, too many curses, and alcohol ads altogether. The addition of violence to the indecency definition, as the Senate bill proposes, was apparently the straw that broke Joe Camel's back.

AFTRA doesn't like the new emphasis on targeting performers, which will put its members squarely in the sights of fine-happy FCC regulators. But take that away and we're not so sure how hard they would be complaining, particularly about that amendment rolling back media deregulation until some content studies are completed.

The talk from broadcasters needs to get tougher, and louder, and come from many more sources. NBC said last week that, surprise, surprise, it agrees with the FCC that it should not be fined for Bono's f-word, but it was silent on the implications of the finding.

Does that mean, so long as it doesn't cost you any cash, censorship is OK? Or does it mean, as Clear Channel has suggested, that, if it costs you a reasonable amount of cash but doesn't threaten your license, compromised speech is the cost of doing business? If memory serves us, NBC was all for increasing the fines for indecency because it didn't expect to have to pay any.

Broadcasters can't be sitting on the sidelines waiting until the government picks on them before they start screaming. It will be too late. Broadcasters, joined by all who care about free speech, need to take off the gloves and fight back.