Clear as Mud

The Federal Communications Commission said last week's package of indecency findings gives broadcasters a clearer sense of what is and isn't indecent. Hardly.

The rulings instead extend the same confusing patchwork of decisions that will lead to more self-censorship. The FCC penalties give groups like the Parents Television Council and the American Family Association (AFA) more reason to flood the airwaves with complaints about what offends their definitions of family values or family programming. We understand why the AFA even sent FCC Chairman Martin a “Thank You” note.

Here's what the FCC doesn't understand: What those groups find offensive does not and should not define indecency. The FCC keeps harping on how many hundreds of thousands of complaints it has received. So what? Hundreds of thousands of people can be wrong. Those complaints to the FCC—in this case, a total of about 300,000—represent a fraction of 1% of the population. That's not an outpouring of outrage. Something is not indecent because a lot of people don't like it. Unfortunately, the FCC thinks differently.

Here's how clear the new road map to respectability is. The FCC says that swearing in a fictional film with actors playing soldiers (Saving Private Ryan) is acceptable profanity because it is appropriate in context: Soldiers swear. But last week, the FCC ruled that swearing in a documentary about blues musicians was indecent, even though it was clearly in context because these were real people really swearing.

A CBS entertainment show, Without a Trace, can't depict teenagers at a sex party, even if it doesn't show any nudity or swearing. That was ruled indecent. We know teens are having these kinds of parties in part because The Oprah Winfrey Show discussed the sex acts performed at those parties in unambiguous language. But the FCC denied a complaint against Oprah because explaining the sex act was, obviously, the only way to convey the information.

So, yes, the FCC has certainly cleared things up.

Look at the FCC's statement justifying a maximum fine for profanity: “The 's-word' is a vulgar, graphic and explicit description of excrement. Its use invariably invokes a coarse excretory image.” So they say. But it's not true. Arguably, the word “poop” is more strictly excretory. The FCC says that word is OK, just silly.

But look what we're doing: We're saying this word is OK, this one isn't. This show is indecent, but this other one is informative.

The FCC was directed by the court to try to keep the airwaves “safe” for children. But that will never do. The First Amendment is supposed to protect Americans from having to watch their language. Censorship, we remind the FCC, is not a family value. Nor an American one.