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Get Some Guts

Think California wildfires. Then imagine residents dousing their own homes with gasoline. That is the threat to the media landscape as the heat on indecency continues to rise from Washington and media companies respond by filling their gas cans.

They might as well throw a copy of the Constitution on the fire while they're at it.

From expunging Bubba to stifling Stern, broadcasters are sacrificing control over content on the altar of political expedience. Last week, they also began encouraging even greater content regulation by saying cable and satellite should be equally censored.

Problem is, the ones getting burned are the adults and future adults who face a world where their programming choices are pre-chewed by nervous rabbits in suits constantly checking their watches to make sure the five-minute delay is still in place. If that image suggests an Alice in Wonderland illogic, it should.

We face the prospect of expanding outlets but decreasing diversity if the oxymorons now in control—the censors in Washington and their enablers in the industry—have their way. It seems that censorship is the only thing Democrats and Republicans can agree on, with the industry—amazingly and dangerously—seconding almost every motion.

We blame media companies almost as much as we do the grandstanding politicos. "Almost," because rolling over on command is predictable. It's the gutless byproduct of a regulatory scheme that permits the government to control content on the nation's principal news and entertainment medium.

We cringe at the image of NBC and Viacom and Clear Channel as lapdogs falling all over themselves to please their political masters. We can try to rescue that copy of the Constitution, roll it up, and whack them on the muzzles, but that won't change the fact that Washington holds the leash. The media's reward for caving is looking like good actors with Republicans and Democrats alike. How can they lose? Well, they do. We all do when speech is chilled to serve any political agenda.

We're not saying that some of these shock jocks shouldn't have been canned or that broadcasters shouldn't exercise their editorial discretion. But they have had plenty of time to do that on their own. This "how high" response when Washington says "jump" is what compromises their motives or, let's face it, exposes them.

Broadcasters need the kind of defense that Gerald Levin long ago made in standing up, at least initially, to attacks against that devil music, rap. It will take the kind of backbone that Bob Wright displayed in standing up to the V-chip when it would have been easy to join the pack.

But this universal knee-jerk reaction—emphasis on the jerk—is a shameful chapter in broadcasting history. At a time electronic media should be fighting for their rights, they are happily giving them away. The industry needs the guts to fight for what should be theirs to begin with: the right to air what it pleases, even if sometimes it errs.

The capitulation by media is embarrassing and, worse, dangerous. Broadcast networks and stations and the cable industry should act while they still can. We shudder at the consequences of their collective silence.