We're not sure how much celebrating the National Association of Broadcasters will want to be doing this week at its Service to America gala dinner in Washington. After all, broadcasters took it on the chin (or lower down) last week.
A punitive bill that Congress sent to the White House for President Bush to approve will give the FCC the right to fine broadcasters up to $325,000 for each instance of broadcast "indecency." Whatever that is, politicians are against it, and the House voted 379-35 to put a permanent chill on anything deemed naughty that broadcasters do. The Senate passed the bill earlier.
Oh, how fully the virtuous legislators congratulated themselves! At a ceremony for the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert said, "We value the American way of life that says 'no' to anything goes." President Bush has said he is eager to sign the bill.
Nasty, bad broadcasters! Is that so? We don't think so.
On June 12, at the NAB's Service to America day in Washington, the group will announce that, by its calculation, broadcasters last year contributed $10.3 billion worth of public service to the communities they serve, in the form of advertising time, promotion, and informational campaigns. That's up from $9.6 billion two years ago, the last time the NAB checked. The NAB survey counts only PSAs and fundraisers (96% of all stations said they mounted some disaster-relief campaign, by the way). Pretty good for smut-mongers.
The number is spongy, we'll admit. When the term public interest has not been defined, it is hard to quantify what constitutes "public service." But we know that, even in a cynical age, broadcasters chip in to help their communities, keep them informed, and keep them healthy, vibrant and alive. It is easy to point to the terrific work by stations in New Orleans and Mississippi that tried to get listeners and viewers to leave before Katrina and then provided vital information and service to aid the recovery. But every year, there are mini-crises all over the country where stations also serve as a crucial part of the solution. We dare say many broadcasters do more for their communities than some politicians do.
Broadcasters don't deserve the public flogging they've received, and soon, many of them won't be able to afford onerous fines for what some bluenose finds indecent. That bill flies in the face of common sense, fairness and the First Amendment.
They are solid citizens. Service to America? Broadcasters are there; always have been and, we hope, always will be. They have much to be proud of, and official Washington has a lot to learn from them. Broadcasters do good. That's a four-letter word the FCC can't censor.
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