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The Washington Post's Pulitzer Prize-winning critic blogs at TVWeek.com with wit, humor and strong opinion.

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Tom Shales


September 2007 Archives

Free Speech? Not at Emmys

September 24, 2007 12:00 AM

Tom ShalesSad to say, Americans are becoming so accustomed to bleeped material on television that it's hard to get a decent ruckus raised even if the bleeping is done by virtual government mandate. That's right: When Fox bleeped Sally Field during the Primetime Emmy Awards, the network's action was just one piddling inch, one silly millimeter, from outright government censorship.

You remember government censorship: It's one of the things we sometimes try to liberate other countries from -- communist dictatorships, for instance.

Naturally and unfortunately, there are cloudy complications to the incident. For one thing, Field was babbling idiotically, a bad habit that may be part of her DNA or somehow instinctive or maybe she thinks it's cute. For her to silence that nudge from the orchestra (the equivalent of a stopwatch saying "Stop!") so that we could hear her stammer, bumble and go "um um um" was pretty galling.

I would have gladly turned her off at that point -- but I'll be hornswoggled into tarnation (or whatever near-cuss stuff is permissible) if I want the government stepping in and turning her off, and for the reason that she might be about to say something topical. What? This happened in America, in the 21st century? Yup.

Why blame the government? First of all, why not? Secondly, the FCC, as federal an agency as there is, has let it be known with the subtlety of Torquemada that any TV station or network that allows "obscenity" (however it's defined by -- who else? -- them) onto its airwaves is subject to an outrageous if patently unconstitutional fine. Free speech thus becomes very expensive.

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