Free Speech? Not at Emmys
September 24, 2007 12:00 AM
Sad 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.
So if you're the network executive in charge, and you think you could be fined for what Sally Field is about to say, and you think you feel the hands of the long arm of the government at your throat, you may understandably be jumpy and censor her preemptively (prophylactically?) rather than risk an unhappy outcome. But the executive at the switch wasn't acting out of dread, because he or she had already heard what Field was going to say: The show was on a time delay.
And all she said was that if mothers ruled the world, there'd be no more wars, except that as we all know, she preceded "wars" with a profane adjective dropping the name "God."
It's true that in the past, networks have tried to remove that part of the two-word expression whose second word is "damned," to spare the sensibilities of religious viewers. But a few days after the Emmys, a wily and creative individual put together a montage of instances in which the phrase had been very much permitted on one Fox network or another and put it on YouTube. So for the Fox censor to use that as an excuse turns out to be inexcusable.
It was inferred that Fields implied (imagine this being tried in court) that by "wars" she meant the Iraq war. The word "Iraq" never issued forth from her lips, but Fox censors can read minds as well as lips, and thus the button was flicked. We not only suffered audio censorship but, as it had done at least twice earlier in the evening, Fox committed visual censorship as well (gotta watch out for them crafty lip-readers, you know), with the director cutting to a ridiculous overhead shot of some piece of set decoration, obviously recorded on a loop for just such an "emergency."
Well, it is an emergency, and not for the transparent reasons Fox has claimed. It's doubly disturbing because Fox is the network in question, of course, since the Fox News Channel has a reputation, hardly unearned, as being politically conservative in its coverage. Fox was apparently the only news network, for instance, not to air the Democratic response to President Bush's recent speech on Iraq, the one Katie Couric of CBS News called his "state-of-the-war" speech.
You'd think the professionals who work for Fox would balk at that kind of ham-handed abuse of duty. Hired commentators can always come on and say afterward that it was baloney or whatever. It's not like they'll be censored, heaven knows.
Now what happens if Michael Moore wins another Oscar (not the happiest of possibilities, I concede) and elects to go into a diatribe instead of making an acceptance speech, as he did a couple of years ago, and a network executive decides that airing this would put the network in disfavor with the White House, Congress, one political party or another, the Librarian of Congress, who the heck knows, anybody in Washington except me, and replaces it with one enormous bleep? If the speech contained any kind of strong language, then that could always be used as an excuse.
The FCC commissioners would say they never intended the censoring of political speech when they went crazy and started cracking down on racy stuff aired over broadcast television and radio (with cable being, mercifully though perhaps temporarily, beyond their clumsy reach). Oh, weren't they?
Even if so, the alleged anti-obscenity crusade has led to absurd injustices and had a chilling effect on media that must forever be mindful of re-earning and deserving the public's trust. They don't deserve diddly if they are being censored by the government, or by the military-industrial establishment, or by political crackpots of any persuasion.
Where is the TV Academy in all of this? Why hasn't it made a louder protest? Why hasn't it announced that Fox will never again be allowed to televise the Emmys (which usually earn worse ratings when Fox carries them anyway)?
Nobody even seems mad, and it can't just be because Field was so infernally dithery. We're being numbed, lulled, sedated, or so it seems, by repeated assaults on freedom of speech, the latest being a hubbub over an ad that appeared in the New York Times. Congress stopped in its tracks (if it even makes tracks anymore) and devoted time to such nonsense.
It's not just unsettling, it's frightening. It's not just frightening, it's sickening.