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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



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.

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.

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Comments (6)

Bill:

That's just BS, Tom.

Is there no program that parents should be able to watch with their children without being exposed to ever proliferating amounts of profanity in the name of being "edgy?"

I've got two solutions for the industry:

1) Mark all awards programming TV-MA (L).

2) Move the ceremonies to cable if celebrities cannot be relied upon to realize there is a family audience watching.

I'm sickened by your attitude and that of most of your cronies who just don't realize that the FCC is doing its job, for once.

When a network starts bleeping a celebrity for saying the President sucks, I'll be concerned; when it's the fault of celebrities who just can't help dropping the F-bomb, I have no concerns at all.

Tim:

This slippery slope has increased to a cliff. Media consolidation is to blame, with a wink from the government. It is after all easier to control the 5 companies that control the vast majority of media than it was to control 100's when they were limited to owning 7 stations. The competition would not allow them to be lap dogs for the government in power. If you persist in asking tough questions now, you are banished from the press room and replaced with a softball thrower.
The regulations in place by the FCC from 30 years ago did what they were designed to do, ensure true diversity of opinion in the media, true local news and true competition for the facts without one sided opinions being interjected. If the opinions were given it was required that you notified the public with the term "editorial opinion" so you knew the words were that stations opinion, not part of the story.
Freedom of speech is quickly going the way of illegal search and seizure. The government can now seize your assets and you are guilty until you prove yourself innocent. Freedom to protest the government is now OK as long as you are removed a distance from the government official so that they are not bothered by your opinion.
Oh yeah, then there's that old school habeus corpus thing.
We are in deep do-do my friends.

john:

i am amazed at TS's selective usage of the bleeping of Sally Field's language for pursuing his own political (anti iraq) agenda.

the show was broadcast on licensed spectrum belonging to the people -- all the people. TS, there are a lot of people in this country who believe you can make a point without using obscenities. (Bill Cosby versus Richard Pryor). if this was on cable it would not matter.

what if SF had not used an obscenity and was not bleeped, would you have anything to say? no.

so the question really is where you might draw the line on obscenities on licensed spectrum. fox bleeped other obscenities to which you give short shrift because those obscenities were not in the context of a political diatribe to which you support. Nevertheless you still want to ban fox for its "chilling action." there would be no chill on licensed spectrum if the industry would make it absolutely clear that if you speak any obscenity we will bleep you.

its not a free speech question. you still cannot incite a riot or scream fire in a crowded theatre under the first amendment. you cannot fix prices with a competitor and defend your speech which violates the antitrust laws as free speech.

free speech has aways had constraints. get over it TS and stop using selective examples to foster YOUR political speech.

Norm Birnbaum:

Name ONE TIME that the FCC has even threatened to fine any broadcaster over political content! If the Fox censors were responding to Ms. Fields' agenda rather than her mild obscenity, it had nothing to do with pressure from the FCC. I presume the owners and managers of a network have the right to determine the content it broadcasts--or do you wish to censor their freedom of speech and limit their property rights? My guess is that Fox's "censorship" had much more to do with the fact the Ms. Fields was incoherent, possibly intoxicated or otherwise diminished in capacity, was exceeding the time alloted at the expense of other recipients, and was violating her agreement with the network and/or awards committee as to the length and content of acceptance speeches.

Gare Trahan:

Censorship, over time, has taught us at least one specific lesson: What we try to keep from impressionable ears (no matter the age), or scold if/when a child "errs", is still going to be learned. This will be repeated when the child gathers with friends and learns how to communicate and assemble his/her personality.

How we raise our children, hopefully by example, will help decide which words are important and which issues might be more important than words.

If Sally Field is an ogre that the FCC, FOX or the government is fearful of, then they need to regroup and examine their definition of the word "enemy".

Gina:

Most Americans want their democracy to be on a fair, balanced, and level playing
field. At tonight's Emmy awards we got to see another example of extreme bias coming out of Hollywood, by
bullies who dominate the media. The Emmys presented a continuous barrage of ONE SIDED attacks against
John McCain and Sarah Palin. The Lefty's are always crying about a Republican misuse of power ... while they
DOMINATE a free press, to bully and gang up on Sarah Palin. They slant the news, with no concern
for journalistic integrity, or objectivity. And since they monopolize the media, they deprive
McCain and Palin a platform from which to defend themselves and respond to their attacks.
There's a reason the Presidential election is so close ... It's because HALF of America is for McCain and Palin ...
NOT Obama and Biden ... a fact which these self important snobs choose to ignore, while casting their vile disdain
on he other half of America. Perhaps the 60,000 people who greeted Governor Palin in Florida will remind
these pompous celebrities that there's another America outside of Hollywood ... An America made up of common folks who
built this great country. Even their fancy gowns, make-up, and professional lighting couldn't keep their lack of class and
lack of character from making these celebrities look small and unattractive tonight.

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