Powell reluctant to act on TV sex and violence

May 21, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell is skittish about asking broadcasters to tone down racy television content because he does not want to run afoul of the First Amendment.
“We have a right to be outraged,” he said last Thursday during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on his reappointment to the FCC as chairman and the nomination of three new commissioners to the agency.
Responding to a question from Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., about the role the FCC can play in curbing broadcasts of gratuitous violence and sex during the family viewing hour, he said he’s in a bind over whether to take action.
“I think it’s a difficult issue. Not so much because of the desire [to act] but because of the challenge in definition and then [the] crafting of actual rules.”
He expressed that as a father of two children he is concerned about media violence, but he said he often sits in front of the television and thinks, “OK hotshot, write the rules.”
Another challenge for the agency is to distinguish between violent content it considers appropriate, such as the graphic scenes in “Saving Private Ryan,” and grisly images that may be inappropriate for viewers.
“We’re a diverse country, and we all make different value judgments about what’s acceptable,” he said.
“What I’m very uncomfortable with is-the commission-we’re not elected individuals. We operate by 3-of-5 majorities. And I’m not always comfortable that we impose our value practices on society as a whole.”
The response appears to put a damper on a pending proposal from Sen. Brownback; panel Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.; Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn.; and Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., that the FCC revamp its broadcast public-interest standard so that it forces stations to clean up their content or lose their licenses.
On a related note, Timothy Muris, the Bush administration’s choice to be the new head of the Federal Trade Commission, told the same panel last week that the agency would continue to monitor media violence under his watch.
Overall, the committee members heaped praise on Mr. Powell and the other nominees: Michael Copps, a Democrat, and Kevin Martin and Kathleen Abernathy, both Republicans. Sen. McCain said he would try to move quickly on Senate confirmation of the nominees.
They will fill the seats of Harold Furchtgott-Roth, a Republican, and Susan Ness, a Democrat, who are resigning, and former agency head Bill Kennard, a Democrat.
Mr. Powell also addressed questions about consolidation in the communications industry.
“I believe that the concern about media consolidation is genuine,” he said, but he reiterated his view that rules restricting ownership must be “validated” if they’re to be kept on the books.
“I don’t deregulate for its own sake,” he added.
He also reassured lawmakers that the FCC will continue to follow the will of Congress rather than pursue its own regulatory agenda, a practice that often got Mr. Kennard in hot water with lawmakers.
Meanwhile, Ms. Abernathy promised lawmakers she will divest her stock holdings in some Baby Bell phone companies, which are engaged in regulatory battles with cable and phone giant AT&T over broadband deployment and other issues.
She’ll also recuse herself for one year from any proceedings involving her former employer, the Broadband Office of Falls Church, Va., a competitive local phone service provider that filed for bankruptcy two weeks ago.