Editorial: Anti-Indecency Frenzy Is Misguided

Mar 22, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Whoever said the wheels of democracy turn slowly didn’t anticipate the rush to judgment taking place in Washington on the indecency issue following Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl halftime incident.
Lawmakers and regulators are speeding ahead not only on legislation aimed at increasing the penalties for blatant indecency; they have also piled on a batch of far-reaching legislation that appears to be the product of a political agenda while flying in the face of the federal government’s deregulatory bent of the past few years. Even worse, many of the new proposals don’t appear to be particularly well thought-out.
The anti-indecency mood is already having a chilling effect on broadcast freedoms. A number of major networks have edited scenes out of shows that in the recent past would have been allowed. Local stations are taking a hard look at both programming and news and eliminating anything that might cause them problems. In Los Angeles, the two all-news radio stations have reportedly stopped running live interviews from the scene of news.
The specifics of the new rules remain to be determined. But the direction of much of the pending legislation is troubling. In particular, the suddenly popular notion of issuing fines to individuals, not simply to the broadcasters, is a bad idea. Whether it’s rock singer Bono on an awards show or a singer whose lyrics may contain a banned word or a witness on a live news report from the scene of a plane crash, it’s absurd to demand that individuals accept responsibility for what goes out over the airwaves. That responsibility belongs to those who distribute that signal. While it is clearly legal to hold over-the-air broadcasters accountable, it makes no sense to try to extend that accountability to the general public.
A potentially bigger problem is defining indecency itself. One of the chief shortcomings of the current proposals is that they don’t even try, instead leaving the definition up to the discretion of the Federal Communications Commission. As has been evident in the FCC’s efforts to deregulate the media industry, that panel is driven largely by its political agenda. Giving it the sole power to define indecency is an unsettling proposition. We agree with Viacom President Mel Karmazin, who last week said in a letter to Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., that the legal standard of indecency is vague and arbitrary. He said it must be clarified if everyone from management to editors to talent is to ensure there will be no violations.
The government should be working in partnership with broadcasters. If it is determined to enforce stricter standards, it first has to make crystal clear what those standards are. And it has to be careful to assign responsibility to those who are licensed to use the airwaves rather than grasp at straws in its haste to find someone to blame.