Profile: Indecency Warrior’s Campaign Peaking

May 15, 2006  •  Post A Comment

If federal lawmakers, as widely anticipated, soon move to approve legislation that cracks down on indecent television programming, the multibillion-dollar media industry will have to concede defeat largely to one man: L. Brent Bozell III.

Mr. Bozell, 50, is president and founder of the watchdog Parents Television Council, the group widely credited for spurring the Federal Communications Commission to hand down millions of dollars of indecency fines to broadcasters over the past couple of years. The PTC is leading the lobbying charge on Capitol Hill that could soon raise the cap on the FCC broadcast indecency fines by tenfold or more.

“Whatever they’re paying him, they ought to triple it,” said Jack Valenti, former chief of the Motion Picture Association of America.

“[The PTC is] definitely pushing the agenda on the Hill,” said Jim Dyke, executive director of TV Watch, an organization founded by major TV networks to combat PTC and other critics of television programming.

Mr. Bozell is on the industry’s radar screen now because legislation by Sen. Sam Brownback,

R-Kan., that would raise the cap on FCC indecency fines from $32,500 to $325,000 may be headed for a vote by the Senate Commerce Committee within the next couple of weeks.

The House has already approved a measure that would raise the cap to $500,000 and that includes other provisions that could result in FCC license revocation for stations with repeat offenses. To make matters worse for the industry, some leading lawmakers are threatening to bring the House bill directly to the Senate floor for a vote.

Despite their grudging admiration for the discomfort Mr. Bozell has caused them, industry officials attack his methods.

According to television industry insiders, much of Mr. Bozell’s organization, which claims more than 1 million members, can be viewed as a phantom of sorts. The PTC grossly exaggerates concerns about programming by using computer-generated form-letter complaints that its members can file with the click of a button on their computers, Mr. Bozell’s critics said.

“He’s very clever at what he does, which is to manufacture complaints and intimate that there’s a mass movement in America that wants to censor television,” said Jonathan Rintels, executive director of the Hollywood watchdog Center for Creative Voices in Media.

In an interview last week Mr. Bozell said it is irrelevant that PTC campaigns, which have generated many of the thousands of complaints received at the FCC over the past couple of years, are conducted via e-mail.

“Who cares how [PTC members] do it?” Mr. Bozell said.

Mr. Bozell said PTC’s campaign to clean up the nation’s airwaves originally launched in 1995. The push, he said, started as a spinoff from the Media Research Center, a conservative organization that Mr. Bozell also heads. The research group’s mission is to document what it sees as liberal bias in the media.

In a switch for Mr. Bozell, who once was president of the now-defunct National Conservative Political Action Committee and is a nephew of National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr., he said he consciously tried to give PTC a broad appeal by making it nonpartisan.

To some extent, it can be argued that he succeeded. Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., once served on PTC’s advisory board. Sen. Brownback is still a member.

But the ultimate secret to PTC’s success, according to Mr. Bozell, was that it tapped into a sense of outrage over TV programming.

“We didn’t create the outrage,” Mr. Bozell said. “The outrage has been out there for years.”

Mr. Bozell credits a PTC newspaper advertising campaign during the late 1990s for putting his group on the map.

The full-page newspaper ad, featuring the late entertainer Steve Allen, appealed to the public’s concerns about programming quality. Before the ad was dropped in 2000, it ran more than 1,350 times, and brought more than 500,000 members to PTC’s fold, Mr. Bozell said.

“We just woke a sleeping giant,” he said.

The exposure of Janet Jackson’s breast during CBS’s coverage of the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show helped fuel the flames.

“What happened on the Janet Jackson episode is that all of America-given the venue-saw how bad the situation had become, that a network would countenance a striptease on the Super Bowl,” Mr. Bozell said. “There was just no containing the outrage at that point.”

Industry officials fear the organization’s campaign may be doing irreparable harm to First Amendment values.

“They want, in my judgment, to impose their views of what they think of right and wrong on other people,” Mr. Valenti said.

“We’re entering a Bozellian world where a few will make a decision about what we all see on television,” said TV Watch’s Mr. Dyke.

But Mr. Bozell, who has five children and describes himself as a Civil War buff and a fan of bullfights, said that PTC’s success is ultimately based on support from the public.

“From day one, it was a David-versus-Goliath thing, little old us against a multibillion-dollar industry,” he said.