After the Saving Private Ryan revolt (see this and this) and now the backpedaling over the lead-in to the football game this weekend (FCC Reviews ‘Desperate Housewives’ Football Promo), this discussion of where the FCC is going takes on greater relevance: FCC Crackdown Could Spread
After rejecting 83 percent of indecency complaints received in 2002, the FCC burst out of its cocoon in January after singer Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” on national television. CBS eventually got socked with a $550,000 fine, and a slew of other radio and TV stations found themselves under fire. Even PBS began leaning heavily on the bleep button, and last week, several ABC stations refused to air an uncut broadcast of Saving Private Ryan for fear that the FCC would issue fines for indecency. (”War is heck,” said one newspaper headline.)
Currently, the stakes are fairly low for major media companies. The top fine is $27,500 per incident, although stations can be fined separately. After Jackson’s exposure at the Super Bowl, the House tried to raise the maximum fine to $500,000, but the move was part of a larger bill — the Defense Authorization Act — and it foundered.
[...] Some critics say the FCC has a death wish. By cleaning up network TV, they’ll only send viewers to cable. “As more people (move) away from broadcast television, the FCC loses control,” said Richard Hanley, graduate program director at Quinnipiac University’s school of communications. “If anything, the FCC is acting to kill broadcast television, and in the process kill any chance it has of regulating content. It’s committing, in effect, suicide.”
But the FCC bureaucracy may try to survive by expanding its jurisdiction to encompass the alternatives — cable TV, satellite TV and radio, maybe even the internet. Earlier this year, a Senate committee barely rejected a plan by Louisiana Sen. John Breaux, a Democrat, to allow the FCC to oversee some cable programming.
Related: The New York Times seems to be releasing “future” columns from Frank Rich (this one’s dated Nov 21) — and it’s on this topic, expanding it to a question of the role of media consolidation in chilling expression beyond broadcast television: Bono’s New Casualty: ‘Private Ryan’
For anyone who doubts that we are entering a new era, let’s flash back just a few years. “Saving Private Ryan,” with its “CSI”-style disembowelments and expletives undeleted, was nationally broadcast by ABC on Veteran’s Day in both 2001 and 2002 without incident, and despite the protests of family-values groups. What has changed between then and now? A government with the zeal to control both information and culture has received what it calls a mandate. Media owners who once might have thought that complaints by the American Family Association about a movie like “Saving Private Ryan” would go nowhere are keenly aware that the administration wants to reward its base. Merely the threat that the F.C.C. might punish a TV station or a network is all that’s needed to push them onto the slippery slope of self-censorship before anyone in Washington even bothers to act. This is McCarthyism, “moral values” style.
What makes the “Ryan” case both chilling and a harbinger of what’s to come is that it isn’t about Janet Jackson and sex but about the presentation of war at a time when we are fighting one. That some of the companies whose stations refused to broadcast “Saving Private Ryan” also own major American newspapers in cities as various as Providence and Atlanta leaves you wondering what other kind of self-censorship will be practiced next. If these media outlets are afraid to show a graphic Hollywood treatment of a 60-year-old war starring the beloved Tom Hanks because the feds might fine them, toy with their licenses or deny them permission to expand their empires, might they defensively soften their news divisions’ efforts to present the graphic truth of an ongoing war? The pressure groups that are exercised by Bono and “Saving Private Ryan” are often the same ones who are campaigning to derail any news organization that’s not towing the administration line in lockstep with Fox.
[...] The reductio ad absurdum of such a restricted news diet is Jim Bunning, the newly re-elected senator from Kentucky. During the campaign he drew a blank when asked to react to the then widely circulated story of an Army Reserve unit in Iraq, including one soldier from his own state, that refused to follow orders to carry out what it deemed a suicide fuel-delivery mission. “I don’t read the paper” is how he explained his cluelessness. “I haven’t done that for the last six weeks. I watch Fox News to get my information.” That’s his right as a private citizen, though even Fox had some coverage of that story. But as a senator, he has the power to affect decisions on the conduct of the war and to demand an accounting of the circumstances under which one of his own constituents was driven to revolt against his officers. Instead Mr. Bunning was missing in action.
He is, however, a role model of the compliant citizen the Bush administration wants, both in officialdom and out. In a memorable passage in Ron Suskind’s pre-election article on the president in The New York Times Magazine, a senior White House adviser tells Mr. Suskind that there’s no longer any need for the “reality-based community” epitomized by journalists. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” the adviser says. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”