Indecent Exposure

Really F-word-deleted brilliant: If anyone gets annoyed by anything, it's profane!

It's still a little up in the air which words need to be bowdlerized. On December 8, Republican representative Doug Ose of California introduced a bill defining "profane" broadcast language as all variations on " 'shit,' 'piss,' 'fuck,' 'cunt,' 'asshole,' and the phrases 'cock sucker,' 'mother fucker' and 'ass hole.' " This is very close to George Carlin's famous list of "seven filthy words"—the one whose broadcast led to the 1978 FCC v. Pacifica Foundation decision that codified the FCC's right to regulate indecency—except that "tits" is gone, and "asshole" is now present. Twice.

But everyone in Congress is trying to look less tolerant of on-air tits and fucks. The FCC's suggested sticking an extra zero on the $27,500 maximum per-incident-per-station indecency fine. On March 3, the House's Energy and Commerce Committee saw the FCC's $275,000 and raised them to $500,000 per incident, plus a three-strikes policy for license revocation hearings. The Senate Commerce Committee proposed a similar bill with key differences—significantly, a provision that the General Accounting Office spend a year examining the relationship between on-air indecency and media consolidation before last June's FCC ruling on media ownership can be put into practice.

That provision, an amendment co-sponsored by Republican Trent Lott of Mississippi and anti-media-consolidation stalwart Byron Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota, is a coded but very public dis of Clear Channel Communications, the company that stands to gain the most if that heavily contested, very unpopular FCC ruling goes into effect. Immediately before its radio division's president John Hogan testified to Congress on indecency in February, Clear Channel had made a big hands-washing show of firing shock jock-fine magnet Bubba the Love Sponge and kicking Howard Stern off its stations. (Stern's show is syndicated by Clear Channel's rival Infinity Broadcasting—only six Clear Channel stations had been airing it anyway.)

The Lott-Dorgan amendment is also a slap-down to the FCC, and specifically to Powell, who rammed through the new ownership rules last summer. Powell's case for deregulation is that media outlets aren't actually scarce enough to warrant strict government control of who gets to own them. If every media outlet—every website, every cable TV station, every fool with a printing press—were equal, then that would be arguable. But they're not; the broadcast airwaves, which the FCC actually does regulate, are distinctly limited and among the most powerful outlets. They're also public property, revocably licensed to private concerns to serve the public interest (in theory, anyway). Powell's idea of protected speech extends to oligopolistic commercial control of that public property, but not to the words (and body parts) broadcast over it. When you're disturbed by something on the TV or the radio, you can always turn it off and walk away—but if the airwaves are dominated by a few big owners, you hear the same voices no matter what channel you turn on. That's more indecent than any word could ever be.

Douglas Wolk is a former WFMU DJ and the author of the forthcoming James Brown Live at the Apollo (Continuum).

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