Do you have an obligation to your children
to bring decency standards into their lives? Is it OK to insist on
decency standards when the child is young, but to "let go" when he is an
Do you think the
government should be investigating and prosecuting the porn industry, or
levy fines on indecency on the radio or TV? If the government
imposes decency standards, is the government treating adults like children?
Is the ONLY interest the government should have to impose decency standards
which affect children?
What is the
obligation of what part of society to create or impose "decency standards?"
What are decency standards? You know that those who SHOULD be
reading this page are not, but what can YOU do about this morality issue in
society? Vote, first, then, click to find out how you can help!
we really want to enter an era in which an inadvertent curse word aired
during live coverage of a breaking news story would result in fines and
possible license revocations? It would be a loss to everyone if the high
standards of news organizations like NBC News were sacrificed in the
effort to minimize the real risks that apparently are now part of any live
Either way, Nguyen, father of a
2-year-old girl, and his co-workers spend their days scouring the Internet
for the most obscene material, following leads sent in by citizens and
tracking pornographers operating under different names. The job wears on
them all, day after day, so much so that the obscenity division has
recently set up in-house counseling for them to talk about what they're
seeing and how it is affecting them.
Three of the nation's biggest
media companies challenged the government's crackdown on broadcasting
indecent material yesterday, joining activists and performers in
protesting a Federal Communications Commission decision that opponents
said is stifling free speech on the airwaves.
If Howard Stern
is to be believed, he's now suffering Jesus-like persecution at the hands
of the Federal Communications Commission because of his political
Meanwhile his boss, Viacom president Mel Karmazin, assures a U.S. Senator
that while a sexual crack on Mr. Stern's show may have been racist, it
wasn't indecent. Which is almost as silly as the FCC's initial Solomonic
ruling that the F-word is no problem so long as it's an adjective.
Personally, I'm not convinced that
further broadcast content regulation is necessary. One thing is clear,
however: If our current national dialogue about decency is to make any
sense at all, broadcast networks (which air thousands of hours of
unobjectionable programming for every second of content that might
inadvertently cross the line) must not be confused with a few "shock
jocks" of radio who have drawn so much government attention. The
average home today receives more than 100 television channels. Perhaps
14 of these might be over-the-air broadcast stations, including a
couple of Spanish-language broadcasters. These licensees take
seriously their obligation to refrain from airing obscene, indecent,
or profane programming.
It is not just broadcast licensees who
should be concerned. Make no mistake, the American public will bear
the brunt of this legislation, which is just vague and punitive enough
to cause talented writers, producers and actors to flee broadcast
television. The legislation before Congress will require broadcasters
and individual performers alike to weigh every move they make in the
fear of incurring a fine or triggering an indecency hearing. At a time
when broadcast and cable channels are just a click away on the remote
control, it makes no sense to exacerbate the regulatory burden imposed
Another serious problem is that the
standards are so murky that it's impossible to self-regulate with any
confidence. We recently cut from "ER" a fleeting image of a partially
dressed 80-year-old woman on a gurney. We did so not because we
thought it was in any way parallel to the Jackson-Timberlake fiasco.
It was an example of what can happen when the government is empowered
to enforce vague and unclear standards. Such discretionary power can
force broadcasters to play it safe at the high cost of sacrificing
creative integrity. This is precisely the kind of pernicious "chilling
effect" that the courts have found to be constitutionally suspect.
Viewers of NBC and other broadcast
television networks deserve to see the full creative vision of
talented producers like Dick Wolf and John Wells, who are responsible
for some of television's best shows -- as reined in when necessary not
by politicians applying vague rules, but by the broadcasters (and
their viewers and advertisers, who vote with their eyes and dollars).
By the same token, viewers deserve and expect to watch news events
unfold in real time -- not as delayed and edited by anxious television
standards professionals forced to anticipate the judgments of
Do we really want to
enter an era in which an inadvertent curse word aired during live
coverage of a breaking news story would result in fines and possible
license revocations? It would be a loss to everyone if the high
standards of news organizations like NBC News were sacrificed in the
effort to minimize the real risks that apparently are now part of any
Some material has no place on
broadcast radio or television. But the federal government needs to act
with caution and restraint when it comes to exercising its powers in
this area. The vast majority of broadcast licensees do an excellent
job of knowing where and when to draw the line. Errors of judgment are
rare. Ultimately, we have much less to fear from obscene, indecent, or
profane content than we do from an overzealous government willing to
limit First Amendment protections and censor creative expression. That
would be indecent.
Mr. Wright is vice chairman of
General Electric, and chairman and CEO of NBC.
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Earlier this month, Stern was dropped by Clear
Channel Communications in six small and midsize markets after the
company was fined $495,000 by the FCC for various on-air utterances
that I wouldn’t be able to repeat or paraphrase with any precision
in any mainstream newspaper.
As a result, Stern is acting as if he’s Nelson
Mandela, imprisoned for life, or Alexander Solzhenitsyn, shivering
in the Gulag.
He’s so upset by this unfair persecution that
he’s stealing valuable time from undressing barely-of-age women on
the air, or verifying the authenticity of their breasts, to
dramatize his plight as a political victim.
Because he’s a very smart and skilled
broadcaster, Stern’s pleas have touched many of his 20 million or so
Otherwise intelligent people are wandering
around muttering about the fate of poor Howard, and the evil FCC
commissioners who, by slapping substantial fines on broadcasters,
are endangering not only his livelihood but the future of free
speech in America.
Because I too am concerned about free speech, I
switched on E! just in time to catch the irrepressible one offering
$1,000 to an aspiring model/actress/dancer — the prize hers if she
would don a bikini. “I haven’t shaved my legs in two days,” she
said, politely declining.
Howard Stern’s a guy who knows what’s — in one
of his favorite phrases — “classy.”
On the surface, Stern’s show makes an ideal
target for the FCC’s new “zero tolerance” attack on indecency on the
air — a big fish to land in the post-Janet Jackson Super Bowl era of
It would be terrific if people listened to
radio stations in direct proportion to community standards of
decency, or if advertisers didn’t long to reach truck-buying,
beer-gulping young males.
Given the radio landscape —
with its repetitive play, monopoly ownership and dearth of formats —
it’s hard to imagine even the government ruining it.
And faced with a duel between
those staying up late worrying about indecency and Howard Stern —
cash cow and mouth extraordinaire — my money’s on Stern.
He’ll survive long after the newly emboldened
FCC commissioners promise to clean up the airwaves, even if he has
to take his obnoxious act to satellite. Or Venus.
But before that happens, he’s already proving
what Czech writer Milan Kundera once said about repressive regimes:
They’re bad for people but good for literature.
And persecution is clearly good for Howard
Stern, a former Bush booster, is now using the
power of his radio pulpit for effective political commentary. The
actions of the government, and his former employer, are diverting
him from his usual anatomical obsessions.
WASHINGTON - Lam Nguyen's job is to sit for hours in a chilly, quiet
room devoid of any color but gray and look at pornography. This job,
which Nguyen does earnestly from 9 to 5, surrounded by a half-dozen
other "computer forensic specialists" like him, has become the focal
point of the Justice Department's operation to rid the world of porn.
In this field office in Washington, 32 prosecutors, investigators and
a handful of FBI agents are spending millions of dollars to bring
anti-obscenity cases to courthouses across the country for the first
time in 10 years. Nothing is off limits, they warn, even soft-core
cable programs such as HBO's long-running Real Sex or the adult movies
widely offered in guestrooms of major hotel chains.
Department officials say they will send "ripples" through an industry
that has proliferated on the Internet and grown into an estimated $10
billion-a-year colossus profiting Fortune 500 corporations such as
Comcast, which offers hard-core movies on a pay-per-view channel.
The Justice Department recently hired Bruce Taylor, who was
instrumental in a handful of convictions obtained over the past year
and unsuccessfully represented the state in a 1981 case, Larry Flynt
Flynt, who recently opened a Hustler nightclub in Baltimore, says
everyone in the business is wary, making sure their taxes are paid and
the "talent" is over 18. He says he's ready for a rematch, especially
"Everyone's concerned," Flynt said in an interview. "We deal in plain
old vanilla sex. Nothing really outrageous. But who knows, they may
want a big target like myself."
A recent episode of Showtime's Family Business, a reality show about
Adam Glasser, an adult film director and entrepreneur in California,
had him worrying about shipping his material to states more apt to
prosecute. It also featured him organizing a pornographic Internet
telethon to raise money for targets of prosecution.
Drew Oosterbaan, chief of the division in charge of obscenity
prosecutions at the Justice Department, says officials are trying to
send a message and halt an industry they see as growing increasingly
"We want to do everything we can to deter this conduct" by producers
and consumers, Oosterbaan said. "Nothing is off the table as far as
Money and friends
It is unclear, though, just how the American public and major
corporations that make money from pornography will accept the
perspective of the Justice Department and Attorney General John
Any move against mainstream pornography could affect large telephone
companies offering broadband Internet service or the dozens of
national credit card companies providing payment services to
pornographic Web sites.
Cable television, meanwhile, which has found late-night lineups with
"adult programming" highly profitable, is unlikely to budge, and such
companies have powerful friends.
Brian Roberts, the CEO of Comcast, which offers "hard-core" porn
on the Hot Network channel (at $11.99 per film in Baltimore), was
co-chair of Philadelphia 2000, the host committee that brought the
Republican National Convention to Philadelphia. In February, the Bush
campaign honored Comcast President Stephen Burke with "Ranger" status,
for agreeing to raise at least $200,000 for the president's
re-election effort. Comcast's executive vice president, David Cohen,
has close ties to Gov. Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania, a former
chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
Tim Fitzpatrick, the spokesman for Comcast at its corporate
headquarters in Philadelphia, declined to comment on the cable
network's adult programming. But officials at the National Cable and
Telecommunications Association, which Roberts used to chair, said
adult programming is legal, relies on subscription services for access
and has been upheld by the courts for years.
"Good luck turning back that clock," said Paul Rodriguez, a spokesman
for the association.
Ashcroft vs. consent
In a speech in 2002, Ashcroft made it clear that the Justice
Department intends to try. He said pornography "invades our homes
persistently though the mail, phone, VCR, cable TV and the Internet,"
and has "strewn its victims from coast to coast."
Given the millions of dollars Americans are spending each month on
adult cable television, Internet sites and magazines and videos, many
may see themselves not as victims but as consumers, with an
expectation of rights, choices and privacy.
Ashcroft, a religious man who does not drink alcohol or caffeine,
smoke, gamble or dance, and has fought unrelenting criticism that he
has trod roughshod on civil liberties in the wake of the Sept. 11
attacks, is taking on the porn industry at a time when many experts
say Americans are wary about government intrusion into their lives.
The Bush administration is eager to shore up its conservative base
with this issue. Ashcroft held private meetings with conservative
groups a year and a half ago to assure them that anti-porn efforts are
But administration critics and First Amendment rights attorneys warn
that the initiative could smack of Big Brother, and that targeting
such a broad range of readily available materials could backfire.
"They are miscalculating the pulse of the community," said attorney
Paul Cambria, who has gone head to head with Taylor in cases dating to
"I think a lot of adults would say this is not what they had in mind,
spending millions of dollars and the time of the courts and FBI agents
and postal inspectors and prosecutors investigating what consenting
adults are doing and watching."
The law itself rests on the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision in
Miller vs. California, which held that something is "obscene" only if
an average person applying contemporary community standards finds it
patently offensive. But until now, it hasn't been prosecuted at the
federal level for more than 10 years.
Since the last time he faced Taylor, Flynt's empire has grown into a
multimillion-dollar corporation with a large, almost
conservative-looking headquarters in California, where he and
executives in dark suits oversee the company's dozens of men's clubs,
sex stores and more than 30 magazines.
"He's basically crusaded against everything I've fought for for the
past 30 years," Flynt said. "This is for consenting adults. They have
the right to view what they want to in the privacy of their own home.
And even if they don't enjoy these materials, they still don't want to
be looking over their neighbors' shoulders."
Cases and results
Taylor, who has been involved in the prosecution of more than
700 pornography cases since the 1970s, including at the Justice
Department in the late 1980s and early '90s, declined to be
interviewed. But he did talk to reporters for the PBS program
Frontline in 2001, when he was president of the National Law Center
for Children and Families, an anti-porn group.
"Just about everything on the Internet and almost everything in the
video stores and everything in the adult bookstores is still
prosecutable illegal obscenity," he said.
"Some of the cable versions of porno movies are prosecutable. Once it
becomes obvious that this really is a federal felony instead of just a
form of entertainment or investment, then legitimate companies, to
stay legitimate, are going to have to distance themselves from it."
The Justice Department pursued obscenity cases vigorously in the 1970s
and '80s, prosecuting not necessarily the worst offenders in terms of
extreme material, but those it viewed as most responsible for
Oosterbaan said the department is employing much the same strategy
this time, targeting not only some of the most egregious hard-core
porn but also more conventional material, in an effort "to be as
effective as possible."
"I can't possibly put it all away," he said. "Results are what we
The strategy in the 1980s resulted in a lot of extreme pornography -
dealing in urination, violence or bestiality - going underground.
Today, with the Internet, international producers and a substantial
market, industry officials say there is no underground.
Obscenity cases came to a standstill under Janet Reno, President Bill
Clinton's attorney general, who focused on child pornography, which is
considered child abuse and comes under different criminal statutes.
The ensuing years saw an explosion of porn, so much so that critics
say that Americans' tolerance for sexually explicit material rivals
that of Europeans.
That tolerance could prove to be the obscenity division's biggest
obstacle. Americans are used to seeing sex, experts say, in the
movies, in their e-mail inboxes and on popular cable shows such as
HBO's Sex and the City. There is no real gauge of just how obscene a
jury will find pornographic material.
The majority of defendants indicted in federal courts over the past
year have taken plea agreements when faced with the weight and
resources of the Justice Department. More than 50 other federal
investigations are under way.
In 2001, though, one interesting case emerged from St. Charles County,
Mo., the heart of Ashcroft's conservative Missouri base. First
Amendment lawyer Cambria defended a video store there against state
charges that it was renting two obscene videotapes that depicted group
sex, anal sex and sex with objects.
The department's most closely watched case involves "extreme" porn
producer Rob Zicari and his North Hollywood company Extreme
Associates. The prolific Zicari is charged with selling five allegedly
obscene videotapes, which he now markets as the "Federal Five," that
depict simulated rapes and murder.
Almost reveling in the charges, Zicari's Web site says, "The most
controversial company in porn today! Guess what? Controversy ...
The case hangs on a strategic move by the Justice Department that
could make or break hundreds of future cases. Instead of bringing
charges in Hollywood, where Zicari easily defeated a local obscenity
ordinance recently in a jury trial, department officials ordered his
tapes from Pittsburgh, Pa., and charged him there, hoping for a jury
pool less porn-friendly.
Industry lawyers and top executives contend that the courts should
rule that because the tapes were ordered on the Internet, the
"community standard" demanded by the law should be the standard of the
whole community of the World Wide Web.
The Internet is filled with ample evidence of even more hard-core or
offensive material from abroad, they say, and someone in Pittsburgh
should not be able to determine what someone in Hollywood can order.
Either way, Nguyen, father of a 2-year-old girl,
and his co-workers spend their days scouring the Internet for the most
obscene material, following leads sent in by citizens and tracking
pornographers operating under different names. The job wears on them
all, day after day, so much so that the obscenity division has
recently set up in-house counseling for them to talk about what
they're seeing and how it is affecting them.
"This stuff isn't the easiest to deal with," Nguyen said recently
while at his computer. "But I think we're going after the bad guys and
we're making a difference, and that's what makes it worthwhile."
Three of the nation's biggest media
companies challenged the government's crackdown on broadcasting indecent
material yesterday, joining activists and performers in protesting a
Federal Communications Commission decision that opponents said is stifling
free speech on the airwaves.
Viacom Inc., the parent company of CBS and the Infinity Broadcasting
Corp. radio chain, and Fox Entertainment Group Inc., the parent of the Fox
network, signed a petition asking the Federal Communications Commission
(FCC) to reverse its March 18 ruling against musician Bono's use of an
expletive during last year's broadcast of the Golden Globes ceremony.
Until now, the broadcasters largely have appeared humbled by the
government's crackdown on indecency, which intensified after Janet
Jackson's breast was briefly exposed during CBS' Feb. 1 broadcast of the
Super Bowl halftime show.
"This is the first comprehensive effort to explain to the FCC how
broad and ill-conceived their direction is," said Robert Corn-Revere, the
lawyer for the group that filed the petition, which also includes activist
groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and performers such as
comedian Margaret Cho.
National Broadcasting Co. Inc., which aired the annual Golden Globes
ceremony on its NBC network, filed a separate petition. The Wall Street
Journal published a stinging opinion piece yesterday by Robert C. Wright,
NBC's chairman and chief executive.
"Ultimately, we have much less to fear from obscene, indecent or
profane content than we do from an overzealous government willing to limit
First Amendment protections and censor creative free expression. That
would be indecent," Mr. Wright wrote.
ABC did not join the petition because it hasn't been cited by the FCC
for indecent programming, officials said.
The decision by the big media companies to challenge the FCC's Bono
decision signals a strategic shift, several industry analysts said.
Executives originally dismissed the FCC's post-Super Bowl crackdown as
election-year politics, but increasingly are worried about the agency's
long-term direction, the analysts said.
"The broadcasters are sending a cautionary message that restricting
the First Amendment will not be productive for them," said Blair Levin, a
media analyst for investment banker Legg Mason Inc. and a former FCC
An FCC spokeswoman declined comment. Once the agency reviews a
petition challenging one of its decisions, it must decide whether to
reverse or reaffirm it.
Mr. Corn-Revere said the commissioners' actions have prompted
broadcasters to abandon live programming and have forced them to drop or
edit songs such as the Who's "Who Are You" and Sheryl Crow's "A Change
Would Do You Good."
Even public broadcasting has been affected, he said, noting that PBS
felt it had to edit some of the work by poet Piri Thomas out of a
documentary on his life.
"The FCC is now setting itself up as a national censorship board,
seeking to impose its version of morality on the American public," said
Chris Hansen, an ACLU staff attorney.
Bono, lead singer for the rock group U2, used an expletive when he
said, "This is really, really ... brilliant" while accepting an award
during NBC's January 2003 broadcast of the Golden Globes ceremony,
sparking hundreds of complaints to the FCC.
The agency's enforcement bureau later determined that the word was not
profane because it did not refer to a sexual act in the context in which
Bono used it.
Under FCC rules, broadcasters cannot air material containing
references to sexual and excretory functions between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.,
when children might tune in.
The FCC commissioners overruled the bureau's Bono decision on March
18, but they did not impose a fine because they never had stated that any
use of the expletive violated the agency's rules.
In addition to overruling the bureau's Bono decision, the FCC also has
issued a slew of heavy fines against broadcasters, primarily aimed at
radio stations that air adult-oriented programs such as "The Howard Stern
The Senate is expected to pass a bill to toughen penalties against
broadcasting indecent material, perhaps as early as next month. The House
passed a similar bill earlier this year that has been endorsed by
If Howard Stern is to be believed,
he's now suffering Jesus-like persecution at the hands of the Federal
Communications Commission because of his political views. Meanwhile
his boss, Viacom president Mel Karmazin, assures a U.S. Senator that
while a sexual crack on Mr. Stern's show may have been racist, it
wasn't indecent. Which is almost as silly as the FCC's initial
Solomonic ruling that the F-word is no problem so long as it's an
Welcome to the decency wars. We'll
be the first to concede that the obsession over particular words or
Janet Jackson's now infamous nipple leaves no one looking good. The
shock jocks have a point, moreover, when they complain that they're
not doing anything now they haven't got away with for years. We'll
even concede that some of the Congressional chest-thumping now on
display is not unrelated to election-year opportunism.
But if American pols are exploiting
Howard Stern and Janet Jackson for their own purposes, industry execs
might be wise to ask why. The answer is that this is a no-brainer. The
reason we will soon see a Broadcast Decency
Enforcement Act land on President Bush's desk is that members
of Congress understand the American public has had it with the
increasing coarsening of our television and radio. Even the FCC is not
so much leading this charge as it is provoked into action by the
200,000 complaints it received in the wake of the Super Bowl halftime
Yes, we know: If you don't like
what you hear or see, turn it off. That may make for an easy sound
bite. But for parents it's no answer at all. Unless you're thinking of
sending your child to a convent school at the edge of a Spanish
desert, there's no way to turn off the culture. And implicit in this
flip advice is the arrogant assumption that people getting rich off
this garbage have no responsibility for what they put out.
Let's dwell on that for a moment.
Could the parishioners of New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral, whose
church was used as a staging ground for a public sex stunt, really
have solved the problem simply by "turning off" the radio? Of the many
disturbing aspects of that incident, not least was the spectacle of
the corporate sponsor -- Jim Koch, brewer of Sam Adams beer -- in the
radio studio yucking it up with the boys over the live sex act being
broadcast. The idea that this was a momentary lapse in judgment is
belied by the contest name: "Sex for Sam."
The point is that this kind of
thing is no longer the exclusive province of seedy men in trench coats
operating in the outskirts of town. Today it is big business,
broadcast by mainstream media conglomerates with enthusiastic backing
from corporate suites. As for Michael Powell's recent fines, it's
worth pointing out that the FCC chairman didn't invent these
standards. All he's doing is belatedly invoking what had always been
the FCC's authority to enforce them.
If Mr. Karmazin and Mr. Stern and
others in the broadcast industry want to tell Congress that the FCC
has no business sanctioning them or that indecency is all relative and
there ought to be no real business consequences for what they are
doing, that's entirely their right. We only hope they're not surprised
by the response.
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