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Clearing The Dirty Air

September 27, 1987|CECIL SMITH

SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE, Mexico — Nick Johnson was once the stormy dissenter of the Federal Communications Commission--and one of the few commissioners who was not simply a toady of the broadcast establishment. He surfaced from the academic world the other day to comment in an article in the Washington Journalism Review on the Pacifica obscenity case. You may recall that last spring the current edition of the FCC, before a congressional hearing, flexed its flabby muscles and charged three radio stations--one in Philadelphia, the student station in Santa Barbara and Pacifica's KPFK-FM in Los Angeles--with airing indecent material.

Its major target seemed to be Pacifica, which, as Johnson recalled, has been a perennial target of the FCC since the 1978 precedent-setting case of the station airing the George Carlin's "Seven Dirty Words" monologue. Though courts ruled the 12-minute routine was not obscene, the FCC decreed Carlin's seven dirty words could not be aired before 10 p.m. and that warnings should be given that material of this nature was not intended for the young or the squeamish.

Though KPFK followed the guidelines in airing its drama on AIDS in the gay community after 10 p.m. and complete with warnings, the FCC referred the case to the Justice Department for possible prosecution. As Johnson noted, this play was the only material in the three cases that could be considered to have serious literary and artistic value. But then Johnson commented that to the commission the First Amendment simply gives broadcasters the right to air abhorrent commercials and justifies their attempts to deregulate use of the public air. He remembered that when he was on the FCC (1966-73), the Defense Department complained about the airing of certain song lyrics, including this one:


What is it good for?

Absolutely nothing.

While I grew up in an era when the word damn could not used on the air, and when the nation was shocked by a routine between Mae West and Charlie McCarthy (the inflections, not the words), the obscenity issue arose in a curious conversation I had not long ago. I had been sandbagged into making a speech, a prospect I always regard with horror.

In the village where I live, there is a vigorous though minuscule chapter of P.E.N., an international writers fraternity, meaning poets, novelists, essayists. It was founded around the turn of the century by several eminent writers, including H. G. Wells and Bernard Shaw, to aid writers in various totalitarian nations who had been imprisoned because of their writings. San Miguel's P.E.N. chapter aided with money and written pleas in the release of a Cuban writer jailed by Castro and is currently trying to help a Turkish poet whose writings displeased the power structure of that nation.

My speech was a focal point of a fund-raising effort to aid the Turkish poet--it was quite successful, too, raising more than $2,500 from a gringo community that has less than 1,000 permanent residents. In fact, the international headquarters of P.E.N. in London was quite astonished that so small a chapter could provide such a "princely sum" (their words).

After my collection of borrowed anecdotes and old jokes, I sank into the shadows of the courtyard of the biblioteca (library). While the fund-raising plea was in progress, behind me sat a very large man. He leaned forward.

"May I ask you something?" he said in a cultured voice. "I understand you worked as a critic in Hollywood. I'm an American but I have not been in the United States in many years--I've lived in Europe and Asia for nearly 20 years.

"My question concerns motion pictures, American movies. Why are they so obscene? When an American film is shown, I like to see it wherever I am. I enjoy hearing English spoken and sometimes I see cities and countrysides of my youth. But the language and some of the action is so embarrassing. My friends ask: 'In America, do people really talk like that and act like that?' I tell them I don't know. But do they? If this is a true picture, I have no wish to return to America.

"But if it isn't--and I understand it isn't--why do they put such actions and language on film? Around the world, people accept this as normal behavior in America and look at me wonderingly. Sometimes I try and pretend I am not an American. Why do they do this?"

I said I didn't know. And I don't.

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