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FCC: A 3-Letter Agency That's a 4-Letter Word

November 30, 1987|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Thanksgiving is past, but turkeys remain.

Heading the list is the Federal Communications Commission, the broadcast industry's deregulating regulatory agency commonly known as the FCC, a three-letter obscenity if there ever was one.

This FCC imposes its will very selectively.

On the one hand, it follows President Reagan's laissez-faire deregulatory line in seeking to eliminate the Fairness Doctrine and other rules that nudge broadcasters to act more responsibly and in the public interest.

On the other hand, the FCC wants to be an anti-smut squad.

The FCC last week did say broadcasters could air more explicit material after midnight, when fewer children are in the audience. Making itself the arbiter of broadcast indecency, however, it declined to soften its April stand when it censured KPFK-FM in Los Angeles, KCSB-FM in Santa Barbara and WYSP-FM in Philadelphia for airing "obscene, indecent or profane language."

When it comes to broad policy, in other words, the FCC believes that the marketplace should decide the nature and content of broadcasting: Regulations are mostly not needed because what the majority of the public doesn't like will die of attrition or lack of support anyway.

When it comes to the so-called dirty stuff that might offend the sensibilities of individual commissioners, however, the FCC changes its hands-off tune and becomes the nation's official Blue Nose, believing the marketplace incompetent to decide what words should be uttered on the public airwaves.

Obviously, the FCC will never be known as the Federal Consistency Commission.

It has served notice that it intends to fit the broadcast industry to a "generic definition of indecency" in connection with federal law banning ". . . language or material that depicts or describes in terms patently offensive, as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory activities or organs."

It always seems to come down to sex.

You can make a good First Amendment case for the FCC butting out of the indecency debate, entirely--especially if it is determined to remove itself from other more critical areas of broadcast regulation. But if it must lumber in and swing a hatchet, then it should open its eyes at least.

Memo to the FCC: Surprise! Obscenities aren't necessarily related to sex.

You can bet that racial epithets are infinitely more profane or obscene to most Americans--no matter the time of day they're uttered--than double-entendres, thinly veiled synonyms for erotica or even explicit descriptions of "sexual or excretory activities or organs." Yet the FCC has not come down on abusive racist and bigoted language as it has on sexual material or coarse descriptions of human anatomy.

Racial slurs were not among George Carlin's "seven dirty words" ruled unsuitable for the airwaves. Nor were offensive terms for homosexuals. But KPFK's late-night broadcast of "Jerker"--a play about AIDS and gay sex--was deemed repugnant enough by the FCC to merit a censure.

The FCC did not censure KTTL-AM in Dodge City, Kan., a few years ago when it continually ran white-supremacist programs that threatened blacks and at one point offered this advice to listeners: "If a Jew comes near you, run a sword through him. Eliminate the enemies of Jesus in this land."

If it remains true to its record, moreover, the FCC will not censure KZZI-FM in Salt Lake City when the hate-mongering "Aryan Nations Hour"--whose host boasts about being racist--debuts on that station Saturday.

Freedom of speech or freedom of double standard?

According to the FCC, racist rhetoric is protected by the First Amendment, but certain sexual material--including even suggestive euphemisms for sexual activity--is not. You can spew racial hate on the airwaves, but you can't describe anyone's sexual relations because that wouldn't be nice. So much for contemporary community standards.

Sex is natural, racism is not. So which is obscene?

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