One unintended side-benefit of the recent orgy of censorship by the Federal Communications Commission has been the giggle of hearing all-grown-up journalists and lawyers pontificating on the news about “the S-word” and “the F-word.” When a coward like myself has to cover her eyes often during prime time to avoid close-ups of gunshot wounds and gaping knife slashes while the federal government fines PBS stations for the S-word in Martin Scorsese’s blues documentary…tell me, can it get any sillier than this?
In dystopian novels such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the USA is split beyond repairing by the yawning cultural gap between censorious fundamentalists and liberal freethinkers. Atwood’s fictional prediction was that the rift would come over women’s economic, social and sexual power. But it seems more likely to turn on whether people can bear to hear references to sexual or excretory functions on national TV.
I hate to brag, but I’ve known this for the last 25 years, ever since I visited a friend of my husband’s parents in his home state of South Dakota. It was a few years after Watergate and we were gingerly talking politics. One of us made a passing reference to President Nixon’s misdeeds, which seemed pretty clear: after all, he is the only president who resigned from office, a bill of impeachment hot on his trail.
The lady of the house shook her head sadly. “I really liked Nixon,” she told us, “but there’s one thing I can never forgive him for.” What was it, we wondered with bated breath: the break-in, the cover-up, the permanently pained look on his wife Pat’s face…? “I just can’t forgive him,” she continued, “for the bad language he used on those tapes.”
I swear by all that is holy that she was not joking.
Here are some of the things the FCC is punishing broadcasters for (the quotations are straight from the FCC’s own documents):
The agency affirmed its “earlier decision against CBS for the broadcast of indecent material during the February 1, 2004 Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show. The Commission rejects CBS’ claim that the pulling off a portion of Janet Jackson’s bustier to reveal her breast is not indecent. The Commission also holds that CBS consciously and willfully failed to take actions to prevent the broadcast of the material, and that CBS is responsible for the halftime show.”
The FCC fined 111 stations the maximum of $32,500 apiece because they aired the “Our Sons and Daughters episode of the CBS program ‘Without a Trace’ on December 31, 2004, at 9:00 p.m. in the Central and Mountain Time Zones, these licensees each broadcast material graphically depicting teenage boys and girls participating in a sexual orgy….While there is no nudity, the scene is highly sexually charged and explicit.” The FCC fined only those stations against which complaints had been filed: of the estimated 300,000 complaints about this program, the Parents Television Council takes credit for organizing 210,000.
In another case, the FCC fined KCSM-TV, a San Mateo, California, Community College District listener-supported station $15,000 for airing “indecent material over the station during its broadcast of the program ‘The Blues: Godfathers and Sons’ on March 11, 2004 between the hours of 8:42 and 9:32 p.m. Pacific Standard Time.” This was based on a complaint alleging “that the broadcast, an episode of a prerecorded documentary series provided by the Public Broadcasting Service (‘PBS’), contains numerous ‘obscenities,’ including the ‘F-Word,’ the ‘S-Word’ and various derivatives of those words, in violation of the Commission’s rules restricting the broadcast of indecent material.”
The FCC obligingly explained exactly what’s wrong with the language in question: “The Commission determined in its Golden Globe Awards Order
Want to hear the egregious way the S-word was used in Scorsese’s series? “During a scene showing hip-hop artists Kyle Jason, Juice, and Chuck D. shopping in a record store with Chess, Kyle Jason states, ‘I’ll buy some shit,’ and Juice states, ‘This looks crazy! See that? This is the kind of shit I buy! I mean, my man is wearing pink gear—that shit, that shit is crazy right there! I’m buyin’ it!’
Want to know what’s truly obscene? Then read the president’s new National Security Strategy, released today. It normalizes our recent belligerence, treating the doctrine of pre-emptive war as just another neat little tool in the great toolbox of state:
[T]he first duty of the United States Government remains what it always has been: to protect the American people and American interests. It is an enduring American principle that this duty obligates the government to anticipate and counter threats, using all elements of national power, before the threats can do grave damage. The greater the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction – and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack. There are few greater threats than a terrorist attack with WMD.
To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively in exercising our inherent right of self-defense.
If that doesn’t do it, check in with the National Priorities Project to see that the cost of the Iraq War is now approaching $250 billion.
Maybe we should all start putting a quarter in a jar every time we use the F-word or the S-word, just to be sure we have something left to live on when we get finished paying our share of the bill. I’m going to preemptively deposit a dollar right now, so I have some equity to draw on next time I think of the FCC.