Data: Complaint Fraud

In late November, just as the Senate Commerce Committee was about to hold an “Open Forum on Decency,” the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced a sharp increase in complaints about the content of broadcast programming, from 6,161 in the second quarter of 2005 to 26,815 in the third. The numbers seemed to validate the Senate outrage-a-thon, where activists and legislators expressed terror at the thought of leaving their children alone with a TV set.

But as Adam Thierer of the Progress & Freedom Foundation pointed out in a report that same month, two little-noticed methodological changes have greatly inflated official tallies of indecency complaints. In July 2003 the FCC began counting each computer-generated e-mail message from a single group as a unique complaint. In early 2004 it began separately counting copies of the same message sent to different offices at the FCC.

These changes magnified the already large influence of the Parents Television Council, the group headed by the conservative activist Brent Bozell. In 2003 more than 99 percent of indecency complaints came from Bozell’s outfit; in 2004 the proportion was similar, if you exclude complaints related to Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl nipple display. Since FCC enforcement actions are driven by complaints and complaints are driven by the Parents Television Council, who’s driving the FCC?

Percentage of Indecency Complaints From Parents Television Council

2003

Parents Television Council, 99.8%

Other Sources, 0.2%

2004

Parents Television Council, 99.9%

Other Sources, 0.1%

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