On Tuesday, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation took time out of its busy schedule screwing up commerce, science and transportation to host an "open forum on decency." The various politicians mooning for the cameras weren't calling for the sort of decency that was in sad and short supply during Joe McCarthy's heyday. No, they were bloviating about the dread rise of Sex on TV, the phantom menace of fart jokes on shows such as The Family Guy, and the continuing propensity of pop music to generate smash hits with songs about fucking.
Even by the show-trial standards of congressional hearings, Tuesday's spectacle was appalling. Blue-nosed censors and representatives of entertainment companies and radio and TV networks shouldered each other out of the way to denounce "coarse" and "vulgar" programming that might offend someone, somewhere in America and insisted that something—including government action—must be done to save the freest nation on Earth from the cable and satellite programming that 85 percent of households willingly pay for each and every month. Sure, the U.S. survived the burning of Washington during the War of 1812, the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II, and the unparalleled horror of 9/11. But how can we ever survive another season of Desperate Housewives? Or, perhaps more specifically, how can "the children" survive occasional glimpses of age-inappropriate content?
In the Bizarro universe of the Senate Commerce committee and the sex-addled minds of would-be censors, the flashing of Janet Jackson's nipple during the halftime show at Super Bowl XXXVIII was a primal scene that even Freud dare not imagine: Like a hundred thousand Challenger explosions or an endless tape loop of the Zapruder footage of JFK's assassination, that tit has apparently been seared into the collective unconscious of American youth, forever staining their souls and casting our preteen Adams and Eves out of Eden and into a sick, sad world of small-screen smut.
The nipple tragedy has presented America with its clearest and most urgent moral choice since the great Fat Elvis vs. Skinny Elvis stamp controversy of 1992, and in Tuesday's hearings, even supposed opponents of new content regulation were desperate to show their pro-decency colors.
"We're already starting to self-police ourselves," wheezed actor Joe Pantoliano of the Creative Coalition, a Hollywood group that's supposed to be standing up to Comstockery; Joey Pants is, of course, best known as Sopranos' mobster Ralph Cifaretto, last seen getting chopped into little pieces by Tony S. himself a few years back.
A vice-president for the much-reviled radio juggernaut Clear Channel explained both her company's quisling policy of firing immediately any on-air talent who dast offend a single American anywhere and its absolute, unblinking commitment to enforcing higher indecency fines—a policy that, coincidentally, will provide the well-heeled and politically connected Clear Channel with an edge over competitors.
What does it say when the elfin former Motion Picture Association of America capo Jack Valenti—who once tried to get blank videocassettes outlawed by announcing, "The VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone"—was about the strongest proponent of free expression? "There's no way we can do what Brent [Bozell] wants," Valenti said, "which is to scour the airwaves of everything that offends his sense of decency." That, of course, won't stop politicians from trying if they think it will give them a few more votes.
Presiding over this grim self-recrimination session was Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) whose main business is slowly sending the U.S. Treasury to America's Last Frontier (Those rugged individualists in Alaska get a whopping $1.89 back from the feds for every tax dollar they send to Washington, the second-biggest free ride in these United States). You might expect the Emperor of the North to be a rough-and-tumble guy, used to cussing with miners and survivalists while shooting endangered artic birds at ANWR and wrassling Kodiak bears for salmon and all that. But no one—with the possible exception of another senatorial softie, the straight-talkin' John McCain—is more outraged by the filth his staffers tell him besmirches TV and radio. Stevens' main media gambit these days is to extend federal content regulation of broadcast to cable and satellite services.
That's something the House of Representatives has already voted to do, and Stevens is mad as heck that the Senate can't get its act together, telling the Fairbanks News-Miner, "There's too many people on both sides that object to it." As to whether such legislation would be constitutional, Stevens is willing to go to the mat. "The Supreme Court case that said we could not regulate cable was back at the time when they had about 10 or 15 percent of the viewers of America… Now they have more than 80 percent and very soon I think it will be almost 100 percent." Lord knows whether that argument would fly in today's—or tomorrow's—Supreme Court, but here's hoping we never have to waste our time finding out.
The most disturbing speaker at Tuesday's hearing was the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Kevin Martin. "You can always turn the television off and, of course, block the channels you don't want," he observed. "But why should you have to?"
That stunning bit of censorious logic, with its depiction of media consumers as slothful, slack-jawed dullards unable even to flick a button on their remotes, would embarrass even the most inane pop culture critics who contend that viewers are submissive automatons effectively programmed by evil corporations to buy, buy, buy and/or by liberal Hollywood to support gay marriage and universal access to Baby Einstein products.
There are countless reasons why you—yes, you—should be the one to turn your own TV on and off, or to block your own channels. But here are just two:
First, this is supposed to be a free country that rightly prides itself on an unmatched dedication to open expression. The past 30 years have witnessed nothing less than an explosion in cultural production and consumption; the number of books, movies, television programs, songs, and more now effectively approaches infinity, leaving us increasingly hyper-individualized options for entertainment and edification. And opportunities to be offended. The First Amendment, which underwrites religious, press, and artistic freedom, is first for a reason. Your right to speak your mind is purchased at the cost of my right to offend you with my own speech, art, and opinions. Martin and many in Congress have threatened that government action against cable and satellite services will be necessary if content providers don't "voluntarily" address the notoriously subjective category of "indecency." To limit expression—especially expression that people voluntarily choose to buy—is to choke off one of the defining features of contemporary America.
The second reason that we should be held responsible for turning our own TVs on and off? That's what the vast majority of parents with children under the age of 17, ostensibly the group most concerned with raunchy programming, believe in. Consider a new survey commissioned by TV Watch, a nonpartisan coalition to which I belong and which flatly opposes government regulation of programming. The survey, which polled 513 parents nationwide in mid-November, found that while 83 percent of parents said there were times their kids saw something they shouldn't have, 85 percent want individuals to have personal choice in what to view on TV. Only 8 percent of respondents wanted the government to determine what's "appropriate" for television. The survey also found that 91 percent of parents already exercise various forms of control over what their kids watch. Parents—and I speak as one myself—recognize that we don't have the right force everyone else to child-proof every sharp corner in the world (and that's assuming parents, any more than other adults, agree on what constitutes good, bad, and indifferent content).
Make no mistake about it: We live in an age of unparalleled free expression, where even the most marginal of us have more power than all the pharoahs of ancient Egypt (or something like that) to say what we want, live how we want, and be who we want. Yet despite that terrible, terrible freedom—or perhaps because of it—there is a battle being waged to restrict and restrain precisely that expression. That's what was being debated on Tuesday in the Senate—and it's what being debated in Federal Election Commission rulings on whether blogs constitute political donations and more (alas, not yet a settled issue, despite some recent victories). It was the core issue some years back in The Communications Decency Act, a Clinton-era initiative that would have effectively applied broadcast-style content controls to the Internet (thankfully, it was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1997, thus saving the Web from becoming as boring as Good Morning America). Ironically, the battle for free expression is like the hunt for "indecency"—it must be fought always and everywhere, on the beaches of The O.C., in the streets of pilloried video game Grand Theft Auto, and in the ether of the Internet—anywhere a censor might train his eye.
Back in the early days of cable, MTV—then, as now, a channel that enrages the few viewers it doesn't bore to tears—ran a memorable ad campaign in which rock stars demanded, "I want my MTV!" If the continuing popularity of cable and satellite is any indication—chock full of the "coarse programming" Martin, Stevens, et al. decry, cable now pulls a bigger prime-time audience than broadcast TV—we as a nation still want our MTV, and our Comedy Central, and our HBO, and an unprecedented proliferation of kids-only channels ranging from Noggin to Sprout to seemingly endless Disney and Sesame Street outlets. With Stevens threatening to pass legislation on the issue in 2006, this is as good a time to tell your congressmen and senators to fuck off—while you still can without enduring a fine for indecency.