July 30, 2001

July 30, 2001 | Commentary on Regulation

Clearing the Air

Somewhere, Lenny Bruce is laughing.

The late comedian, arrested several times in the 1950s for saying words in his act government officials deemed "obscene," probably would be delighted at what can be said on radio and television today -- thanks in large measure to the inconsistency shown by the Federal Communications Commission.

"Sweet merciful crap." "S--- happens." A song called "The Gay Way" by "The Backside Boys." This is just a sampling of what can be heard on the airwaves -- and not at 3:30 a.m. either. The first is a quote from "The Simpsons," a long-running hit on Fox. The phrase uttered by people when the unexpected occurs made its national, prime-time TV debut on "Chicago Hope" in October 1999. The last is a parody of a Backstreet Boys tune by Howard Stern, whose morning radio show is heard in at least 50 cities.

The FCC may be the official arbiter of decency for the nation's airwaves, but frankly, Homer Simpson has greater influence over what goes on the air. At West Virginia Wesleyan College, where I'm a manager and a disc jockey at the school's radio station, we follow what we call the Simpsons' Rule: If they say it on "The Simpsons," we can say it on the air.

It may sound silly to have cartoon characters as guides for decency, but following the FCC's example would be just as goofy. Recently the commission fined radio station KKMG-FM in Pueblo, Colo., $7,000 for playing an edited version of "The Real Slim Shady," a song by Grammy-award winning rap star Eminem. The fine came down after a listener filed a complaint with a copy of the song's actual lyrics. Never mind that the radio station played a cleaned-up version of the song -- or that it had been broadcast thousands of times by the station before the complaint was filed -- KKMG still got fined.

According to the commission, indecency is "measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium." But those standards "measured" Eminem's song to be No. 1 for several weeks, so people don't seem to mind the song's raw language.

Comedian George Carlin had an infamous routine about "the seven dirty words" you can't say on the air. But because of the FCC's inconsistency, he could change it to the five or perhaps four dirty words you may or may not be able to say.

Take "On Golden Pond," a play that CBS aired live last spring. In one scene, a teenager constantly used one of the words on Carlin's list, yet the network wasn't fined. David Letterman, whose late-night show also airs on CBS, picked up on this and tried to say the word used in the play. He was "bleeped" every time he said it. Adding to the gag, Letterman even played a video clip from the play where the character says the word. The clip wasn't bleeped, but Letterman was when he repeated it.

CBS put a rating of TV-14 on the play. Yet Letterman's show is rated TV-PG, where the vulgar word said in the play shouldn't be allowed on air. Opinions can vary: Reviewers of the play dismissed the language issue, saying it was part of the play, and some, such as Tom Shales of The Washington Post called the language "pretty innocent" in context. The question, though, remains: What guide is the FCC following here?

Letterman drew big laughs from the studio audience, but the underlying principle isn't funny. The FCC's difficulty in determining what's indecent -- and the chilling effect this has on free speech (for example, the company that owns KKMG has ordered its stations to pull Eminem from their playlists) -- makes me wonder if we even need a commission. It's really just an undependable middle man, leveling its fines and punishments based not on an objective rule but on public complaints.

Yet if a member of the public is offended, he can turn it off. If enough people do the same, the show is canceled. Howard Stern's been on the air for 15 years; if enough people tuned him out, his show wouldn't survive another week.

So, to recap: A small radio station playing an edited song may be found guilty of "willfully broadcasting indecent language" and fined. But a play broadcast with vulgar language on national television is OK. And pointing out the inconsistency by trying to repeat the vulgar language on the air isn't OK. Got it?

No wonder Lenny Bruce is laughing. He knows that, as citizens in a free society, the joke's on us.

Nicholas Hamisevicz, a sophomore at West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon, W.Va., is an intern at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy institute.

About the Author

Nicholas Hamisevicz Research Associate
Asian Studies Center