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The New Content Commissars

Part of a Series

Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman

What the recent Gannon/Guckert episode and the Williams/Gallagher/McManus payola scandals have in common are that both provide evidence of the Bush administration's willingness to subvert the traditional watchdog function of the media by just about any means available. Oddly, however, they found little resistance among those whom they sought to undermine.

Equally alarming is the fact that the over the past several months, attempts by the FCC and a number of Republican Congressmen who have actively worked to limit media diversity have been left largely unreported and unopposed. As this column has repeatedly pointed out, outgoing FCC Chairman Michael Powell long ago declared war on all that he deems "indecent" and "offensive" in the national media. Thanks to his schizophrenic fining policies, the FCC has left network programmers with little idea as to what is a fineable offense and what isn't.

Just last month, several Congressional Republicans joined Powell in his campaign. The House of Representatives passed the repressive "Broadcast Decency Act," which calls for an increase of the basic FCC fine for "indecent" content from $32,500 to $500,000 and requires the FCC to consider revoking a station's license after three violations. Coming close on the heels of this proposed bill was the call last week by Sen. Ted Stevens, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, and Rep. Joe Barton, chairman of the House Commerce Committee, to expand the FCC's fining mandate to include the hundreds of cable and satellite television and radio channels dotting the media landscape.

Currently, of course, the FCC only has the authority to fine over-the-air radio and television broadcasters for violating its indecency regulations, but under the Stevens/Barton plan, pay channels such as HBO, Showtime, Comedy Central, and subscription satellite radio companies Sirius and XM would fall under the FCC's mandate.

"In this country, there has to be some standards of decency," said Stevens, who also told the National Association of Broadcasters that "most viewers don't differentiate between over-the-air and cable." As Sean P. Means of the Salt Lake Tribune notes, however, some viewers can. Nine of those people sit on the United States Supreme Court, which has ruled previously that "cable-TV content is protected speech because viewers pay for it."

This speaks to a salient point that Stevens, Barton and their indecency allies appear to miss. Viewers have to pay extra for cable channels and satellite radio, and do so to overcome tightly regulated network TV and radio programs. And for those who subscribe to more adult-oriented programming, as many have pointed out, the technology has long since existed for parents to block their children from watching material they don't want them to see. The Washington Post quotes a letter from Brian Dietz, vice president of communications for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, a trade association, as saying, "Cable technology already provides families the tools to block unwanted channels from entering the home, and leading cable companies will provide this technology at no additional charge to customers who don't have the means to block unwanted programming."

Increasing regulation looks like it may be coming down from the Federal Elections Commission as well. In a March 3 interview with CNET's Declan McCullagh, the FEC's Bradley Smith talked of plans to bring the blogospshere under the auspices of the 2002 campaign finance bill. In other words, "bloggers and news organizations could risk the wrath of the federal government if they improperly link to a campaign's Web site. Even forwarding a political candidate's press release to a mailing list, depending on the details, could be punished by fines," according to McCullagh. Anyone who decides to "set up a blog, send out mass e-mails, any kind of activity that can be done on the Internet" could be subject to Federal Election Commission regulation, Smith said. Despite the urge to regulate and this harsh-sounding language, the proposal is fraught with difficulties. As the New York Times recently framed it: "Commissioners said they could consider several questions, including whether political Web sites are technically coordinating with official campaigns by posting links to a candidate's Web site, and whether partisan bloggers are making in-kind contributions by donating their expertise and computer equipment to a campaign."

Given the diffuse nature of the Internet and the latticework of connections between midnight bloggers and daytime activists and pundits, how this will pan out is anyone's guess. But the fact that the FEC seems to be taking the first steps toward trying to tame free expression on the Internet ought to set alarm bells ringing. At a time when the Bush administration is paying pundits to toe the party line while an unchecked FCC has embarked on a program of fining content on an ad hoc basis, the last thing the American media needs is more regulation by a few self-appointed moral arbiters who don't even seem to understand the technology – or the content – they appear intent on banning.

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, most recently, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences.

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Eric Alterman

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