Indecent Oversight: Unless the Rules for News Organizations Are Clearly Defined, the FCC's Crackdown on Profanity Could Lead to Censorship

Article excerpt

A reporter is on the air live at an antiwar demonstration when the crowd behind her begins to chant obscenities. True or false: The station broadcasting the story can be fined for its coverage.


The latest ruling by the Federal Communications Commission appears to suggest the answer is "true." The decision stems from an incident last year at the Golden Globe Awards, when U2 singer Bono said the F-word and NBC carried it live. The FCC investigated and said the indecency rule did not apply because Bono used the word as an adjective, "to emphasize an exclamation." This spring, however, after the furor over the Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction" at the Super Bowl, the commission overturned the Bono decision. The F-word, the FCC said, is indecent and profane regardless of context.

It's those last three words--"regardless of context"--that have broadcast journalists concerned. In the past, the FCC considered the context in which profanities were uttered in deciding if a broadcaster could be fined for indecency. Sexually explicit comments by Bubba the Love Sponge and Howard Stern could get a station in trouble--no doubt about it. Clear Channel Radio dropped both shock jocks this year after being hit with record fines. But a fleeting comment on a newscast or during live news coverage generally did not merit sanctions. Now, stations worry that will no longer be the case.

But no one is really sure, because the FCC hasn't specifically said how the decision might apply to news. "Right now, the problem for us is there are no rules," Rod Fritz, news director at Boston's WRKO-AM radio, said at a panel discussion at the April convention of the Radio-Television News Directors Association. "There's no line. We don't know where the line is."

In a petition to the FCC, CBS affiliate stations cautioned that the indecency rule could "fundamentally alter the manner in which local broadcasters engage in news gathering." The stations went so far as to warn that if the ruling stands, many of them would stop airing newscasts between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. when the regulations apply.

That's probably hyperbole, but there's good reason for all the anxiety. Until now, being found in violation of FCC rules for indecency merited not much more than a slap on the wrist--a maximum fine of $27,500 per show, no matter how many profanities were aired. But the FCC has started fining stations for each profane utterance, and Congress could raise the fine to as much as $500,000 per incident. One provision under consideration would start proceedings to revoke a station's license if it's repeatedly found in violation. …