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The Commissioner and the Call Girl

Surely one of the most peculiar shows in the annals of television was Fox?s broadcast of an episode of Keen Eddie involving a call girl and a horse. Some unsavory characters wanted a sample of a champion racehorse?s more intimate bodily fluids to fertilize another horse. Trouble was, the stud was feeling unstudly. So the guys hired a working girl to go topless in the barn, hoping to get the horse excited and make it, um, how can I say this?well, you get the idea.

The majority opinion at the Federal Communications Commission found that this episode did not merit a fine for ?indecency,? the amusingly Victorian phrase that federal bureaucrats use to describe potty-mouthing and other lapses of taste. However, two members of the commission dissented. One of them was Kevin J. Martin, and the reason we?re talking about this is that President Bush has since elevated him to chairman of the FCC. Here?s what he had to say?and before you get all huffy about the explicitness of this quote, please be advised that it has appeared both in government documents and in The New York Times:

?This order involves a television program that the majority admits ?contains references of a sexual nature that were broadcast at a time of day when children were likely to be in the audience.? Yet the majority concludes that the program, in which a prostitute is hired to sexually arouse a horse by removing her blouse and to ?extract? semen from the horse, is not indecent because the prostitute is ?never seen actually touching? the horse. Despite my colleagues? assurance that there appeared to be a safe distance between the prostitute and the horse, I remain uncomfortable.?

Imagine how the horse must have felt.

Martin thought the episode deserved a fine. Get used to it, because now that he?s FCC chairman, this outspoken critic of the networks will try to steer the agency toward harsher fines against whatever makes him ?uncomfortable.?

He is not alone. Other members of the commission have also grown uncomfortable with the tide of filth. And guess what? They?re not all conservative Republicans or Bush appointees. Michael J. Copps, the FCC?s ranking Democrat and a Clinton appointee, has often joined Martin in his denunciations of things they deem obscene. With Martin in the driver?s seat and two other vacancies about to be filled by Bush?whose enthusiasm for controversial nominees is stronger than ever?it seems likely that the FCC will be taking a harder line.

Joining them are members of Congress who are incensed about what?s going out over the public airwaves. One of them is Rep. James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican who wants to raise indecency fines from $32,000 per violation to a cool half-million. Ouch! He?s not stopping there, either. The congressman also wants to send network executives who green-light racy programs to prison.

?I?d prefer using the criminal process rather than the regulatory process,? he told executives at a conference of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.

Alert readers will note a subtle change of subject in the paragraph above. Cable executives? Yes, the self-appointed defenders of morality are fixing to clean up cable and satellite as well as broadcast television. Congress already regulates cable and satellite. Extending the FCC?s mandate to non-broadcast media is another potential ramification of Martin?s ascendancy to the regulatory throne.

What exactly is the proper role of the FCC? Its original mandate was to allocate frequency slots to radio (and later TV) stations and to keep them from bumping into one another. If a station increases its signal, and begins interfering with the signal of another station in an adjacent area, the FCC steps in and restores order. That?s what it?s supposed to do.

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress created the FCC with the Communications Act of 1934, they never intended the agency to be an arbiter of taste?or the regulator of non-broadcast media. Of course, FDR is long gone, and Congress has been known to change its mind.

Incidentally, the FCC is also moving into consumer electronics by fostering the anti-copying scheme known as the broadcast flag. Its ostensible purpose is to prevent DTV broadcasts from being shared on the net but it?s widely regarded as the first shot in a broader war against recording and networking. The broadcast flag recently went down in flames, courtesy of a federal appeals court, which said the FCC has no jurisdiction in this area?but we haven?t heard the last of it.

Back to our main subject: Should we be concerned about the coming war on alleged obscenity? Are there problems here not only for the civil libertarian but for the average viewer? Let me count the ways.

One potential problem is that censorship reduces opportunities for delivering vital information. For instance, it?s hard to fight the war on AIDS without discussing sex and condoms. Kids need this information for their very survival, and if schools fail to do the job, broadcast television?which is supposed to operate in the public interest in exchange for using the airwaves?has an obligation to take up the slack. Letting AIDS claim more lives is just wrong.

If we start banning sex from the airwaves (and satellite and cable), will violence be next? Where will that leave fans of The Sopranos? Not to mention The Passion of the Christ?

Another concern is that narrowing the freedom of expression may discriminate against legitimate art. One of the most famous censorship cases of all time involved James Joyce?s Ulysses. Personally, I find the book obscurantist and boring. Give me Sir Arthur Conan Doyle any day. However, Ulysses is widely regarded as a challenging and towering work of literature, and if the censors had gotten their way when it was first published, it would now be banned from bookstores, libraries, and universities. You wouldn?t be allowed to own a copy of it?or to make up your own mind about it.

Then there?s political expression. Whatever you think of Howard Stern, he may have a point when he complains that the crackdown on his on-air antics intensified when he suddenly denounced Bush and endorsed Kerry in the middle of the tight presidential campaign of 2004. Unpopular views are often expressed in unsubtle ways but the right to call your nation?s leader a gold-plated jackass is as American as apple pie.

Finally, there?s the canary-in-a-coalmine analogy. The reason why our First Amendment freedoms are so broadly interpreted is that restricting some forms of expression always, always, always paves the way for restricting others. Those who crusade against smut may have a point, but let?s face it, many of them won?t stop there.

Some anti-indecency crusaders bristle at the merest suggestion of anything liberal, urban, secular, or gay. Do they have the wisdom to distinguish cultural garbage from legitimate expression? Once censorship starts, where will it end? It might be wiser to accept a little smut in order to keep our options open.

Having said that, I sympathize with Chairman Martin over the horse, and I even share some of the feelings of conservatives. I couldn?t care less about Janet Jackson?s ?wardrobe malfunction? but I wouldn?t be sorry to see restrictions on ultra-violent video games. The remorseless tide of aggression and nastiness that pours through the mass media exerts a constant strain on me. Declining civility makes daily life unpleasant for all of us.

I wasn?t exactly born a purist. When I first arrived at college, I was a foulmouthed kid who didn?t know any better. Suddenly, I discovered that the smartest and nicest people around me had a more elegant vocabulary than mine. They rarely talked dirty but they were articulate and stimulating and fun to be with. They sparkled.

I wanted to be like the people I admired, so I started cleaning up my act. I didn?t do it because I had to?I did it because I wanted to. Jay Leno refers to this as ?working clean.? Speech is behavior and behavior is destiny.

What do you have to say about the anti-indecency movement?  I really want to hear from you because the stakes are high. Which do you think is the greater threat?the tsunami of tastelessness or the rise of censorship?

Whatever you may think, the anti-smut forces are gathering, and bruising battles are about to begin. There?s no turning back now.

Let?s just say the horse is out of the barn.

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Mark Fleischmann is the author of Practical Home Theater (http://www.quietriverpress.com/).

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.