OP-ED: FCC's indecency crackdown stifles growth of comms

When a cold wind blows from Washington's would-be censors, the chilling effect can be felt across the country - and both commerce and common sense can easily be frozen.

When a cold wind blows from Washington's would-be censors, the chilling effect can be felt across the country - and both commerce and common sense can easily be frozen.

The Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) crackdown on types of broadcast speech that some social conservatives consider "indecent" - but that no one has precisely defined yet, in law or in regulations - already has begun stifling artistic and commercial expression. As newly speech-averse corporations shy away from both advertising and PR, while at the same time struggling to emerge from the economy's prolonged slump, the FCC-induced climate of uncertainty is hobbling the growth of a broad swath of communications industries. The danger for commercial speech - affecting advertising, marketing, radio and television, and the film industries - is that the FCC's crackdown will provoke an era of broadcasters' overly cautious self-censorship. The latest FCC impulse to restrain "indecency" was set in motion by the rock star Bono's use of a vulgarity at last year's Golden Globe Awards and was propelled by Janet Jackson's infamous breast-baring incident at this year's Super Bowl. The FCC's recent regulatory flip-flop - first tolerating Bono's expletive, then imposing a fine on it, and then (as a follow-up) issuing million-dollar fines against Clear Channel Communications' once-celebrated, now- fired radio "shock jock" Howard Stern - has sent a signal throughout media industries that extreme caution is now mandatory. The impulse to restrain speech is becoming a reality. As NBC chairman Bob Wright wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, the FCC policy shift will stifle many forms of creative expression: among film producers, TV directors, Hollywood screenwriters, and Madison Avenue copywriters, and among artistic performers. The same anxieties are now surely afflicting advertisers and marketers, as well. Business leaders who hope to promote legal products that happen to involve sensitive personal issues that some may find indelicate - say drugs to help patients overcome erectile dysfunction - may now hesitate to advertise at all, or to engage in marketing or PR campaigns of any sort, for fear of getting close to the line that might provoke an FCC inquiry. This year's cancellation of the televised fashion show for the Victoria's Secret line of lingerie illustrates how self-censorship is cutting into routine promotions for popular brands. The FCC's shifting standards of enforcement are bad enough. Now the threat of Congressional action - with some lawmakers eager to send an anti-indecency statute to the President's desk before Election Day - would require federal agencies and eventually the courts to consider more regulation of speech, presumably including some regulatory definition of what Wash- ington considers proper and improper forms of expression. The door is open for this FCC overreaching because of a legal distinction that, increasingly, is a distinction without a difference. The Communications Act of 1934 gives Washington a right of jurisdiction over broadcast media - but only those signals sent over the airwaves - because the public owns the airwaves. But now that most Americans have access to cable programming, it seems increasingly arbitrary to have separate criteria for speech on broadcast and cable. Considering the globalization of today's communications marketplace - where corporate images, ad campaigns, and branding strategies spill over national borders and cultural dividing lines - the US now risks being perceived as a puritanical backwater that can't rationally handle sensitive topics. Having spent much of my career in Europe, I can only imagine how European audiences are now snickering at Americans' latest outburst of hypersensitive morality about basic personal decisions. In the quest for political correctness - perhaps the FCC would like to redefine that as "puritanical" correctness - Washington is exposing the US' already controversial reputation to further accusations of eccentricity. You'd think that the failed experiment with Prohibition in the 1920s might have taught latter-day Puritans that sweeping government intervention in personal standards of conduct can backfire - not least by adding new allure to the very types of behavior that Big Government tries to prohibit. Corporate marketers, creative artists, and the communications industries in general can only hope that the FCC-provoked restraint on free speech will soon dissipate. Americans and the more level-headed leaders of our govern- ment should soon come to realize a fundamental tenet of the First Amendment: that our citizens - not faraway censors from a meddlesome state bureaucracy - are the best judges of society's evolving standards of what constitutes decent personal conduct.
  • MaryLee Sachs is president & CEO of Hill & Knowlton USA.

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