Tales of the Sausage Factory: Some Indecent Collateral Damage?

UPDATE: A somewhat clearer explanation of Ms. Lo’s commentary and what happened is now available from Time Magazine online here. As a result, I’ve modified my comments a bit.

Radio Commentator Sandra Tsing Lo got fired from her public radio spot for using a swear word in a pre-recorded piece that went unedited onto the air. You can hear her commentary on her experience and suddenly finding herself in solidarity whith Howard Stern here. My commentary below.

I agree with a lot of what Ms. Lo says in this commentary with regard to the emerging blandness of public radio. I’ll add that in the advocacy world, NPR and its television counterparts, APTS, sometimes seem indistinguishable from the their commercial colleagues. For example, NPR gave political cover to killing Low Power FM, although they have a chance to redeem themselves by embracing the FCC’s new recommendation that Congress restore the old rules.

The real problem for Public Broadcasting is that they are dependent on Congress for most of their funding and have to fundraise for the rest. Being dependent on Congress makes them unwilling to rock the political boat too hard. Being dependent on corporate underwriters makes them unwilling to rock the corporate boat too hard.

But back to indecency. Is Ms. Lo really a sad case of collateral damage in the culture wars, a rallying cry that all right thinking people should strike a blow for the First Amendment and defy the blue noses? Sorry, but I just can’t buy it. According to Ms. Lo, the offending word was a parody of a Bette Middler’s profanity and should have been “bleeped.” But a sound engineer failed to do so and now she takes the rap. While the current zero tolerance policy may seem harsh in her specific case, that doesn’t make zero tolerance a bad policy anymore than zero tolerance for weapons in high schools is a bad policy or leads to facism because it produced some unjust results in the first few days after Columbine.

For one thing, I think it would be a sad commentary on our society if you can’t express yourself without resorting to obscenity — even if you think a sound engineer will bleep it afterwards. Perhaps that is a peculiarity of how I was raised. My parents both love language and rhetoric; they considered the need to resort to crude language to express oneself a sign of ignorance or ineptitude. I shall never forget, at the tender age of 13, receiving a lecture from my father on how political discourse had collapsed when Jimmy Carter’s reaction to Ted Kennedy’s nomination challenge was “I’ll kick his ass.”

Does it really burden the First Amendment to ask that those who use the public airwaves to reach every home in America, through a medium whose ubiquity inevitably impacts the behavior of our children even if we don’t let them watch tv or listen to the radio, to put a little effort into expressing themselves differently in a pre-recorded conversation or wait until the “safe harbor” hours of 10 p.m. through 6 a.m.? Anyone who simply CANNOT express themselves without dropping the occasional four-letter word can forgo this scarce and highly valuable forum and use cable, DBS or the Internet to make their point.

But the deeper issue here is, again, the challenge of the First Amendment absolutists v. the First Amendment realists. The absolutists regard any restraint as perilous regardless of the real world cost to society at large. The cure for bad speech is more speech, from the crucible of this conflict emerges truth, and any attempt to restrain the flow of speech, even with the best of motives, must invairably lead us down the road of supression because how you evaluate the real world cost is so ambiguous. After all, would we truly wish to return to the obscenity laws and standards of the 1950s, when married couples were seen on television as sleeping in separate beds?

For the First Amendment realists, into which camp I will put myself, the problem with the absolutists is that it is clear that some speech really does have harmful affect and we really can, at the extremes, make some cuts consistent with the First Amendment and our commitment to democracy. While tighter indecency standards will not cure all ills, or even most ills, they will, in my opinion act as both a firebreak against further degredation of our public discourse and will at least take a small step to allieviating the problem.

And for those who think that our obsession with indecency is hypocritical in light of the pervasiveness of violence in programming and the content in commercials, you are half-right. These larger problems do need to be address. And, ideally, we would address those first. But the current indecency battle is in fact raising consciousness on these very issues and helping to address them.

Because yes, we are starting to also get at the root real problems: violence, consolidated media pushing a never-ending mantra of empty consumerism, and the impact of these commercials on our children. The indecency bills running through the Congress have amendments either explicitly addressing these things or requiring independent study of these things and their impact on children. The media activism movement has embraced much of the indecency legislation not because it shares the same sensibilities as the Family Values Council, but because it cares deeply about these other issues and sees this as a vehicle for addressing these ills — particular the problem of media consolidation (see my previous column on why).

So rather than grudingly support Howard Stern’s right to discuss sexual acts in graphic detail on the radio in the middle of the afternoon as the price of Ms. Lo’s commentary and a diverse marketplace of ideas, I would ask Ms. Lo to learn how to speak without dropping the occassional four letter word, even in fun. It really isn’t that hard. No sh**.

Stay tuned . . . .

One Comment

  1. Harold says Public Broadcasting is dependent on Congress for most of its funding…

    That’s an exageration. At least on the TV side of things, individual stations are often just that, individual, each with its own income stream and management. (…a Good Thing…)

    My own (former; long story) employer reports “Federal & State Government” and “Corporations & Foundations” each account for under 20% of the annual budget — see page 6 of http://tpt.org/about/2003an

    Still, each of those 20% groups has a lot of clout — once a station gets addicted to the free money and it suddenly threatens to go away.

    One example of this is the gradual change in the look of show sponsor (‘underwriter’) credits. 25 years ago your money would buy your company name on screen for 15 seconds (Helvetica font, white letters on a blue background) and a voice saying “Funding for this program has been provided by [company name]” … no exceptions. Today your money buys something that looks like an ad, swims like an ad, & quacks like an ad, but is called “enhanced underwriting”…

    Can 25 years of continuous pressure affect the program content? You’ll have to decide that one for yourself…

Comments are closed