Obscenity under fire

The immediate reaction to rock star Bono dropping the word “fuck” on last January’s live telecast of the Golden Globe Awards was, shall we say, “muted.” Then, things changed.

Considering what goes on at most pop-music award shows, a high-profile rocker deploying a word so common to almost every pop entertainer, medium and fan didn’t cause a huge stir. Unfortunately for Bono (lead singer of the Irish rock group U2), NBC and the 90 NBC affiliates who aired the show, the incident played directly and conveniently into the hands of the Parents Television Council.

A week earlier, the conservative watchdog group had announced a new initiative to compel the FCC to aggressively enforce and penalize those caught pumping “obscenity” over America’s public airwaves. In a big-name rock star, Bono, and a major broadcast network, General Electric-owned NBC, the PTC had gift-wrapped poster-brats for the degradation of American culture.

You didn’t have to be bloodhound to smell yet another battle in the culture wars.

The Parents Television Council’s coordinated campaign prompted the FCC to examine the Bono incident. The PTC didn’t get the ruling it wanted. The FCC decided Bono’s offense didn’t rise to the level of obscenity because he was using the all-purpose f-word as an adjective, a superlative even, and clearly meant nothing sexual or salacious by it.

Bono’s exact comment, upon receiving the Golden Globe statuette was, “This is really, really fucking brilliant.” To anyone who follows the inner workings of Hollywood, there was a snide laugh in Bono, an artist well-versed in the power of irony, exclaiming this while accepting a notoriously cheesy Golden Globe award.

Under renewed pressure, FCC chairman Michael Powell is calling for his commission to reverse itself and, if the PTC gets its way, fine each of NBC’s 90 affiliates $27,000 each – a total of $2.5 million and a penalty far beyond anything the FCC has ever leveled against television broadcasters.

Simultaneously, a handful of congressmen have introduced legislation attempting to codify precisely which words are always obscene, no matter what context.

The whole business echoes the famous 1978 flap over George Carlin’s “Filthy Words” monologue.

Carlin’s case eventually went to the Supreme Court, where it was decided that what Carlin, like Bono, had said was not “obscene” because its intention was clearly not lewd or salacious. “Indecent?” Maybe. “Profane?” Certainly. The eventual ruling was a split piece of business. Basically, it upheld the FCC’s sanction of the station that aired Carlin’s satirical monologue and offered pause to broadcasters who pushed the envelope too far.

After noting that like most media, “radio can be turned off,” Justice William Brennan criticized the majority of justices for their “fragile sensibilities.” He argued that context and meaning do matter. “A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged. It is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and time in which it is used,” he wrote.

Melissa Caldwell, director of research for the Parents Television Council, says her group is “just fed up with the abuse of public airwaves. We keep a log of sex, violence and foul language on television,” she says, “and foul language is up 300 percent over last year.” She says her group is as concerned about “indecent” visual imagery as foul language, but has been less successful getting traction on things like flashes of nudity on TV movies and “The Victoria’s Secret Fashion” show. Their problem, she says, is rooted in “the difficulty in how the FCC defines indecency.”

Fundamentally, argues Julie Hilden, a former First Amendment attorney, there is simply no way to protect “fragile sensibilities” from someone’s highly subjective notions of “obscenity.” There are too many media, too many opportunities – cable, Internet, movies – for the fragile to be offended. More to the point, the truly fragile and truly concerned can program their televisions to PAX or Animal Planet if they desire sanitized programming.

Never mind the Bono silliness, Hilden argues, the Supreme Court should re-examine the Carlin decision itself in light of today’s vastly changed, vastly larger media environment.

“The truth is,” she writes, “remarks like Bono’s and Richie’s do little if any harm – especially in today’s culture, where ‘fragile sensibilities’ cannot survive for long in any event.”