Saving our virgin eyes and ears

Defying odds that recent FCC rumblings were going to blow over just like every “decency” crusade since Tipper Gore’s ’80s campaign against devilish rock music, it looks like the censorship chickens really are coming home to roost.

Clear Channel, the media conglomerate that controls more radio stations nationwide than any other company, announced Wednesday that they are pulling Howard Stern’s syndicated talk show from the airwaves.

How odd that they chose this particular moment in time to decide the Stern program is over-the-top. After all, it’s been carried by stations across the country since the 1990s. I never listened to the Stern show much, but I don’t remember it being especially warm and fuzzy and inoffensive in the past.

In their news release quoted by the Associated Press, its CEO John Hogan stated that “Clear Channel drew a line in the sand today with regard to protecting our listeners from indecent content and Howard Stern’s show blew right through it. It was vulgar, offensive and insulting, not just to women and African Americans but to anyone with a sense of common decency.” So much for having the common decency to assume that listeners are intelligent enough to figure out how to turn the dial to something else, if they find a program offensive.

Clear Channel obviously feels the need to create an impression that they can police their own content, in light of upcoming congressional hearings on “indecency” that could result in government’s doing the policing for them. The FCC had been pushing to add a zero to the maximum fine for indecency even before the Super Bowl fracas-from $27,500 to a whopping $275,000. Now Congress may be more likely to listen.

So, for the moment, companies like Clear Channel are in full-scale retreat. In addition to canning Howard Stern’s show, they are phasing in a new policy that mandates, according to the AP, “company-wide training about indecency, possible fines against DJs, and automatic suspensions for anyone accused [my italics] by the FCC of violating indecency rules on the air.” Like shock jock Stern, sensitivity training is a throwback to the last decade, but it appears to be making more of a comeback. Oh, joy. And it’s hard not to use the old “witch hunt” clich퀌� to describe a policy that involves suspending people for simply being accused of a violation.

The FCC’s jihad against smut may be just as offensive to many as the material they’re seeking to ban. However, there’s no doubt they’ve succeeded in putting the major McMedia corporations on the defensive. CBS, NBC and Fox have all pledged to play ads touting V-chip electronic nanny technology, in much the same way that tobacco companies have been browbeaten into running ads about the dangers of cigarettes. However objectionable the FCC’s incursions on freedom of speech may seem, they would never fly without the complacency of the radio and TV networks. Rather than try to alert the public to the hypocrisy of the various forms of censorship looming on the horizon (which wouldn’t be too hard-they are, after all, the media), the networks are rolling over for the FCC in the name of financial expediency.

This is just a small piece of a much bigger, uglier puzzle. Ever since, oh, the 2000 election, we’ve been witnessing various nightmare scenarios that only five years ago would have seemed like something that could only happen back in the bad old days, when names like Nixon and McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover were in the public eye. Corruption, bald-faced lies, political muzzling of opposing voices, wars fought on the flimsiest of context… This new anti-indecency drive is just the latest symptom that these are the new bad old days.

To be fair, a lot of people would prefer not to hear or see much of the material now under FCC scrutiny. The Howard Stern program was undoubtedly offensive to a large cross-section of the population, not just 68-year-old retired librarians in Bear Lick, Kentucky who would get their Depends in a knot over hearing the word “bitch” on Saturday Night Live. But another large group of people tuned in all the time to hear it; otherwise “Stern” wouldn’t have stayed on the air for over a decade. In this new political climate, the most thin-skinned people get to decide what everyone else has the right to hear. The ever-shrinking “free-speech zones” in this country may no longer include the radio and TV airwaves.