Bozell Column: Farewell to Hollywood's Favorite Bureaucrat

April 6th, 2013 8:11 AM

Now that it’s almost departure time for Julius Genachowski, Obama’s first chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, The Hill newspaper has noted one important sign of his priorities. In his four years at the helm, the FCC hasn’t issued one fine to Hollywood for indecent content on broadcast television. Now there’s a legacy.

Hollywood sends its gratitude, Mr. Chairman, for an absolutely perfect record of inaction. Who says that in Obama’s America, your campaign contributions can’t buy regulatory paralysis in Washington when needed?

Few media outlets noticed. Communications Daily described Genachowski’s perfect zero as a “restrained approach.” He wasn’t restrained. He was completely inert.

On April 1, a day on which the FCC assumed we were all April Fools, they issued a public notice with the headline “FCC Reduces Backlog of Broadcast Indecency Complaints by 70% (More That One Million Complaints).” They did this by simply....throwing them out. Some had insufficient information, some were outside their regulatory purview (like cable TV), and some were outside the statute of limitations. One excuse after another. After you’ve ignored them for four years, they can conveniently go away – snap!– like that.

The Supreme Court overturned two indecency fines last year, ignoring the nudity and profanity in question because the FCC failed to give the networks “fair notice prior to the broadcasts in question that fleeting expletives and momentary nudity could be found actionably indecent.” Lawyers are funny when they defend their clients as dumber than dirt. It’s like saying “McDonald’s wasn’t given fair notice they weren’t supposed to sell spoiled meat to customers.”  

But the second verdict came last June, so to wait another ten months to discuss (lack of) enforcement is a sign that Genachowski was just going to fritter away his last months in office, dragging his feet all the way. See this as the chairman’s goodbye kiss to the entertainment industry, and kiss-off of the people who wasted the time to file a complaint to the federal agency mandated by Congress to hear their petitions.  

The FCC would like to proceed in a way that is “fully consistent with vital First Amendment principles,” we were told. Thus the freedom of speech of network executives who broadcast profanity, near-pornography, and grisly violence at children is protected. Those who write to the nation’s regulators to complain? Well, they have the First Amendment freedom to shove their own complaints into an Internet hole somewhere and have them ignored until the statute of limitations expires. Take a hike, citizens.

The Hill explained “The commission on Monday issued a request  for public comment on a proposal that would focus on penalizing only ‘egregious’ cases. The proposal would be a shift away from the agency's past policy, adopted during the Bush administration, of penalizing even ‘fleeting expletives.’”

They don’t want comment on proposals. Their minds are made up.

Is there anything more ridiculous than the FCC asking for public comment on its newly invented “egregious” standard – which allows it to more effectively dismiss public comment? They didn’t ask the public beforehand, or even the professional staff. They provided a new diktat, and then asked for public reaction with all the “sincerity” they’ve brought to broadcast indecency since 2009.

But the public notice doesn’t just use an “egregious” standard. The FCC also wants to avoid ruling on “stale” content. This is another way in which they can sit on complaints until the offending shows get canceled, or just dated.

There is no such thing in the current FCC’s purview that would be classified as “egregious.” To the Obama FCC, when a rock star yells the F-bomb on a national awards show, viewed by many millions of youngsters, that is “fleeting” and somehow not “egregious.” Janet Jackson’s deliberate Super Bowl breast flash of 2004? That was apparently not “egregious,” just “fleeting.” If the networks broadcast the unfunny comedy  “Bruno” complete with its penis-twirling scene, that would probably not be considered “egregious.” It’s merely “fleeting” nudity.

The traditional-values argument is simple. Doesn’t it stop becoming “fleeting” when it happens repeatedly? Multiplied incidents of “single” F-bombs or other curse words add up, but the FCC would like to isolate them and ignore them individually.

And does it matter how “fleeting” it is when it’s deliberate?

Reporters on the FCC beat have a bad habit of ignoring how Hollywood insists there should be zero public accountability for broadcast indecency. Last year, when Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer told former Clinton solicitor general Seth Waxman, who conveniently represented ABC, that he couldn’t find Hollywood’s idea of what they wanted the content regulations to be, Waxman shamelessly argued “it’s not our burden.” Obama’s FCC clearly feels the same way.