Friday, June 09, 2006

Broadcast Content Regulation

Yesterday, Congress passed the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, which dramatically increases penalties for indecent programming on broadcast (not cable) TV during daytime/primetime viewing hours. The legislation, sponsored by Senator Sam Brownback, flows out of the hubbub about the infamous wardrobe malfunction during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show.

Senator Brownback offers an argument in favor of the act on his website. The use of the airwaves, he argues, is a public privilege which brings with it social responsibility.

In an editorial column written two days ago for Townhall.com, Jacob Sullum disagrees. He argues instead that use of public airwaves is no different than use of public roads, and brings no special social responsibility. Rather, the social responsibility lies in the hands of the viewers and parents of children viewers. He believes that market forces should control what content is displayed, and that viewers have the responsibility to intelligently choose what to watch or avoid.

I tend to lean toward Sullum's position, maybe because I already exert a great deal of effort and research to filter what I watch. Or, maybe it's because I have pretty strong philosophical leanings toward market forces over governmental regulation in most cases.

But, on the other hand, maybe some mix of the two approaches is in order.

I can't help but feel, though, that the way our policies are currently being implemented is rather silly. That Super Bowl halftime show is a perfect example. A fleeting glimpse of a nipple created an uproar that is still echoing two years later... but the actual content of the song, the words and message being communicated, have hardly warranted a mention in our social or political dialog.

It's almost as though we as a society are falling into a stupor, drifting into a groggy sleep of sexual saturation, losing our ability to be shocked or to turn away from anything however harmful. Then something unexpected jolts us, and we drastically over-react to soothe our latent social conscience... before drifting back into our drugged numbness. Legislation such as this, it appears to me, allows politicians to score points off those seizures of social conscience without risking their political lives by threatening the pervasive flow of sexuality that we've become addicted to.

But maybe I'm just over-reacting, to soothe my latent personal conscience. :)

Mark

15 comments:

steviepinhead said...

This is a "drive-by" comment, which I make before reading either link. I tend to lean toward under-regulation or self-responsibility as well, particularly in the realm of freedom of speach, artistic expression, and the like.

However, I'm not particularly impressed by the public highway metaphor. A slew of regulations apply there, including (as the Washington State Patrol keeps finding occasion to remind me) speed limits and other safety controls, including seat-belt requirements, equipment requirements (brakes, tires, lights), density limits (metered access in urban areas during rush hour; HOV lanes), pollution controls (in Washington, vehicle emission testing), volume limits (in the sense that only so many riders or so much weight is allowed per type of vehicle, licensing and tab requirements (and special taxes and licensing requirements for commercial vehicles carryining heavy loads), sobriety requirements (operators must not be affected by alcohol or other intoxicating substances), and on and on...

The public highways, popular perception to the contrary, are not a quasi-libertarian frontier or open range.

Kevin said...

While I agree with Sullum's point that justification of authority should not lie in the means of transmission (Broadcast, DBS, Cable), I do think that there exist other reasonable justification for censorship; namely, protecting an unsuspecting public and raising the level of discourse in bulk, pushed content. Of course, we can debate whether the current system actually achieves this.

Perhaps Sullum is right that we have other, more fine grained means of parental censorship (though selectively paying for cable channels is not one of them). Perhaps the FCC should sell the frequency bands and use the funds to give everyone a DVR that can censor based upon ratings, turning pushed content into a form of pulled content.

But as Mark implies, it is actually the morality portrayed that is the real concern, which the quantitative ratings might not even take into account. Instead they restrict specific words or pictures or acts, thereby arriving at a strange place where nudity is worse than ubiquitous implicit fornication, where words and pictures are more significant than the overall meaning they communicate.

I do sympathize with parents trying to find good content for their children, and it does seem reasonable to encourage good, moral content to be the most easily accessible in pushed content. Of course, at some point, it becomes the role of parents not to shield their child from the world, but instead to help them interpret and judge the world themselves.

The bill itself does not question the entire system, which Sullum is apparently arguing against, but merely whether the current penalties are sufficient to make the system effective. In that vein, I wonder if it wouldn't be better to make the penalties relative to whatever money the Broadcaster makes on the illicit show, instead of having some fixed limit?

Mark Congdon said...

Stevie,

You're right that our highways are not free of regulation, no doubt about it. Even more to the point than the examples you gave is this NY Times article from 2004, detailing the growing number of laws in our country about porn viewed on in-car video systems.

Kevin,

I'm intrigued by your suggestion that government regulation would be valid for the purpose of "protecting an unsuspecting public and raising the level of discourse in bulk, pushed content". This strikes me as a dangerous philosophy, because it appears to be a system where an intelligent and aware upper-class dictates what is safe and valuable for the "lower" classes (the "unsuspecting public"). What exactly constitutes a raised level of discourse can very much vary from person to person and group to group. This reminds me quite a bit of the attempt in Congress to restrict conservative talk radio... if I remember correctly, they used very similar language in that attempt.

though selectively paying for cable channels is not one of them

When that becomes available, I will be a very happy camper. :)

use the funds to give everyone a DVR that can censor based upon ratings

Intriguing concept, but it only provides a technological solution, and such solutions are already available at very reasonable prices. The problem isn't that the technology isn't there, but that the public tends to be careless. That careless public, with these fancy new DVRs, would for the most part simply leave the controls turned off, and we'd be right back where we started.

where words and pictures are more significant than the overall meaning they communicate

Words and pictures (fixed, objective) are, at least, easier to legislate. You can make laws about visible nipples. You can't make good enforceable laws about sensuality. Texas recently tried, but it didn't pass... and how enforceable would it have been, anyway?

I wonder if it wouldn't be better to make the penalties relative to whatever money the Broadcaster makes on the illicit show, instead of having some fixed limit?

Now that's an idea I could definitely get behind. That would put some major teeth into the legislation, to be sure.

But, what should be considered inappropriate material? The Supreme Court has basically left this up to local communities to decide, as I understand it, but in a nationally broadcast TV program such local standards can't be used. Should Sex and the City be banned? How about those twins beers ads? For that matter, how about Friends or Seinfeld or any number of other popular shows, which get a great deal of their laughs from sexuality? Is that inappropriate? How could any joint standard of appropriateness be arrived at? Is there some fixed objective moral standard? If there is, we could never agree on it.

I found an interesting list compiled by the Washington Post, which I believe shows all fines proposed by the FCC through 2004. If that's the case, then I have this question: If every single one of those particular episodes had never happened... would our society be any less sexually-saturated now than it is? Would our children be any safer watching TV? Between 2000 and 2004, I see only four instances where material on TV was submitted for fines; the vast majority of fines are imposed on radio programs. Is that because TV is less explicit than radio?

I really don't think increasing the fines will help things much at all. If the fines were imposed much more broadly and consistently, they might have an effect... but the current system appears to me to be a farce, firing rubber bullets at straw-man targets so that we feel like we're doing something significant.

Mark

Kevin said...

Mark,

By "unsuspecting public", I was referring to anyone who has unexpected content pushed upon them. I haven't thought of the (economically?) upper-class using censorship to impose its morals or sense of decency upon the lower-class. Is this how you view the current rules?

You're right that people's opinions and morality differ. Of course, both laws and swear words are essentially created by social consensus, so clearly some agreement can be (and has been) made.

I remember something of the "conservative talk radio" hubbub that was related to the Fairness Doctrine (equal time)... is this what you were referring to? In most cases, I think we can distinguish between politics and indecent content; granted, some people are offended by political views.

What's your take on the drive-by-porn article you linked to for Stevie? Do you disapprove solely because it would be distracting for other drivers? How about public advertising? Should they be censored or left to the free market?

I see a gradation from public displays to other bulk pushed content we might not expect, to pulled content that is knowingly chosen. The more that content is pushed upon people, the more it seems reasonable that they should have a say about its bounds. Could this "say" be wholly communicated through the free market?

"""Intriguing concept, but it only provides a technological solution, and such solutions are already available at very reasonable prices. The problem isn't that the technology isn't there, but that the public tends to be careless. That careless public, with these fancy new DVRs, would for the most part simply leave the controls turned off, and we'd be right back where we started."""

Perhaps we started with careless broadcasters, not a careless public. The relativity of "very reasonable prices" aside, with ubiquitous DVRs, the burden will have shifted from broadcasters to individuals; from bulk pushed content to finer pulled content. At that point, it seems reasonable to cease broadcast censorship and leave it in the hands of the individual.

"""I found an interesting list compiled by the Washington Post, which I believe shows all fines proposed by the FCC through 2004..."""

You ask good questions. Thanks for the list. For some reason, I imagined that these fines occurred much more often. It appears that even digitally obscured nudity (as part of the news?) may be indecent.

To the extent that the standards and fines shape the creation of new content, I think they do prevent degradation, even if in the grand scheme each would have only a minor effect on the overall safety of programming. Of course, I'm open to statistics and reasonings why they are ineffective or undesirable. Do you think the general content would be improved if there were no standards?

There is probably less live TV than radio; perhaps that is the source of the discrepancy in fines?

"""I really don't think increasing the fines will help things much at all. If the fines were imposed much more broadly and consistently, they might have an effect... but the current system appears to me to be a farce, firing rubber bullets at straw-man targets so that we feel like we're doing something significant."""

Considering how rare violations are, you may be right that increasing the fines will not help. But I also wonder, could it hurt?

I like your analogies and imagery and, as we have discussed, morality is not found in words and pictures absent meaning, though that is what is regulated. It does seem like there is some superficial knee-jerk response, but perhaps it is also the punctuated cry of those who have no more effective and easy an outlet for their burdened social conscience. Demand alone does not shape the media; the media also shapes demand, at times by appealing to our baser desires.

I should mention that I may be arguing a bit on the censorship side because you have chosen the free side. :) I can't remember the last time I was offended by "indecency" and I am not inclined toward any external censorship... I just think there is a valid argument for limited group censorship of pushed content.

Kevin

Amy said...

The fact that we even have to have this conversation is sad evidence of the state our country has fallen too. It really puts the government in a bind, because it should not need to step into our personal lives to regulate stupid things like this--it should be common sense.

But, because society has fallen to this degree, is it then the government's responsibility to hold it back, especially since our government was founded on Christian principles and claims to still be Christian? Should it be the church's job to teach morality and the government's job to enforce it? Or should it be left to the church?

That, perhaps, is a question with no good answer.

On the same note, I think the church has failed at taking a strong stand against immorality. Churches are full of scantily-dressed girls and women, swearing guys, and even homosexuals. I'm not saying we should not allow these people inside the church, but once they have begun a personal relationship with Christ, they should be changing.

Amy said...

Oh dear, where is the edit button when I need it?! I did not mean to bash anyone here with my "swearing men" comment. I was thinking of the Lord's name in vain and the more awful words...not the ones that were debated on this site. Of course, it really wasn't the swearing that was the point, anyway. ;-)

Mark Congdon said...

Amy,

since our government was founded on Christian principles and claims to still be Christian

Really? I'm not sure about the first part, and I'm pretty certain that the second part isn't true.

Our government was undoubtedly founded (at least partially) on deistic, even monotheistic, principles... the idea of a creator God shows up prominently. But "Christian" principles would go well beyond that.

As for our current government "claiming" to be "Christian"... it is true that we still have some deistic or theistic statements here and there, and still have ecumenical prayer as a traditional part of governmental proceedings, but can we really say that the government claims to be Christian?

and even homosexuals

At the risk of taking a huge rabbit-trail here, I just want to say that I don't get this at all. I agree with you that homosexual behavior is against God's design, is harmful for us, and is morally wrong... just like adultery, promiscuity, pornography, stealing, cheating, hatred, and bitterness (or see the list in Galatians 5).

But why in the world does it warrant an "even" qualifier, as if it were some extreme over-the-top evil, the epitome of all wrongs? The Bible certainly doesn't single it out in its lists of immoral behaviors (see, for example, I Corinthians 6).

I think we also need to be more careful with our use of the word "homosexuals" in that context; I know a number of people who consider themselves homosexuals because that is where they are drawn, but who choose not to act on their impulses because of their love for God and their desire to obey and honor Him. Maybe adding an additional qualifier, such as "practicing homosexuals", would be more accurately what you're trying to describe.

they should be changing

And how fast should that change be happening? How fast is change happening in any of us? I've struggled with pride for all my life... how quickly is that behavior changing? I believe that it is... but I think we fall into a dangerous trap when we press for immediate change in external, visible problems (such as provocative dress), while being more lax and forgiving of (arguably more critical) internal problems.

Jesus seems to have spent a good deal of time with the visible sinners of his day, but he spends most of his time fighting against the internal spiritual problems of the religious leaders. It's important for us not to forget that.

If we can pray and worship with someone who hasn't yet conquered their anger problem... why can't we pray and worship with someone who hasn't yet conquered a problem of sexual immorality?

And with that, I expect I have completely derailed this conversation from its prior direction. :)

Mark

Amy said...

OK, I’ll give you that the US may be deist rather than Christian and that I aught to say “practicing” homosexual. :-)

But why in the world does [homosexuality] warrant an "even" qualifier, as if it were some extreme over-the-top evil, the epitome of all wrongs?

Some sins have more of a physical, emotional, and sociological impact than other sins. Practicing homosexuality is one of those.

but I think we fall into a dangerous trap when we press for immediate change in external, visible problems (such as provocative dress), while being more lax and forgiving of (arguably more critical) internal problems.

I guess I don’t understand why external things cannot change immediately. Why should a girl who has been dressing extremely immodestly not change her wardrobe upon becoming a Christian? If the issue is that she is not yet sure what all constitutes as immodest, that is a different issue. The point of repentance is turning away from sin. The external things are the most simple to do away with, and most likely will be the first to go. Emotional and habitual things will take longer (our whole lives) to improve.

If we can pray and worship with someone who hasn't yet conquered their anger problem... why can't we pray and worship with someone who hasn't yet conquered a problem of sexual immorality?

The question is, are they truly trying, improving, and showing fruit. I don’t care what sin it is--if the person declares that they are going to ignore or twist God’s commandments, then I’m not going to be comfortable worshiping with them. If they are taking steps forward, then I will gladly reach out a hand to help.

My point yesterday was that much of the Western church is not helping Christians take steps forward. Instead they are trying to make the sinners feel “comfortable” in their sin. Churches are springing up that are especially for practicing homosexuals, people are encouraged to dress “like the world” so as to better “reach out”, etc, etc.

Mark Congdon said...

Amy,

Thanks for the response!

Some sins have more of a physical, emotional, and sociological impact than other sins. Practicing homosexuality is one of those.

I disagree, but there's no point in going back and forth about it.

The external things are the most simple to do away with

I disagree with this statement as well. Talk to someone with a smoking addiction to find out how simple it is to do away with unpleasant external habits, even when you want to. Certainly that doesn't apply to everything... but it does apply to many things. External change often isn't all that simple.

if the person declares that they are going to ignore or twist God’s commandments

I can agree with you here. It sounds like you meant to add the word "unrepentant", or mabye "brazen", to your "Churches are full of" list. In that case, I can agree with you.

much of the Western church

I think you'd find that your description applies to a rather small portion of the church.

I was recently at a small Baptist church in my area, which happens to be pastored by my father. During his sermon, he stated that a visitor to the church had approached him one Sunday and said that my dad's church (with its three dozen members) was one of only two in our metropolitan area that was preaching the truth. My dad believed him, and considered the story worth repeating.

You don't appear to be portraying the Christians in your area in quite that stark of a negative light, but I think you might be unnecessarily separating yourself from many people who agree with you. It's a possibility, at least, to keep in mind.

Mark

purple_kangaroo said...

Hmmm. I guess one big question is what is and isn't sin.

Is "immodesty" always necessarily a sin, or is it sometimes in the eye of the beholder? When are standards of dress a matter of purity, and when do they become legalism?

It seems to me that modesty in particular is one of those extremely subjective topics. Modesty may mean something completely different to two people standing next to each other in church.

To some people, showing an arm, an ankle, or an uncovered head is immodest. In other cultures, especially less industrialized cultures in very hot climates, it's normal and not sensual at all to wear very little clothing.

I do also see some merit in the argument that sometimes it's a problem with the culture and the observer rather than what exactly someone is wearing. Or modesty might be very dependent upon context.

The whole debate about nursing is a good illustration of differences in atttiudes about modesty. Is nursing a baby a sensual thing that should be relegated to restrooms and out-of-sight places? Is it wrong to nurse so that any man knows it's happening in the same building, even if it's hidden under a blanket? Is breastfeeding a normal and natural thing that's not in itself wrong and should therefore not be hidden as if it were something shameful? Or is there some median that is both considerate to others' comfort levels and sensitivities while not sacrificing the comfort and care of the mother and child?

With the issue of what people are wearing, wouldn't it make more sense to approach it as a matter of being part of a working family/community than necessarily as a sin issue?

Something like, "Brothers and sisters, out of love and consideration for each other, we want to dress in such a way that we don't become a distraction or a stumbling block for those around us. Here are some suggestions of questions to ask yourself about your attitudes and dress, and here are some basic ways that various clothing styles affect most men (or women) in our culture."

We do need to be careful, though, not to fall into the trap of treating women (or men) as though they are responsible for the thoughts of everyone around them.

I think the basic issue of heart attitude is much more important than the specifics of dress. A man or woman can be modestly dressed and still have a flirtatious or provocative attitude.

A girl who thinks she needs to flaunt her body to get attention is often misguided and misinformed about the nature of true love and what's valuable about herself, and sometimes just ignorant about what's appropriate and how her dress and manner affects others around her.

I definitely think these things should be talked about in church.

But it seems that a caring attitude of coming alongside people and helping them examine their hearts and attitudes, as well as possibly educating them about how certain things may affect those around them, would be more effective than an attitude of judgementalism in the church or saying that someone needs to dress a particular way in order to be right before God.

Still, though, it's nearly impossible to figure out where to draw the line. Some cases are rather obvious, but many issues are much less clear.

Is wearing pants a sin? What about a skirt with a slit in the hem? What about not wearing a hat? Or wearing a hat that only covers the top of the head and not all of a woman's hair and neck? Is wearing a dress that shows your shoes or a bit of ankle a sin? Is it immodest? The answer to that might vary drastically according to a person's culture and convictions.

Generally-accepted standards vary drastically across time and culture, and I think it's difficult to draw a line between "sinful" and "godly" dress. Assuming that someone is ungodly because we disagree with their standards of dress can quickly become a slippery slope.

Mark Congdon said...

Kevin,

I'm sorry I didn't reply to your comment earlier. I got a bit sidetracked, but I haven't forgotten, and I'd like to get back to what you wrote.

I haven't thought of the (economically?) upper-class using censorship to impose its morals or sense of decency upon the lower-class. Is this how you view the current rules?

Not quite. I mostly view the current rules as a self-described intellectual upper-class attempting to impose its sense of decency on an intellectual under-class.

both laws and swear words are essentially created by social consensus, so clearly some agreement can be (and has been) made.

True. But, when it comes to issues of decency, such consensus has always been reached locally. The less local you get, the more ambiguous the language becomes, and the specifics are determined by the local authorities. The primary counter-example to this is child pornography, which is strictly defined at the national level.

What's your take on the drive-by-porn article you linked to for Stevie?

I actually approve of that law. It is essentially a local law, either enacted or implemented at the local level, with language vague enough that local areas determine what is decent or not. It also relates to activity in a necessarily shared social space, which is an appropriate topic for legislation.

I see a gradation from public displays to other bulk pushed content we might not expect, to pulled content that is knowingly chosen. The more that content is pushed upon people, the more it seems reasonable that they should have a say about its bounds.

You're right about this, and you're slowly convincing me of the value of your DVR idea. Even if it is completely impractical. :)

The DVR idea would be good, in my mind, because it would move the ability to legislate and control content to the local level. A city, for example, could pass a law requiring DVRs in that city to be preset to a particular set of restrictions.

Do you think the general content would be improved if there were no standards?

No. I think general content would stay pretty much the way it is if there were no standards (of the type we have now). It appears to me that our current standards are useless.

However, if we removed our current standards, our toothless attempts to appease our consciences without actually restricting ourselves, we might discover enough moral desire in our nation to implement more effective controls.

At least, that's how it appears to me. :)

Demand alone does not shape the media; the media also shapes demand, at times by appealing to our baser desires.

That is very, very true. A few years back I set some restrictions on what types of movies I would rent. At first it seemed unnatural. Now, I can hardly imagine renting that kind of movie again. My consistent exposure to that type of content created my desire for it. It's much like the way constant exposure to fatty and sugary food creates a craving for the same, but once you break that habit you find that you prefer vegetables and more substantial food.

I just think there is a valid argument for limited group censorship of pushed content

I would agree with you there. I just want to find a way to do it effectively, and to make it as local as feasibly possible.

Mark

Douglas_Coombs said...

"That Super Bowl halftime show is a perfect example. A fleeting glimpse of a nipple created an uproar that is still echoing two years later... but the actual content of the song, the words and message being communicated, have hardly warranted a mention in our social or political dialog."

While I can agree that lyrics and ideas communicated through music merit attention as well as bare breasts, decency laws are based on broad societal concensus. There is broad societal concensus in the US that it is inappropriate for women to walk around topless in public. For an "entertainer" to pull that stunt when millions of kids are watching is deserving of some major fines. It is perfectly appropriate for the FCC to impose those fines.

I'm sure there could be a more effective system implemented. However, I don't think that the FCC is out of bounds in increasing the fines or having them in the first place. Neither do I think they should be done away with until after a better system is implemented and its effects are studied.

Doug

Mark Congdon said...

Doug,

Good points... but I think there is just as much societal consensus that two people should not stand on a street corner rubbing their bodies against each other sensually as they talk dirty to each other about what they want to be doing. In fact, I think that would probably be more of a concern to most parents than a woman who walked around topless, or especially than a glance at a nipple (say, of a woman breastfeeding).

So why is the glance at a nipple the focus of the halftime show debacle, and not the sensuous body-rubbing dirty-talking song that was surrounding it?

I can't figure that one out for the life of me.

I also think there is strong social consensus that a couple should not have sex on a park bench, even if they're covered by a sheet to conceal their nudity. Yet, if I remember correctly, there was a TV ad during that same Super Bowl that was advertising some upcoming new show, which showed a couple under a see-through sheet having sex... you couldn't see the details, but you could see plenty. Yet, no uproar.

I just can't see our current system as even a half-hearted attempt at effective control based on accepted social norms. It appears to be a method to take "action" without actually cutting off the spigot of smut flowing to people's homes that they've become addicted to.

That's how it appears to me, at least.

Mark

Mark Congdon said...

Doug,

Let me add that when you said, "It is perfectly appropriate for the FCC to impose those fines", you are perfectly right. I don't intend to argue that the fines are inappropriate. Only that they are ineffective, and ineffective to such a degree that they are probably counter-productive. They are, I think, within the rights and role of the FCC, so in that I agree with you.

Mark

Douglas_Coombs said...

Mark,

Thanks for the clarification. I certainly don't dispute the fact that the system isn't working.

I still not convinced that the system would get any better by eliminating what little regulation we have, but perhaps I just don't know enough. Thanks for bringing the topic up.

Doug