Of Polls, Politicians and the Public Will

When he stepped down from his chairmanship of the FCC in March, Michael Powell left behind a complete mess — both within the commission itself, and in the media he was tasked with regulating.

Powell’s rather arbitrary standards for determining “indecent” content, and his consequent inability to institute a predictable fining procedure, left programmers scratching their heads over what was safe to air and what would bring the wrath of the FCC down on their heads.

Now that Kevin Martin has taken over for Powell, programmers are expecting a more explicit policy defining what is a fineable offense and what is not; but they are also nervous that, based on his long history of supporting higher fines and expanding the FCC’s fining mandate, he will be much tougher than Powell.

Martin has been playing it a bit coy in his first month as commissioner, recently telling a group of cable industry executives that “The commission is a creature of Congress. We implement what Congress tells us to do.”

Nice try.

Martin can get away with saying that he is at the mercy of what Congress wants him to do because he knows that the Hill is currently batting around several possible bills to sharply increase individual indecency fines to as much as $500,000 (up from the current $32,000) and to expand the FCC’s fining mandate to pay TV, such as HBO. In other words, Congress appears intent on making Martin’s wildest dreams come true.

Take, for example, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), whose white-hot passion for the subject makes Martin look like a libertine. Sensenbrenner, indulging in the wingnuttery that seems rampant in Washington these days, recently said that he would “prefer using the criminal process rather than the regulatory process” to deal with programmers who air content deemed “indecent,” as defined by Sensenbrenner himself.

While the firebrand from Wisconsin didn’t give details of how he proposes to lock up television and radio execs who don’t fall into line, the sentiment alone is enough to show that Martin has friends up on the Hill.

Some other Martin pals are Sen. Ted Stevens, (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, and Rep. Joe Barton, (R-Texas), who are putting together bills that would bring pay cable programmers into the legal mix — dulling the content presented by programmers from HBO to Showtime to Comedy Central.

Given all this, it’s pretty clear what the mood in Washington is. But what do the actual people — you know, those of us not in office and just trying to make our own choices — feel about the drive by those in government to more closely legislate what Americans can see and hear?

A new poll released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center takes a look and finds that Americans are confused, if not flat-out polarized. Many support tougher definitions and regulation of “indecency,” but even more worry about an intrusive government deciding what they can watch, read or listen to. Taking a sample of 1,505 Americans, Pew found that 48 percent of those polled see the greater danger in “undue government restrictions” on the entertainment industry, while 41 percent feel “harmful content” is a bigger threat. (Eleven percent were unsure.)

More interesting is the ideological breakdown in the poll results. While a full 57 percent of self-proclaimed conservative Republicans believe harmful entertainment is more dangerous than excessive government restriction, a whopping 72 percent of liberal Democrats believe that government regulation is more dangerous than the content itself. In short, while liberals want government to stay out of their media consumption choices, conservatives want more, not less, regulation of what we see and hear.

Cue the music to “The World Turned Upside Down,” maestro.

A full 75 percent of respondents favor tighter enforcement of government rules on TV content during the hours when children are most likely to be watching (currently defined as 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.). Likewise, “Sizable majorities also back other anti-indecency proposals currently before Congress, including steeper fines (69 percent) and extending network standards for indecency to cable television (60 percent).”

This is perplexing. If more Americans (overall) see more harm in government enforcement than in “indecent” content, how is it that the majority also favor steeper fines and the expansion of the FCC’s mandate to fine cable programming?

Even more curious, when asked, 86 percent of respondents feel that parents — rather than the entertainment industry — bear responsibility for keeping their children away from indecent content, and a full 62 percent of parents feel that they are currently provided with enough information to help them decide what media is appropriate for their children.

So, what’s the take-home lesson here? Despite an ideological disconnect, the vast majority appear to agree that the ultimate responsibility rests with parents, rather than with the entertainment industry or government. Also of note is that while three quarters support “tighter enforcement” of current government rules, that is not the same as “more rules.” As we have seen, a slight majority view more government regulation as actually harmful.

The only thing clear from all this is that most Americans have an evolving — or at least case-by-case relationship — with the sexually-charged material and the violent plots that they see on television, free or for pay. Let’s hope that Congress and the FCC take this into consideration in their quixotic quest to act as the moral arbiters of what the rest of us watch, listen to and pay for.

Paul McLeary

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.