|06-07-2004, 12:19 PM||#1|
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(06-07-2004) Move to Stiffen Decency Rules Losing Steam -- New York Times
Move to Stiffen Decency Rules is Losing Steam in Washington
By JACQUES STEINBERG
After awards-show expletives and Super Bowl breast-baring, federal lawmakers began lining up to attach their names to election-year legislation to rid the airwaves of material they considered indecent.
The House of Representatives even passed a bill in March, on a vote of 391 to 22, that would greatly increase the financial penalties on broadcasters found to have violated so-called standards of decency.
But for all the legislative posturing, the prospects for such a measure reaching President Bush's desk before the November election appear far less assured than they did a few months ago.
In the Senate, a measure approved by the Commerce Committee in March has yet to be scheduled for discussion by the full body. The delay in bringing the Senate bill to the floor is tied partly to the broader politics of the Senate, where Republicans, who hold a slim 51-seat majority, have had difficulty passing major bills. But for the senators themselves, there is also the peril of investing too much political capital in a divisive issue, which has pitted some social conservatives and child-advocacy groups against big broadcasters and civil rights advocates.
In addition, the Senate version contains other controversial provisions - including one that would seek to curb violent content on television, not just sex and swearing - that the House bill explicitly avoided.
"This looks like a cheap date to me,'' said Charles Cook, the editor of The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan political newsletter. "You come out for motherhood, apple pie and 'decency,' and you know it's not going anywhere.''
Moreover, in recent weeks, the issue of the war in Iraq - particularly the prisoner abuse scandal - has moved to the forefront of the national political agenda in a way that was not the case on Super Bowl Sunday, when the exposing of Janet Jackson's right breast during the halftime show caused such a stir. Politicians who push too hard on the decency issue may risk appearing to have their priorities out of whack.
The legislative push began earlier this year, at a time when the Federal Communications Commission, which administers the standards that radio and television broadcasters must follow, was beginning to move aggressively in response to complaints against broadcasters.
In April, for example, the commission proposed fining six Clear Channel radio stations a total of $495,000 for broadcasting a 20-minute segment of the Howard Stern radio program last year that largely dealt with anal sex. (In a departure from previous judgments, the proposed fine against Clear Channel - the $27,500 maximum that the law currently allows - was multiplied by the number of stations and the number of utterances found to be in violation.)
In March, the commission, reversing an earlier ruling, found that NBC had violated decency standards by broadcasting a single vulgarity uttered by Bono, the lead singer of U2, when he excitedly accepted an award during the Golden Globes in 2003.
The number of such complaints generally rises in election years, as do the public promises of politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, to address the concerns of the most vocal.
But this election year has been different. In response to the Stern and Bono decisions, some broadcasters have hewed to such a narrow line in recent weeks - tossing songs like "The Bitch is Back'' by Elton John off the radio, and carefully editing programs like the critically acclaimed "Prime Suspect'' by PBS - that fresh concerns have been raised, by civil rights groups among others, that self-censorship has gone too far.
The House bill was sponsored by Representative Fred Upton, a moderate Republican from southwestern Michigan. He said that mail from constituents offended by broadcaster behavior - particularly Bono's adjectival expletive - ran as high over the winter as mail on any other issue, including the Iraq war. At its core, the House bill would raise the maximum fine on a radio or television station found to have violated decency standards to $500,000 for each violation, from the current $27,500 cap.
Mr. Upton said that the penalties had not been increased in decades, and were considered such a slap on the wrist that they had proved of little use as a deterrent.
"These are the public airwaves,'' Mr. Upton said. "Every F.C.C. commissioner, regardless of whether Republican or Democrat, has called for higher fines, as over-the-air broadcasters have clearly skirted the line on decency.''
The Senate bill, sponsored by Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, would raise the maximum penalty on a sliding scale - $275,000 for a single violation for the first offense, $375,000 for the second. The maximum penalty for subsequent offenses would be $500,000.
The Senate Commerce Committee, which unanimously approved the measure in March, narrowly defeated an amendment proposed by Senator John Breaux, Democrat of Louisiana, that would have extended to basic cable channels (including MTV and Comedy Central) the same indecency standards applied to the broadcast networks.
Some senators were concerned that the provision would lose a court challenge. The Supreme Court has generally held that, because viewers pay to receive cable stations, they should be held to less restrictive standards of decency and obscenity.
But unlike the House measure, the Senate version of the bill does wade into the subject of violence on television and its effect on children. The House explicitly avoided the issue of violence, in part because it would require drafting standards on what should be considered violent.
The Senate bill would also seek to roll back, at least temporarily, rules passed by the commission last year that would permit media conglomerates to own newspapers in markets where they already own radio and television stations.
The Bush administration has supported media companies in their desire to get bigger, and the House bill has no provisions that would thwart those ambitions. (The commission's proposed rules are being challenged in federal court, and have yet to take effect.)
"All players would confess that if the Senate media ownership provision remained in the bill, then it would not move,'' Representative Upton said.
If the Senate and House are able to forge common ground, the result is likely to involve some attempt - probably in a broader, unrelated bill, - to raise the penalties on broadcasters - though by how much is unclear. An additional complication is that broadcasters have long criticized the commission's guidelines about what it considers indecent, saying they are too vague. Neither the House nor the Senate bill requires the commission to clarify its guidelines.
"How do you know what's covered?'' said Geoffrey Cowan, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. "And if you don't know what's covered, how do you know what words to avoid?''
-- New York Times
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