FCC Chairman Martin? It's Time for You to Resign

A Real Morals Crisis Exists Within the Agency That Finds Nothing but Immorality on TV

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It wasn't particularly surprising that TV auteur Aaron Sorkin took on the FCC last week in his "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip." After all, one of his ongoing obsessions is government censorship. But Sorkin's latest storyline packed an extra punch because it was uncomfortably, depressingly close to reality.
Kevin Martin
Kevin Martin Credit: Jim Ruymen

In the episode, his fictional NBS network accidentally broadcast the f-word -- blurted by a reporter under fire on a live evening-news satellite feed from Afghanistan -- causing the FCC to threaten to fine each and every NBS affiliate hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The FCC is, of course, also a recurring Media Guy topic. Back in early September, I noted in this space that a number of CBS affiliates declined to rebroadcast the network's critically acclaimed 9/11 documentary because it featured footage of firemen using harsh language during the catastrophe. (They really should have said "Darn!" and "Fudge!" when the Twin Towers fell.) When the special first aired a few years ago, it wasn't a problem. What changed? In June, Congress, at the prompting of the FCC, passed a measure increasing fines per "indecent" incident by a factor of 10, from $32,500 to $325,000. That's per station. For medium-size affiliates, that's a draconian punishment; for small affiliates, it's a budget-busting, potentially life-threatening punishment if it happens often enough.

And the fine applies to recorded and live TV programming.

As NBC Universal chief Bob Wright wrote in The Wall Street Journal last month, "What public interest is served when news organizations, unwilling to take the risk of incurring a fine, stop interviewing individuals live on camera -- or air all newscasts only after being cleared by a language censor?"

That's why, on Dec. 20, NBC, Fox and CBS will be in the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York kicking off oral arguments in a challenge to what they see as the FCC's "arbitrary and unconstitutional" new policies.

What's driving the FCC's censorious crusade? An extreme, faith-based view of governing that's being championed by underqualified FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, who got this job thanks to a resume that includes serving on Bush's 2000 Florida recount team and working for Monica Lewinsky fetishist Ken Starr.

Martin has pumped up his case for a morals crisis in American broadcasting by allowing the use of fraudulent complaints to shape the FCC's great crusade. We're talking about just another form of un-American ballot-box stuffing: quasi-automated complaint e-mails about "indecency" that are invariably generated by a handful of religious organizations that whip their members into click-and-send frenzies, usually with few of the members ever having witnessed any (supposed) broadcast offense.

For instance, Broadcasting & Cable earlier this year reported that complaints to the FCC numbered 1,798 in January, but jumped to 138,527 in February. Why? B&C discovered "at least 134,000 complaints" in January and February were "driven by a campaign against NBC drama 'Las Vegas"' spearheaded by a single organization: the American Family Association, the powerful religious group.

Liberals and conservatives alike should be panicking about this, because the FCC absolutely shouldn't be beholden to any one minority group, let alone a religious lobby that's manufacturing the appearance of mass outrage. The FCC should be striving to reflect the views of the majority of Americans; the commissioners should not be held hostage by one hyperactive, megaphone-wielding group looking to impose its point of view on the rest of us.

Like Donald Rumsfeld before him, Kevin Martin has stubbornly and willfully relied on faulty intelligence that does not reflect reality outside of a certain hermetically sealed bubble. Martin and his ultra-conservative religious allies would have us believe that they've found the moral equivalent of WMDs on our airwaves: an epidemic of foulness that necessitates the FCC's invasion of American living rooms to protect us from broadcast evildoers.

But the average American simply does not want the government deciding what adults can and cannot watch -- and certainly doesn't want censorious rules to extend to pay-cable networks (such as HBO), as Martin hopes to do. All TV can't, and shouldn't, be reduced to the level of "Blue's Clues" (or "The 700 Club," for that matter).

If the vast majority of Americans are not freaking out about naughty broadcasting -- and they're absolutely not -- then the FCC is overstepping its mandate and creating a political and regulatory crisis where one does not exist.

Meanwhile, the real morals crisis is within the FCC. In the matter of the proposed merger of AT&T and BellSouth, Martin has directed FCC lawyers to find a way for Robert McDowell, a recent Republican appointee to the FCC, to break the commission's 2-2 stalemate. McDowell earlier recused himself from voting because he's a former telecom lobbyist and obviously has close ties to powerful interests with a horse in this particular race.

It's appalling enough that a former telecom lobbyist was appointed to the FCC to, well, regulate the telecom industry. Now Martin thinks McDowell should un-recuse himself?

But that's par for the course considering what else the FCC has been up to lately. For instance, this week there'll be hearings in Nashville, Tenn., regarding the FCC's desire to dramatically relax cross-ownership regulations that prevent individual media conglomerates from owning too many broadcast outlets in any one local market.

Unfortunately for Martin, some noisy people -- country stars including Naomi Judd, George Jones and Porter Wagoner -- are expected to testify against the idea of consolidation of local media power. Expect Martin to turn a deaf ear to their concerns. A man who's relied on ginned-up complaint numbers to generate a fake morals crisis isn't going to allow a bunch of whiny country stars to interfere with his pro-mega-media, pro-monopoly agenda.

Wail all you want, Naomi and George and Porter. Kevin Martin has proved time and time again that he's all about serving his special interests, not the interests of the creative community -- and certainly not those of the average American consumer.

Which is why he's gotta go.

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E-mail: sdumenco@crain.com.
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