FCC Under Fire
November 22, 2004

Last Friday, New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler criticized Michael Powell's statements about ABC's Monday Night Football flap, saying the FCC Chairman is not fair and impartial and is "becoming the country's chief censor." Nadler's Powell & FCC-bashing is now in vogue as a former head of the FCC, Newton Minow, Washington Post columnist Tom Shales and heads of the major television networks have taken shots at the Commission's indecency crackdown.

Minow once presided as head of the FCC during President John F. Kennedy's administration, calling television a "vast wasteland" during his tenure. Now he is speaking out against the current FCC regime and the climate that exists where television stations wouldn't air the movie Saving Private Ryan, telling the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "I think you've got a comedy of errors. First with the FCC overreaching through the stations, and then with the stations who overreacted by not showing the movie."

Minow feels the government "should stay out of it, the same way the government should stay out of people's bedrooms." But, he also feels let down by broadcasters themselves, reflecting on his era when the NAB would set standards. "You had serious debate among broadcasters then on important issues," he said. "Today the only thing I hear them talk about is money."

Meanwhile, Washington Post columnist Tom Shales was a bit harsher in his Sunday column, titled Michael Powell Exposed! The FCC Chairman Has No Clothes. Shales started his column by writing, "Oops. They got rid of the wrong Powell. The father unfortunately is going, but the son, even more unfortunately, remains behind." He charged that Powell is "capable of wreaking havoc in American broadcasting until 2007" and is "definitely not a force for good in America."

"Pompous and imperious," wrote Shales, "an ideologue who believes unfailingly in his own philosophy of how TV and radio should work, Powell ignores or condemns anyone who opposes him. Though FCC chairmen have labored mostly in obscurity, Powell has managed to make himself famous; he's the Torquemada of the insane campaign now being waged against 'obscenity' on the airwaves."

Shales also said that as a result of the FCC's indecency crackdown, Howard Stern is being made into a "national hero." He blames "fanatical right-wing groups that include words like 'family' or 'decency' in their names and view increased permissiveness on TV as part of a left-wing plot to undermine moral values" as the reason for the current climate.  

"We stand at the top of a dangerously slippery slope," Shales imparted. "When you start leveling fines for uttering certain words, the list of the verboten is bound to grow. We could be facing four years of even more paranoia than usual about Big Brother, much of it justified."

Shales cited previous FCC heads Charles Ferris, Richard Wiley, Dean Burch and Minow,as "men of distinction, intelligence and integrity" that "used the power of his office to try to make television better, not censor it," before saying, "Powell belongs at the bottom of the barrel with the lowliest of the bunch. He is an agenda masquerading as a man, the proverbial pompous ass and, worse, a genuine threat to freedom of speech."

Also on the attack are broadcast television's elite, who have joined radio broadcasters in calling for the FCC to clarify the lines of indecency. ABC Entertainment President Steve McPherson spoke out against the FCC last Friday (11/19) at the International Radio & Television Society breakfast in New York, while Broadcasting & Cable reports that Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman said, "The FCC has to provide guidelines that make sense. No one is clear about what their guidelines are and you can’t live in an environment where there is so much fear. I suggest they look internally before they start levying fines."

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