FDR's Thought Police: Still Alive, Still Censoring
In February, Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake famously gave the world a new perspective on the term "pop music." During the Superbowl half-time show, Timberlake grabbed the right bra cup of Jackson's leather outfit, and exposed her breast to the world. In more ways than one, it was probably the most exposure Jackson had gotten for a performance in years.
Apart from the fact that it was a crude, transparent gimmick by an ageing pop singer—a ploy to attract attention to herself the day prior to the release of a single—it was also an attempt to appear relevant to a younger audience. Like Madonna's antics with Britney Spears on the MTV Music Awards, the display of such low, debased behavior did more to make her look desperate for attention than it did to reinforce her image as a rebel.
And it did something else. It got the public, particularly conservative commentators, very upset. Demanding that the Federal Communications Commission finally enforce its standards regarding "decency" on the airwaves, many radio hosts and writers exhorted their listeners and readers to call the FCC and lodge complaints. This has worked to reinforce the legitimacy of the FCC, a federal body the existence of which stretches the meaning of the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution, and contradicts the First Amendment dictum that "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech."
The FCC codes for broadcast television are called "contemporary community standards". It seems difficult, if not absurd, to justify the imposition of "community standards" that are created and enforced by a central authority, and it is just as hard to understand how advocates of "small government" can support a federal agency that was created during the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as a way to strong-arm enemies and glad-hand friends.
In 1938, for example, the FCC revoked the license of the Yankee Radio Network, a conservative broadcaster that often editorialized against FDR's policies. The FCC announced: "Radio can serve as an instrument of democracy only when devoted to the communication of information and exchange of ideas fairly and objectively presented . . . It cannot be devoted to the support of principles he [the broadcaster] happens to regard most favorably . . ."
The rationale Roosevelt and his acolytes employed to justify the creation of the FCC has been reiterated for decades. According to the boosters of the 1934 Federal Communications Act, the radio spectrum was a limited resource. It also crossed state borders. As such, it was necessary and appropriate that the federal government own the airwaves. As argued by the Roosevelt Administration, the broadcast spectrum was, by its nature, a public good, and it was in the public interest that Washington regulate its use, thus avoiding potential private business conflicts.
Strangely, for other limited resources such as land and water, the federal government wasn't needed as a referee. Somehow, people worked out these claims just fine on local and state levels. Within certain parameters, paper was a limited (though slowly renewable) resource. There were only a finite number of useable trees in the United States in 1934, but, for some reason, this scarcity was not used as a rationale for the regulation of newspaper and book content. Perhaps that was because the American public would have seen it as an abridgement of the First Amendment, just as they should have seen the federal takeover of the broadcast spectrum as the unconstitutional action that it was.
If there is public dissatisfaction, what need is there for an agency to tell broadcasters there is public dissatisfaction?
From its inception, the FCC has been a politicized agency that uses taxpayer money to do things which the taxpayers could manage themselves more efficiently and without political favoritism. It has shut down non-mainstream broadcasters and laid pressure on television producers to change the content of their programs. It has dictated to networks what kinds of material they can broadcast at certain times of the day, and it has fined broadcasters for using language that did not fit its own amorphous definition of "decency."
Its budget has doubled since the early Nineties, and now stands at a breathtaking $292,958,000 for fiscal 2005. But for many, the FCC does not do enough. It does not punish enough of the foul-mouthed shock jocks on the radio. It does not fine enough radio stations for playing "gangsta rap" that is filled with obscenities. Only now, they say, is the FCC starting to wake up and hear the pleas of average Americans. Only now is it doing its job.
Strangely, the fact that these new public outcries were what made the FCC stand up and act shows how irrelevant and useless the FCC standards truly are. It is only after millions of Americans become upset at something they see, that the FCC acts. This signifies that FCC activity is merely a function of public dissatisfaction. If there is public dissatisfaction, what need is there for an agency to tell broadcasters there is public dissatisfaction?
If the standards of people have been offended, and they speak out about it, why do we need an agency to somehow put its imprimatur on that public outcry? It is redundant and unnecessary, just like most government programs.
It also siphons away nearly 300 million dollars a year, money that dwarfs the $5.5 million in fines that could be levied against the 200 stations that broadcast Jackson's stunt. What might happen if this tax money were left in the hands of individuals who were free to make their own moral judgments about what they saw on television? What could arise in the media if people were free to exercise their own morals through their own choices, rather than having their choices smothered by the "community standards" of a public official?
It's unlikely that there were be Janet Jacksons running naked on children's networks. In fact, given their power back, Americans might be more vigilant in policing the airwaves. They already respond to "indecent" material by avoiding it, and avoiding the advertisers who sponsor it. Not everyone will do this, but those who wish to avoid bad content, can, and those broadcasters who want to attract people back to their programs will respond in kind.
CBS aired the 2004 Superbowl, and it is a sure bet that the network will go to great lengths to assure Americans that next year will be different. They want people to return, so they can offer high viewing figures to their advertisers.
Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake miscalculated. They didn't understand that not all television is like MTV, not all television caters to the lowest common denominator. People have varied tastes, and those tastes are reflected in the multitude of choices available on television today. They can have their spot for crude behavior, but it won't be on another Superbowl broadcast, and it probably won't be on CBS for quite some time unless they give strong assurances that they will clean up their acts.
What the market does is something the FCC can never do. It lets people decide for themselves, with their own money, what is proper and improper, what is decent and indecent. The threat of FCC fines won't be what keeps network executives from hiring Jackson and Timberlake. The threat of lost business will.
Consider that print publications are subject to no federal censor, and the market has managed to sort out tastes and availability based on consumer preference. Some publications are fit for broad viewing and others are not. So too for the web and, for that matter, most of life itself. The job of sorting wheat and chaf, choosing and rejecting, buying and abstaining from buying, is integral to the responsible conduct of life itself. Surrendering any part of this to a federal authority means surrendering two things we should value: responsibility and freedom.
Ironically, just a week prior to Jackson's appearance on CBS, Congress began hearings on two new bills that would place even more restrictions on broadcast television. By stirring up such a clamor for federal enforcement, the supposedly rebellious Jackson and Timberlake may just turn out to be the best allies the government moralists could ever have.
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.