Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Nanny State

It's rare when we agree with the American Civil Liberties Union, but this appears to be one of those occasions. To its credit, the ACLU was spot-on when it denounced recent FCC efforts to limit television violence as nothing more than "political pandering."

As you've probably heard, the Federal Communications Commission is urging Congress to adopt legislation to curb violence on TV by restricting it to late evening, when (presumably) fewer children are watching. The FCC made that recommendation after releasing a long-awaited report which concludes that existing measures--including the "V" chip blocking device and program ratings--had failed to protect children from being regularly exposed to violence.

To limit that exposure, the FCC wants Congress to give it the authority to define such content, and restrict it to late evening hours. The commission is also pressing lawmakers to adopt legislation that would allow consumers to buy channels "a la carte," or in smaller bundles, allowing them to reject channels they don't want.

Responding to the FCC proposal, the director of the ACLU's Washington legislative office told The New York Times that the government shouldn't be in the business of defining content, or deciding what Americans should watch.

“The government should not replace parents as decision makers in America’s living rooms. There are some things that the government does well. But deciding what is aired and when on television is not one of them."

“Government should not parent the parents.”

Of course, the ACLU would probably carry that argument even further, advocating that broadcasters should be able to air pretty much anything they want, as long as it doesn't reflect a conservative position, or advocate what many of us define as traditional American values. But we will give the ACLU credit for telling the feds to stay out of an area where their intervention is neither required nor desired, for a number of reasons.

First, as we've noted in the past, the FCC is something of a dinosaur agency. Originally organized to ensure that radio and TV stations adhered to their assigned frequency and power restrictions, the FCC grew increasingly irrelevant as broadcasting shifted toward cable and satellite channels. Indeed, the changes advocated by its commission's chairman, Kevin Martin, are designed--in part--to keep the FCC relevant in the cable and pay-TV era. Did we mention that the FCC currently has no regulatory authority over satellite and cable outlets? By pushing for "bundling" legislation, Mr. Martin is attempting correct regulatory mistakes made decades ago, extending his agency's reach into areas currently beyond its control.

But some sort of "bundling" bill is hardly the answer. True, cable, pay-TV and satellite outlets are among the worst offenders in airing violent programs, but they are also among the most popular channels offered by cable systems and satellite providers. Clearly, someone out there wants those channels, and viewers are watching in significant numbers. Audiences for some of HBO's more popular programs rival those of broadcast networks. Even if consumers are allowed to purchase cable channels a la carte, many American households will still opt for HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, and the adult channels offered by virtually all cable and satellite systems. And, since they don't broadcast "over the public airwaves," they can still air violent programs during prime-time.

And, of course, the proposed legislation would have no effect at all on the internet, where the most graphic, revolting images are only a mouse click away. It's a bit ironic that the FCC is worried about the a child's exposure to televised violence when many of the same youngsters are allowed to surf the internet without any filtering or supervision. Rigid regulation of broadcast TV and limited control of cable and satellite channels (through bundling) make little sense, when the kids we're trying to protect spend much of their time on-line, where literally everything--from actual beheadings to the hardest-core pornography--is constantly on display.

From a civil liberties standpoint, there's also the disturbing issue of letting the government decide what constitutes violent content, and what does not. Make no mistake: I have no use for most of the junk that airs on cable and broadcast channels, and millions of Americans apparently agree. Despite a geometric increase in the number of available channels, overall TV viewership is down, particularly among traditional broadcasters. Many of us understand that today's TV industry is simply strip-mining the "vast wasteland" that Newton Minow spoke of almost 50 years ago, and our culture has suffered because of it.

But, as bad as today's programming may be, I'd rather take my chances with the industry and a free market, and not the federal government. Last week, a Democratic presidential candidate defined a racial insult as a form of "violence." Now, imagine the potential consequences of arming a federal bureaucracy with a similar, vague interpretation, and allowing it to determine what you can watch and when you can watch it, all in the name of "protecting" our children. When that happens, God help the First Amendment, and anyone who truly believes in free speech.

Obviously, not everything belongs on broadcast TV, cable, pay-per-view, or even the internet. But we don't need the government to "parent the parents," either. The last time I checked, the channel selector on my remote still worked, and so does the "off" button. Deciding what children can (and cannot) see is still the responsibility of adults. It is not the function of government to serve as some sort of "super nanny" for parents or guardians who are too lazy or too stupid to control their own TV sets.


metalface said...

Please clarify "the ACLU would probably carry that argument even further, advocating that broadcasters should be able to air pretty much anything they want, as long as long as it doesn't...advocate what many of us define as traditional American values."

What specifically does the ACLU actively oppose that goes against these "traditional" values?

Unknown said... about prayer in public schools (under the guise of separation of church and state), or restrictions on abortions (under the vaguely-defined right to privacy cited in Roe v. Wade). Or, the opposition (by some chapters) to military recruiters at law schools, because of the DoD's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.